Improv comedy enlightens workplace thinking

BY SANDRA GUY

One of the more humanistic approaches to dealing with
conscious and unconscious biases in the workplace comes from renowned
improvisation (“improv”) and sketch-comedy theater, The
Second City, which birthed the careers of John Belushi,
Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Mike
Myers, among others.

The Second City’s business-to-business unit, Second City
Works, hosts 400 customized workshops each year at
Fortune 1000 companies, ranging in price from $7,000 to
as high as $500,000.

The purpose is to find ways for employees to work with
each other to the best group effect, not to each person’s
sole selfish effect, says Kelly Leonard, executive director
of insights and applied improvisation at Second City and
co-author of the book, “Yes…And.”

The book draws from the comedy club’s experience with
improvisation to reverse “No, but” thinking and to
improve creativity and collaboration.

“It’s about building ensembles, (the need) to build trust
and to be agile; to not be afraid of difficult conversations
and to not to be afraid of failures,” he said.
A mainstay of Second City workshops for employers is
improv-comedy videos that show, for example, how co-
workers can interrupt and freeze out a fellow employee.
That’s a huge issue for women because they are
frequently interrupted by men during meetings and in
public appearances.

“We show exclusion (in the workshops),” Leonard said.
“We find that when you can see and experience being
excluded, you’ll have more empathy for those who are
treated that way.”

“Ultimately, improvisation is the ideal skill to have when you are dealing with strong emotional undercurrents or crisis situations, which, for many of us, are as much of the holidays as turkey and stuffing,” Leonard said in an email updating his initial conversation. “This can be true at home and in the office, because we’re all humans who travel with our issues from the family dinner table to the corporate boardroom.”

Managing The Unexpected

When Leonard hosted Dan Pink on The Second City Works Podcast, he quoted a line that Bob Sutton used, “Fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.”

The quote was originally from Karl Weick, an organizational theorist who has written a number of books and who teaches at the University of Michigan.

“I picked up Weick’s book Managing The Unexpected that he wrote with Kathleen Sutcliffe back in 2001,” Leonard said. “In looking at how businesses can either thrive or be undone by internal and external forces, Weick and Sutcliffe propose a kind of Rosetta Stone for corporate governance whose framing device is incredibly similar to the constructs of improvisation.

“In a study of success, they observe the structures and behaviors that exists on the flight decks of various aircraft carriers,” Leonard said.

“Small failures were recognized and baked into the process -- so that big failures never happened,” he said. “There was an emphasis on specifics as well as tending to the ongoing practices; because flux is a constant, there existed a culture where alternative choices were embraced and information was never withheld -- it travelled.”

And each carrier’s differences from the other got respect, as long as they didn’t put the core at risk. The core had to remain adaptive in real time.

“So much of this starts with a person or an institution’s orientation,” Leonard said.
“The improvisational mindset is one in which obstacles and mistakes are constantly looming, so we develop practices to use and incorporate them in the least risky moments. It would be inexplicable to enter a scene otherwise - with the assumption that everything will work out, step by step, line by line.”

“But so many people and businesses do just that -- they assume logic, competency, stasis,” he said.

Weick and Sutcliff use the term “Mindful Organizing.” They cite the orientation and behavioral structures that successful organizations follow on a regular basis, Leonard said:

“Turning flux into circumstances, turning circumstances into a comprehensible situation, turning comprehension into a direction and an intention, and turning those intentions into their realization.”

This, Leonard said, is exactly how The Second City has used improvisation to create content for nearly 60 years.

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Tags: Chicago, Second City

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