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Yes, and…

Why improvisation offers a fail-safe way to create better collaborations.

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If you know anything at all about improvisation, it’s likely to be the phrase “Yes, and….” Those two words — shorthand for acknowledging an idea and then adding to it — are the cornerstone of improvisation, according to Bob Kulhan, founder and CEO of the consulting company Business Improv.

But many people — including myself, I discovered — also have misconceptions about improvisation, including thinking that it’s inherently creative, or a group exercise in, as Kulhan puts it, “making stuff up as a last resort.” “It’s not comedy,” said Kulhan, a co-founder of the New York City–based improv ensemble Baby Wants Candy and an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School.

Something else about improv: “It’s not creative — creativity is the outcome of improvisation,” he said. And although making things up on the spot can be useful when all hell breaks loose, “improvisers don’t really make stuff up in the moment,” Kulhan writes in Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv. “Improvisation thrives at the pivotal moment when planning and strategy meet execution.”

PRESENTING IN THE MOMENT

Kulhan uses improvisational techniques when teaching or presenting to large groups to turn the audience into his team. Presenting in any capacity — whether it’s to 20 people or 5,000 — “means you learn your materials and you learn your audience,” he said. “If you’re dealing with both of those two things — the message you want to deliver and the audience that’s going to receive that message — then you can go off script, you can go on tangents, you can simply react and adapt to what the audience is saying as you’re communicating with that audience.”

Kulhan founded Business Improv 18 years ago, blending his success as a performer and as a businessman with principles drawn from behavioral, cognitive, and social psychology, along with organizational theory and behavioral economics. His focus has been on “how and why people make decisions, including how we make decisions on our own, as individuals inside of groups, and then how groups make decisions. And using all of that to help frame why improvisation tools and techniques are so beneficial to businesspeople.”

The use of improvisation techniques has become popular in the business world, Kulhan suggests, because of the urgent demand for new ways of doing things. “If you look at how, in the last 10 to 15 years, the global community really has come upon us, we see that people are communicating differently and that the competition is responding differently, which means that we have to change,” Kulhan said. “Improvisation — really, the skills surrounding improvisation — creates great agents of change, [enabling people] to be more comfort- able, flexible, nimble, and adaptable in ambiguous or volatile environments.“

POSTPONING JUDGMENT

“Yes, and…” is a key to successful collaboration, Kulhan said. “It leads directly to postponement of judgment, which is not the same as abandoning judgment. It also means pushing [ judgment aside] to understand, to hear, to build relationships, to be considerate and thoughtful.”

“Postponing judgment holds back our critical-thinking skills for a time and allows for the freest flow of ideas and communication,” Kulhan writes in Getting to “Yes And.” “This is crucial, because in the business world, ‘judgment’ is often actually prejudgment — ideas are dismissed before they are fully presented or even fully understood. Great ideas will never be available if a culture has been created in which people have resigned themselves to having their ideas dismissed.” Under the “Yes, and…” approach, “instead of looking at reasons why something won’t succeed or challenges that could throw you off as being dangerous,” Kulhan said, “you look at them as opportunities, possibility, potential.”

“Yes, and…” slows the brain down. “If you’re going to use the technique,” Kulhan said, “you have to be present and in the moment at a very high level.”

The good news is anyone can learn to improvise. “This is truly a universal set of tools and techniques,” Kulhan said. “We’re not talking, necessarily, always about the need to present or run a meeting in any capacity like this. We’re talking about a day-to-day basis, having simple conversations, and using these techniques to stay engaged, to show that you’re focused and listening to somebody, to connect with those people. Everybody, if they are committed to practicing, can achieve some benefits.

“And I can’t stress this enough,” Kulhan said. “It’s fail-safe.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.