Kathy Klotz-Guest

Posts Tagged ‘Improvisation’

When Leading Means Following: Improvisation, Workplace Collaboration, and Going Where the Sun Doesn’t Always Shine

In Innovation and Improvisation on April 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

A Southern ex-boss from my high-tech marketing days (and with whom I have become good friends) used to say, “The sun doesn’t always shine on the same dog’s ass all the time.” His offbeat managerial witticisms made me laugh and they were often right. In improvisation – just as it is in the workplace – sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow. We can’t always be in the spotlight. That’s what it means to work and play in a team-based environment. One of the most important leadership skills an improviser and co-worker can develop is knowing when not to enter a ‘scene,’ or when to let other players (co-workers, etc.) take focus. To be a leader, you sometimes have to follow. Often, the greatest leadership challenge is knowing exactly when to let go. And that takes practice.

The beauty of collaboration in improvisation is a lot like collaborating in the workplace – when we listen and support each other, the outcomes are better. And that means sometimes we are the center of the action with players and co-workers supporting our decisions. Other times, the best thing for a scene or an outcome in the workplace is to let others shine and to support their ideas by making them look great. That calls for big values: “doing right, not being right.” Doing the right thing for the team sometimes means letting go of being right. Platitudes are easy, following them…well, not so much.

When we share the ‘stage,’ at work or at play, we build critical skills of trust that serves the team’s best interest. The only way to engender trust for the times we take focus is by making sure we support others when they take the spotlight. When we let others shine, they are more likely to step up and support us when we lead. If everyone is out for “number one,” why pretend to have a team at all? If I know you’ll get my back, I’m more likely to get yours.  It’s how humans are wired. Trust matters.

In a recent improvisation show with friends, a situation surfaced much as it does at work. Two improvisers had focus and momentum. I was already on stage and I had a quick decision to make. Think about the how this same scenario manifests at work where two co-workers are “creating” something. Of course, we’re there, so we need to jump in to add our ideas, right? We need focus, too!

Not necessarily. It feels natural to want to jump in with our ideas. Still, a great improviser, team player, co-worker, boss, etc., asks herself (himself) the following before barging in:

  • Am I often the “focus?”
  • Am I jumping in just to participate without having a way to add value, or “raise the stakes?”
  • Does the situation have a rhythm of its own that works without me?

If the answer to all these is “yes,” hold back. At this moment, being a leader means letting your own ideas go, and making the right choice for the scene. It’s not easy. The ability to recognize when it is time to follow is the difference between merely good versus great collaboration and leadership.

Go beyond the obvious, and challenge yourself to follow sometimes. There will always be opportunities to lead by taking focus. Remember the sun will always shine – just not always on you.

“Yes, and!” Your Way from Human Potential to Human Capital

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2011 at 11:17 pm

The Center for Creative Leadership writes about four mindsets that inhibit positive organizational change. One of those mindsets that pervades and stops progress in its tracks is a “yes, but…” mentality.

You know the type of thinking that keeps us from moving forward. We hear it every day.  Yet, often times this insidious negative framing operates at a threshold below most peoples’ awareness. How important is language in the way we frame change? Language is everything. Positive change and innovative collaboration operate on a “yes, and!” openness.  “Yes, and!” is a recognition that each person in an organization plays an important part and yet no one person controls the final outcome.

“Yes, but…” by contrast is about control – trying to control outcomes. Does any one person have control over innovation? The answer is no – we influence to be sure, yet we never exert total control. Collaboration and change cannot happen with a “yes, but…” way of thinking at any level of the organization. In improvisation, we call this “denying an offer” and that can have a negative impact on the final outcome because one person is trying to “drive” the scene to his or her desired result.

The same is true in business when we co-create. Have you ever tried to collaborate with someone who used the “yes, but…” control device with you? Exactly how long would it take you to stop trying to generate fresh ideas when you are “stopped” at every turn with a “but?” That’s precisely what happens in many organizations. The “yes, but” stops innovative thinking and behavior long before most organizations are aware of its pervasiveness. Yet, change is an activity that requires collaboration in order to succeed.

We need to change our perspective and change our language by adopting a “yes, and!” orientation. Try “yes, and!” the next time during brainstorming, and see the effect on energy in the room. When we let go of the idea that we have control, we stop trying so hard to control a particular outcome. That frees us up to focus on our own contributions, and allows the best ideas to spring up as people co-create together. A “yes, and” approach to collaboration, innovation and change is the difference between untapped human potential and realized human capital.

Next time you’re in a meeting notice how many “yes, buts” occur. When you have the chance, “yes, and!’” see how that  one small difference can change the collaborative environment – and results! –  in your world.

A More Social, “Human” Model for Brainstorming Means Better Business Outcomes

In Uncategorized on December 31, 2010 at 9:11 pm

A recent New York Times article, “In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm,”discussed the power of lateral thinking techniques in brainstorming. Think about all the products and services created with these methods! This piece illustrates precisely what improvisers already know – that improvisation leads to more creative problem-solving and better results.

By improvisation, we don’t mean theatrical performance. Improvisation means being adaptable and reacting to ideas and realities as they change. It means being able to invert assumptions about the way things should or can be done.  By thinking differently, we shift the lens through which we see both challenges and solutions. The ability to improvise is about making new things up as things change – there is no such thing as stability when it comes to strategy.

Brainstorming techniques that leverage improvisation create a powerful collaborative dynamic for getting the best ideas “out there” for further development. These types of exercises are built on the premise of “Yes, and” – a concept that is the cornerstone of improvisational theater. In business, this fundamental idea means accepting another’s idea and building on top of that idea by taking it further in a collaborative, “social” way where everyone co-creates – just as scenes are created in theater.

Think about it this way: most brainstorming approaches aren’t as productive or result in as many great ideas as they could because they follow a linear approach. By contrast, improvisational techniques rely on non-linear, random associations that tap into lateral thinking – engaging the best of the right brain, the creative brain, as well. The resulting ideas are often concepts that the left brain – the “logic” brain alone – would never have considered. The right brain likes to invert assumptions and examine “what if” scenarios.   Of course, improvisation is fun. That’s important. While it’s not the end goal, fun is a conduit for creative engagement. You know it as flow-time. Do you know anyone that hates being creative or doesn’t have fun doing it? Exactly.

No brainstorming session ends with every idea being commercially viable; yet, non-linear “improvisational” perspectives generate ideas that don’t surface through traditional facilitated means. That’s the beauty of using “improvised” options – to generate better outcomes. Creative techniques such as SCAMPER, for example, start by suspending assumptions about products and what people need in order to see new things. And, by rearranging and modifying existing products, we can often create new breakthrough ideas.

Rather than competing for individual ideas, a “yes, and” approach turns all individual creativity into materialized collaborative capital so that team-based problem solving yields more creative, innovative results. As well as teaching people how to adapt and be more creative as needs change, improvisation also teaches communication, teamwork and leadership.  These skills are critical in innovation. A recent 2010 study by IBM, for example, revealed that the ability to think creatively was the single most important leadership skill needed for next decade technological leadership.

Improvisational approaches also represent a better ‘human” model of idea generation for both employees and customers. First, ideas that are built collaboratively tap into the human need for being creative and doing work that matters.  Employees who feel creative and innovative are more engaged because the work engages both sides of the brain – the creative as well as the logical. Companies are always grappling with how to improve employee engagement. By giving employees more autonomy, mastery, purpose and creativity in their work – a very human aspiration – organizations will see engagement rise.  Moreover, collaborative development also reduces push-back and discord within a group when the group has co-engineered and developed the best ideas together.

There is another reason non-linear problem-solving approaches represent a more human-centered model for idea generation. Better ideas mean better products to meet customers’ needs. When employees and users work together to co-create products and services, for example, the human needs of users take focus. And today, a social approach means that more products are being co-developed with users. That’s a great thing because it helps vet ideas with customers before they enter the commercialization funnel. This is the ultimate in “social” product and services development.

Applied improvisation drives better human outcomes because of its focus on “group.” We focus so much on innovation and the individual in our “hero” culture, and innovation is a team sport. No product, service or cultural innovation is ever brought to fruition without the collaboration of the team. Group collaboration has a multiplier effect on corporate innovation that is required for commercialization success. Certainly applied improvisation strengthens individual performance in any setting (business, education), yet the key in innovation-based efforts is improving “team” results.

Great models for problem-solving must improve human outcomes for all stakeholders –employees, organizations, and customers. That’s the beauty of leveraging improvisation in business.