Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv™

Leadership and improv are not opposing forces.  Improv is a strategic component of good leadership.  WHAT?!  That is what I said, I stand by it, and I can prove it by what has been written in the Wall Street Journal (Oh, My God, Where Is This Going?’ When Computer-Science Majors Take Improv), Forbes (Improv Training: The Power of Funny Business), and Harvard Business Review (Negotiation Research: Negotiation Skills from the World of Improv for Conflict Management: A Negotiation Skills Q&A), just to name a few.  I have curated 38 business articles, 22 books, and 23 videos on the intersection of leadership and improv.  
Let’s start this discussion around the key principle of improv, which is these two powerful words, Yes! And. Yes! And has many applications. First, Yes! And is about agreement but not always agreeing. It is about pushing forward a conversation and exploring the possibilities.  Yes! And is the opposite of “No because” or “Yes, But” because those are negative responses that invoke a negative emotion and are used far too often in today’s corporate environment. They are way too punitive where Yes And is open to possibilities. 
For Yes And to be effective, you must suspend your judgment and park your ego.  That’s right and let me say that again, suspend your judgment and park your ego – PERIOD. Push the conversation forward through a series of questions and positive comments in order to gain a better understanding of the issue the other person is experiencing.  This is called empathy. It’s about understanding the issue from their point of view, not your point of view. 

The process of listening and being empathetic is a powerful way of showing the other person that you appreciate what they are saying.  I read somewhere that 73% of people leave their job due to a lack of appreciation. How do you feel when you know someone is listening to you and trying to gain a better understanding versus shutting you down by saying NO?  

I am not saying NO should never be used because there are times where NO or “not now”, is appropriate. For example, someone is trying to push you into an unethical situation; the response should be NO. When you are leaving a meeting and going into another meeting, and an associate stops you to ask you a question, your answer should be, this isn’t the best time. Let me find a break in my day when we can discuss it without any major distractions. 

I believe that most conversations we have in the corporate environment should explore using Yes And principle as their dialog.

When I am working with a group of CPAs, finance professionals, or sales teams the first exercise I use to demonstrate the use of Yes And is called – No Because, Yes But, Yes! And. 

Round 1

Improviser A: Pitch an idea to Person B. For example, “After this class, let’s go out to dinner.”

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – No, because and gives a reason.  For example, No, because I want to avoid crowds so I can avoid COVID-19.

Improviser A: Responds back with No because, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with No because, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

Round 2

Improviser A: Pitch the same idea in round 1 to Improvisor B. 

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – Yes, but and give a reason. 

Improviser A: Responds back with Yes, but, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with Yes, but, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

Round 3

Improviser A: Pitch the same idea in round 1 to Improvisor B. 

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – Yes, and give a reason.  

Improviser A: Responds back with Yes, And, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with Yes, And, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

When the exercise is over, I debrief them by first asking them how they felt during the No, because round.  They respond with words or phrases like: negative, no progress, confrontational, defeating and, argumentative. Then I ask them how they felt during Yes But. They respond with words or phrases like: it felt a little better, feels like lip service because they initially agree, BUT then they add their ideas without fully understanding where I am coming from.  Then I ask them how they felt during Yes! And. I get responses of – positive, found a solution, inspiring, motivating, and it felt so much better.

Wouldn’t you rather have a leader listen to you and try to help solve a problem using Yes! And versus shutting you down or making you feel bad? One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Simon Sinek, and it is – “Leadership has nothing to do with a title. Leadership is the positive effect you have on another person.”

YES! And is a conduit to having a positive effect on another person.

Brainstorming solutions is another application of Yes! And. Let me start by saying you can’t create something and be critical in the same space. These are two different exercises.  When I hear the word innovation – I separate it into two separate pieces – creativity and effectively applied creativity.  Creativity or the initial search for the solution (brainstorming) requires divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of generating as many creative ideas as possible (ideation).  Divergent thinking is about quantity, not quality.  The effectively applied creativity quality assessment comes through convergent thinking; we search for the right solution from the ideas generated.

Yes! And in a brainstorming session is about agreeing with an idea and adding on to it. In improv, we say, “bad ideas are bridges to good ideas, no ideas lead to nothing.” Take a moment and think about that phrase.  It makes perfect sense… Yes! And only if you have created a culture that accepts terrible ideas.  Once you have that culture in place, then you can take it up another level up and ask for crazy ideas.  The crazier the idea allows us a lot more bandwidth to find the solution.  We will not institute the insane idea but will walk it back to the middle to find a workable solution.  

We also say in improv “bring a brick, not the cathedral,” which means bring an open mind with lots of ideas and not the solution. My improv coach, Jay Sukow, reminds me that “Your idea is not the end idea; it is the setup.” You have to dial back your ego and accept that someone else’s idea is better than yours.  I have been quoted as saying, “the collective knowledge outside of your office far exceeds the collective knowledge inside your office. We all have participated in a brainstorming session where the boss has already decided what the solution is but solicits everyone’s ideas only to shoot them down. I call this an “ask-hole.” 

YES! And is a conduit in dealing with the unknown, like COVID – 19.  

There is something new every day in this global pandemic, or it just feels like it. Improvisors focus on the things they have control over and not the things we don’t have control over.  Another way to think about is “to improvise the scene you are in, not the one you want to be in,” and focus on today as much as possible.  

In March, when the country was shutting down, we stepped into a state of unknown and uncertainty.  At first, my mind went to a dark place in the future, and my business was completely shutting down.  But then, my improvisor skills kicked in and discarded those dark thoughts and just focused on the issues at hand, one day. Each day, I would shed the reality of yesterday and accept the fact of that day. The deeper we went into quarantine, the more I realized that the pre-COVID-19 world would no longer exist, and I needed to accept that fact and adapt.  

On a personal note, please stop using the term pivot.  The short definition of a pivot is “to turn on.” Whereas, the short definition of adapt is “to become adjusted to new conditions.” We are adjusting to our new conditions every single day.  This pandemic will be with us until a vaccine can be developed and widely and successfully administered. 

I have been adapting my business model to the new normal because that is the only thing I control. The facts – 85 percent of my speaking business either canceled or was postponed to later this year or 2021.  65% of my speaking revenue occurs during the months of August through December.  I have only nine scheduled engagements during this time frame for 2020, which is down 70%. 

I have been using this time to re-create my business so that it will not be as dependent on live speaking engagements to generate growth and revenue.  I’ve been working on building a consulting practice, sketching out my third book, moving my face-to-face presentations to a virtual, and creating a virtual improv workshop that I will launch in September 2020. 

Virtual presentations are not new to me because I have been doing them for more than five years, either pre-recorded or live.  I am familiar with Zoom, Cisco WebEx, and gotomeetings.com. I am a certified virtual presenter through eSpeakers, a business partner of the National Speakers Association.

The mindset of an improvisor is always adjusting to the new landscape and letting go of past realities. Think about this – how many of you all felt that the internet was just a fad, or online shopping would never replace “brick and mortar” shopping. Just ask Sears, Toys R Us, or Neiman Marcus, or Macy’s if they could go back in time, would they have taken online shopping more seriously?  I think we all know that answer.  

How about working remotely? I used to hear that people who worked remotely could not be as productive as those who work in an office setting. Those employees were sitting at home eating bon-bons and watching Ellen. However, during the pandemic, when offices were closed, we learned that we could be more productive working remotely to the point that companies are trying to reduce their corporate real estate footprint and shed excess overhead.

Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv and the power of Yes! And, is a way of adapting to the changing landscape, becoming more creative and collaborative, and showing you do appreciate the people that you work with by taking time to listen and show empathy to them. Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv is the type of leadership that will produce the most significant results.

If you have any questions or comments about anything in this episode, please feel free in emailing me at peter@petermargaritis.com.