Improv for Business? Yes, and…See How it Works

At The Second City, the world-renowned comedy company, living in the moment is the stuff of great improvisation. This is the stage that launched some of the greatest comedians of our day: Gilda Radner, Dan Ackroyd, John Candy, Mike Meyers, Tina Fey, Steve Carrell. The list goes on.

As CEO of Second City Communications, the business solutions division of The Second City, Tom Yorton’s passion has been in expanding the power of improvisation beyond the stage to address a wide array of challenges in innovation, learning, training, social media marketing – and more.

It turns out, improv fundamentals work very well in business – the idea of working without a script; the importance of co-creation and building on others’ ideas; and the essential challenge of balancing the needs of individuals and the ensemble.

“So much of business – like life itself – is one big act of improv,” Yorton said. “People make plans but, if they accept that there’s a whole bunch of stuff they can’t control, then most of what they’re doing is improvising,” Yorton added. “Working without a script, creating something out of nothing, working in teams, co-creating solutions with input from the marketplace – all that’s improvising.”

The Second City has been a dominant force in improv comedy for 50-plus years – but the application of the company’s expertise to business has taken shape over the past 20 years or so. Second City Communications now does more than 400 assignments a year for clients looking to spruce up their customer relations skills, tap into their collective creativity, or maybe get their employees to play nicely together.

Yorton describes how he ended up at the helm of Second City Communications as a ‘happy accident’ in a career spent largely toiling in the leadership ranks of technology, retail, and advertising companies. “I come out of corporate ranks – not from the world of improv or theater. In fact, I often say that I’m the most unfunny guy at Second City,” said Yorton. “But my experience – and in fact, my scars – are from bumping up against the same organizational hurdles that improv is so effective at helping companies get over – challenges that include connecting with customers, engaging employees around change, moving into new markets, innovating new products and services, working without a script,” said Yorton.

Co-creation is essential to the improv process. The classic rule of engagement is called, “Yes, and.” When your partner says something, you respond, “Yes,” and then add to it. Yorton explains: “Whatever you say, I affirm and build on that. You can create interesting scenes and characters that way. You can also create an entire business model.”

Drawing on its command of the 3 to 5 minute sketch, Second City Communications creates online videos that develop corporate brands in “short form funny” format and reach a huge audience fast.

“To be successful, our actors have to use the same skills that are regarded as soft skills in business—how to listen, to react to the unexpected,” Yorton explains. “We built this capacity to use humor as a mirror to hold up to an organization, to pop the tension bubble. We get people laughing at the shared truth of the organization, and it changes the mood. By changing the mood, you’re able to make progress,” Yorton added.

Improv turns business upside down. Don’t follow the leader, follow the follower. Rigorously support whoever initiates. Forget what you know about critical thinking because, as Yorton points out, “there are times when it’s about creating something new, so there’s nothing to be critical about.” Forget your self-interest. Exist for your partner to succeed. Live in the moment.

Even Yorton is amazed at how the delightful raucousness of improv can enliven a business: “How are we able to co-mingle this temple of satire with this affirmative, positive thing? It’s really a powerful combo.”

Yes, and… Second City Communications does it so well.