Making It Up Along the Way

I took some improv classes with a friend a few years ago. I forget why, exactly, but it was an amazing experience. I still use many of the techniques today with my team. Sometimes it’s funny, but mostly it’s to get through situations that arise where I haven’t had the luxury of pre-thought.

Notice I said pre-thought, not preparation. The musicians and comedians who excel in improvisation may not think through the details their performance, but they are always prepared. Their minds are always on and they are brave enough to be flexible, generous and prepared to improvise.

Here are a few rules to improv that I use daily:

  • Yes/And – Many managers or collaborators need to hear a full idea before they’re comfortable jumping in. But any idea, any part of an idea, is an opportunity to catch a train that’s already on the tracks. Add to the idea in a way that helps lead the contributor to providing more information than you thought was there. Asking leading questions is a great way to pull more out of them, then add your own details. Soon, you’ll have an idea you’re both excited about.
  • Pick A Character – Sometimes the missing piece is context. When you’re curious who this idea is targeting, pick a character and be them. How would a single mom react? What would a college student say? How would dad react? You can provide context by picking a character and hearing the pitch. It’s also a great way to endear yourself to your teammates. Or just look like a jackass.
  • Listening – The key to improv isn’t always being ready to talk. It always being available to listen. Get out of the office, dump the email and cut your meetings down. With your extra time, sit in the same space and peek over the shoulders of the people with the ideas. You’d be surprised what they’re willing, and trying, to say.
  • Props – Not the Carrot Top kinda props. Encouragement. Many ideas are like chicks being hatched. They need a little encouragement to get out of the shell. Even if the idea isn’t going to fly, acknowledging the effort and letting people know that you’re fostering a culture of idea generation goes a long way.

You may never make it to Second City, but you can make it up along the way. There is a way to improvise and be authentic at the same time. Preparation is the key.

What’s Your Cutting Fluid?

Maybe you’ve seen a CNC machine transforming a block of metal into custom rims, robotic arms or works of art. CNC machines are comprised of a lot of parts; the big arm moves the head that houses the bit that whittles away the material sliver by sliver.

That constant work of metal versus metal creates friction and generates an enormous amount of heat. So engineers added another part to the machine. Cutting fluid.

Cutting fluid creates an environment where friction can happen. It keeps all the moving parts cool enough for the real work to happen. Without cutting fluid, the machine parts would easily overheat and no work would be done.

As a part of a team of leaders, heat and friction should be expected. There should be a healthy desire to disturb, unearth, evaluate and refine. But in the midst of all that, what keeps the idea machine from overheating and destroying itself in the process?

Culture is the cutting fluid of any organization. It’s the way that hard work and heavy lifting gets done without disastrous results of hurt feelings, fatigue and disrespect.

Culture makes the tough choices easier to swallow.

Culture makes long hours make sense.

Culture makes opposing views not equate to opposition.

Any place where collaboration happens, the cutting fluid of a healthy culture is essential. So what is the path to a healthy culture? Here’s a short list of things that anyone can do to help pave the way.

  • Critique never becomes critical.
  • Failure isn’t fatal.
  • Laugh louder than you argue.
  • Welcome disagreement. Avoid being disagreeable.
  • Challenges are met with encouragement.
  • Be real about your shortcomings.
  • Be humble with your strengths.

What is your cutting fluid? How do you keep collaboration and the challenge of leading others positive, optimistic and in the context of a healthy culture? Figure this out and you will be able to do the tough stuff without it all blowing up in your face.