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Book review: The Improvisation Edge

This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.

The Improvisation Edge: Secrets to Building Trust and Radical Collaboration at Work

By Karen Hough

Repeat after me.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Let’s try again. Only this time, with a straight face.

Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!

Sometime during the next month, we’re going to say it for real and out loud to someone who works up the courage to pitch an idea at work.

Now, seldom are heard such encouraging words. This goes a long way to explaining not only why the skies are so cloudy all day around the office, but why you’ve been seconded to yet another staff engagement and morale-boosting committee and why you’re booked for an offsite trust and team-building retreat.

We instinctively react to new ideas with the same enthusiasm as finding the in-laws unannounced on the front porch with their overnight bags.

Instead of a wow, we say not now. That’s an interesting idea but we don’t have the time. The budget. The people. We have other priorities. There’s too much on our plates. We tried or thought about that idea before and it didn’t fly. The idea will never work here. That idea solves a problem that’s not ours to worry about. Why don’t you go away and think about it some more?

But if you want to boost morale, engage the troops, build up the trust and forgiveness account and shore up communications, try saying wow, great idea and yes.

“By voicing the word yes, you are saying yes to possibility,” says author Karen Hough, founder and CEO of ImprovEdge. “Yes is not a literal commitment, as in ‘yes, we will’. It is a commitment to considering a possibility, as in ‘yes, we could.’ This means that every idea or contribution is considered valid.”

Having been a professional actor and done improv in Chicago for eight years, Hough now makes a career out of teaching improvisational skills offstage and in the corporate world. Nothing, says Hough, works better than improv at creating, earning and keeping trust. “Anyone can improvise, and anyone can learn to collaborate on an extreme level. Improvisers collaborate radically — their level of trust and the intensity of their work are far above and beyond normal teamwork. That sort of behaviour is the key to building, managing, showing and engendering trust.”

Hough says there are four transferable keys to success from the world of improv.

1. Create what Hough calls Yes! Space. You do this by saying “yes,” putting your inner critic on hold and making your support public. “By saying yes to ideas and contributions, just long enough to enable them to breathe and live for a while, you take a break from the critic ruling your interactions, and your positive example creates safety, trust and collaboration among your team.”

2. Break out the building blocks. Say “yes, and …” to new ideas. “This is where the skin in the game really happens,” says Hough. “Your creative juice, your connected idea and your responsibility for success all rely on the block that you bring.” Think of an idea as a brick. If you toss out a bunch of unrelated ideas, you end up with a pile of bricks. If you build off each other’s ideas, your bricks build a castle.

3. Build team equity. Don’t confuse equity and equality. Team equity is about having the right people in the right places and doing the right things. It’s not about giving everyone equal time and say and pretending that everyone has equal skills. Effective teams have a diversity of backgrounds, skills and strengths. Or, as Knute Rockne once said, “the secret is to work less as individuals and more as a team. As a coach, I play not my 11 best but my best 11.”

4. Get comfortable with the concept of “Oops to Eureka!,” what Hough calls the scariest concept of improv. Know that you’re OK if you screw up. “In improv, the best moments onstage often come right after a train wreck. That’s because people are impressed if you can do something brilliant with a mess.” Mistakes happen. It’s how you recover that matters.

While some of the exercises Hough puts her clients through may strike fear in your heart (one game has teams of three coworkers hopping around a room pretending to be a giant rabbit and shouting “bunny, bunny, bunny” non-stop), Hough offers practical advice if trust is lacking and there’s a failure to communicate on the work or home front.

“Improvisation, along with the skills and behaviours that are the breath and blood of improvisers, is the surest way to start working at a higher level, creating high-performance teams, exhibiting greater leadership behaviours and building and engendering trust at work.”

And it all starts with saying “Wow! That’s a great idea. Yes!”

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