The Idea: University of Michigan enthusiasts call their school the “Harvard of the West” because of a long-forgotten Ivy League quota restriction that funneled the east coast’s best students westward. But a more curious comparison to Cambridge’s university is that of legendary comic factory Second City which says, in fact, “Harvard is the Second City of higher education.” When it comes to talent development in comedy, there is no one better. Few places have generated a pattern of success comparable to Second City and virtually none have fostered their culture of excellence.
The arts have more to teach us about communication, presence, and impact than business ever could. And Second City is the exalted one of improvisational thinking and creativity. If you want to improve those things, take the time to explore the book, Yes, And by Second City executives Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.
An open, nonjudgmental culture is where the best comedy is birthed and where invention is found. Second City refers to this as a “Yes, And” mindset. The artists practice building off each other’s energy, exploring ideas, heightening awareness, and affirming each other’s unique talent, requiring their performers to start – and reply to – every sentence with “yes, and…”
The paradox of this transitional phrase is that it seems limiting but is completely liberating. Teams that embrace “Yes, And” are more inventive, quicker to solve problems, and create stronger engagement. Three ideas impressed me:
The Team, The Team, The Team
In improvisational theatre, a breakthrough artist becomes a star because of, not despite, relationships with their peers. They practice co-creating with the audience and embrace failure as the ultimate teacher.
This may be the single greatest learning from Second City: as soon as the “failure isn’t an option” mentality is replaced with “failure must be an option,” every missed joke becomes a moment for brilliant self-degrading humor, and the team is able to work without fear of error. You are part of an ecosystem and your personal success is contingent on helping your partner thrive. There is no place for lone wolves on this stage. You win or lose as a creative troop.
Follow the Follower
Leadership is dynamic; it’s about discovering and utilizing talent, not protecting your status. Second City utilizes a “Follow the Follower” model of improvisation. They teach the idea that power and status shifts within members of the group depending on the topic at hand. During a skit, it is often unclear which member is leading the scene, but the performers are fluid. When leadership is shared, the colleague with the appropriate idea or skill assumes leadership in the moment.
Most people believe they are good listeners. As the authors lay out, “there is a big difference between listening and understanding.” When things get hectic, the real listening begins – and it’s not undermined by status or title. When you establish real trust with another you have permission to be ruthlessly candid and to lead when necessary. That is true authenticity and relationship.
How do we practice the improvisational model? Practice giving over control to others. When one is improvising, their eyes are not on themselves; they are focused outward. They are present.