Leaders like to be the smartest people in the room. Problem is, the less-smart people tend to shut down out of deference or fear. Innovation, risk-taking, and morale take hits.
Dan M. Klein, a Stanford professor who divides his time between the university's business school and drama department, teaches leaders to infuse creativity and trust into their companies by wielding the tools of improv comedy. He's shown that techniques that troupes like Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade use to get laughs can also help workforces build on ideas, reimagine failure, and deepen bonds. Here is a sampling.
1. Accept all offers
Improv treats ideas as "offers." An improvisational leader accepts at least the premise of all offers, even if she doesn't execute on them. The technique is called "Yes, and...." For example: "Yes, we should have an off-site. And we should invite clients. And we should let them help us set strategy."
Rejecting an idea out of hand--called a "block"--shuts down creativity faster than a circuit breaker cuts off electricity. Many leaders compromise with a partial block: "Yes, but...." "Yes, we should be more green. But we shouldn't do anything that raises customer costs or requires more of our suppliers." "In the calculus of idea generation, a partial block is still a block," Klein says.
Klein recommends a "balanced assessment" of an idea in lieu of a block or partial block. First, trot out the positives: "I love the scope of this, the energy it would infuse into the business, and the amount of publicity it would generate." Then instead of saying what you dislike, discuss the challenges. "How would we pay for this? How would we prevent injuries? How would we protect against lawsuits?" With that approach, "you are more likely to set up a possible solution," Klein says. "Or if it really is a terrible idea, the person who came up with it will realize on their own that the challenges would be too hard to overcome."
Leaders can also schedule unbounded exploration: "For the next two hours let's toss our wildest ideas in the ring and see where the madness takes us!" That demonstrates openness to everything without committing resources to anything.
2. Celebrate failure
In improv, mistakes are gifts that take people to unexpected places. In companies, mistakes are opportunities to learn--especially if they occur early in a project. Sometimes mistakes produce insights that spark creative responses. Teams that fail together without pointing fingers at one another bond faster. "The mistake is the single most creative thing we can experience," Klein says.
Many companies claim to be failure-huggers but punish errors in private. "The response to mistakes is defensive," says Klein. "It doesn't lead to better ideas. It leads to retreat." Klein recommends leaders not only tolerate failure but also celebrate it publicly and joyfully. He cites as an example X, Google's "moonshot factory." There, when a team announces that its project has failed the members get a standing ovation, a week off, and a new exciting project. (A more whimsical example is the Church of Fail.)
As a result, people feel secure that the leadership at X walks the risk-taking talk. "They've created an environment where teams can thrive like a team on an improv stage thrives," Klein says.
3. Manage status
A key rule of improv is "make your partner look good." The leader's status sometimes impedes his relationships with staff. The look-good approach raises employees' status without lowering the leader's own.
The simplest technique is to listen to employees attentively and respond thoughtfully. During conversations, people often divide their attention between listening and crafting their next lines of argument, looking for points to refute. "What improv teaches us is to assume there is value in what is coming from your partner that you will be able to use and build on together," Klein says.
Even while they're making speeches and presentations, leaders can listen. Great leaders, like great actors, read the mood of the audience and respond, Klein says. As they deliver their carefully crafted presentations, improvisational leaders will detect grumbling or people shifting in their seats. "They can stop and say, 'I sense this is not landing the way I intended,'" Klein says. The leader may then invite the audience to weigh in.
4. Play together
Improv deepens bonds, in part, by bringing people together in the spirit of play. The leader at play demonstrates her willingness to appear vulnerable and to take risks. Laughing together makes people feel good. "A good improviser is not someone who is funny or clever or creative or who shines," Klein says. "The mark of a good improviser is, do other people want to play with them?"