HomeBlogSecond City: 8 Ways to Business Success Using Improv
Lessons from Second City 8 ways to improvise for success
Tom Yorton admits to an epiphany moment. After 20 years in the corporate world as a senior marketing executive with the likes of 3COM, Sears and Ogilvy & Mather, he walked through the doors of the famed The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago with his eyes wide open to the possibilities. And then it hit him — just how much business was like an act of improvisation.
It's the kind of question Yorton, CEO of Second City Communications (SCC), gets often. Can the skills it takes to make people laugh really translate into running a business? It's a fair question, one that Yorton says surprises people when they realize two important lessons: Improvisation isn't always about being funny and humour is about finding the truth.
Yorton came aboard to help grow SCC, the business solutions arm of The Second City. Business people attending its shows started asking The Second City to perform at sales gatherings, annual meetings, etc. Invariably, it led to creating custom material for those events. "We found that our material not only could be used in the service of entertainment, but also to help convey messages within the business world," Yorton says. "There is common ground between the two. In particular, the interpersonal communications and adaptive skills required in improvisation are similar to those in business."
During his tenure, Yorton and company have worked with some 1,000 companies, ranging from nonprofit organizations, small companies and Fortune 500 giants. SCC's indelible mark can be found on everything from communications skills workshops for salespeople, to custom video training for insurance claims reps, and comedic compliance programs that complement e-learning modules.
To bridge the worlds of improvisation and business, SCC developed an event and conference component where improv training and learning methodologies are used to help build skills for its corporate clients. For Yorton, the success of the training helps reaffirm the epiphany he had 11 years ago. "We found that the skills our actors need to be successful on stage have a lot to do with the business world — listening skills, teamwork and collaboration, innovation and collaboration, risk taking, conflict resolution," Yorton says. "These are all of the things professionals require to do what they do."
8 improvisation techniques to help your business
So, how do the worlds of improvisation and business compare? Tom shares eight ways improvisational training helps businesses be more successful:
No. 1 — Seek those 'Yes, and …' moments
Improvisation is about affirmation, creation and mutual support. Its training is built on the concept of what it calls "yes, and" moments. That's when other members of the group put an idea or proposition forward, the group affirms the proposition, and then add additional information. This allows the team to reach its full potential before objections derail an idea.
No. 2 — Follow Your Fears
Fear usually is an indication that something important is at stake. People feel fear because they care about an outcome. In improv, actors are taught to "lean into" conflict, not walk away from it. This practice likely reveals something new.
No. 3 — Plan Less and Discover More
The less you plan the more you'll discover; the more you plan the less you'll discover. Every organization wants to be known as innovative and creative. Yet most conditions that allow for innovation and creativity seldom are present. Standard routines and processes govern most daily work experiences. In improvisation, the absence of a plan allows room for discovery.
No. 4 — Start in the Middle
Improv actors know that a linear, orderly progression make for a boring scene. In business, people take great pains to lay things out in logical progressions. There is comfort in following the flow. But when there's a crisis or need to innovate, success sometimes comes from taking leaps and making creative connections in the absence of perfect information and thoughtful preparation.
No. 5 — 'Bring a Brick, Not a Cathedral'
Employees don't like to feel small and insignificant. This causes them to hold back ideas and feedback. In improvisation, seemingly small contributions are important to the whole. If each ensemble member brings something, the collective energy is greater than one person carrying the load. When your contribution matters, you're obligated to bring something to the game.
No. 6 — If One Idea Doesn't Work, Try Another
In improvisation, people move quickly. There's little time to analyze or assess; only time to listen and react. Consequently, ideas and inspiration come and go fluidly. Improv actors know that right and wrong usually is a false dichotomy — there are only possibilities and choices. Performers are rewarded by their willingness to support the ensemble and adapt on the fly to new ideas.
No. 7 — Try Not to Top Someone…
…At least until you've equaled him. Because business is usually a competitive endeavor, people are often trying to one-up each other. This comes out of a fear of looking bad and falling behind in an internal competition. Someone else's gain means your loss, which creates a stifling environment. In improvisation, the best way to "get fed" is to do some feeding of your own.
No. 8 — Make Accidents Work
The world has a tendency to throw curveballs. The key is how you respond to it. In improvisation, the axiom "make accidents work" describes much of its existence. There is no such thing as a preordained outcome in improvisation — it's about living in the moment. Learn to embrace the possibilities that "accidents" offer.