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Getting to

Getting to "Yes And": The Art of Business Improv


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Amidst the deluge of advice for businesspeople, there lies an overlooked tool, a key to thriving in today's fast-paced, unpredictable environment: improvisation. In Getting to "Yes And" veteran improv performer, university professor, CEO, and consultant Bob Kulhan unpacks a form of mental agility with powers far beyond the entertainment value of comedy troupes.

Drawing on principles from cognitive and social psychology, behavioral economics, and communication, Kulhan teaches readers to think on their feet and approach the most typical business challenges with fresh eyes and openness. He shows how improv techniques such as the "Yes, and" approach, divergent and convergent thinking, and focusing on being present can translate into more productive meetings, swifter decisions, stronger collaboration, positive conflict resolution, mindfulness, and more. Moving from the individual to the organizational level, Kulhan compiles time-tested teaching methods and training exercises into an instrumental guide that readers can readily implement as a party of one or a company of thousands.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804795807
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/24/2017
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 288,312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bob Kulhan is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms. Bob is an Adjunct Professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with over 20 years of stage credits, he trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An actor and former core faculty member in Chicago's famed Second City and a member of the former resident company at the iO Theater, Kulhan is a Co-Founder of the critically acclaimed Baby Wants Candy improv troupe. You can follow him @Kulhan.

Read an Excerpt

Getting to "Yes And"

The Art of Business Improv

By Bob Kulhan, Chuck Crisafulli


Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0095-9



WHAT EXACTLY DOES IMPROVISATION have to do with business? Think about the major trends in the business world. Emerging technology continues to increase the speed of business. Moreover technology itself continues to change at an accelerated pace (Moore's Law purports a doubling of processing speeds every two years). Business now relies on instantaneous, 24-hour communication as well as remote access to vital information, and any business that has trouble communicating that way is considered to be at a severe disadvantage.

The global community — corporate, consumer, and geographic — is upon us, and adopting new methodologies for effective communication and collaboration must take place between and across cultures. Even within individual workplaces the potential for diversity in perspectives — the probability that those around us see things differently than we see things — is greater than ever before and must now be factored in to how business gets done. Put it this way: reacting, adapting, and communicating are not a matter of choice for businesspeople; they're a matter of basic survival. This has always been so, but in today's environment the stakes are higher.

The skills of focused thinking and rapid decision making that improvisation strengthens can easily be put to use in many of the day-today challenges in your competitive landscape: dealing with personnel demands, overcoming analysis paralysis, developing creative solutions, increasing general efficiency, handling conflict, managing crisis, encouraging adaptive problem solving, and fostering intrinsic motivation in others. The same skills that make for exceptional comedic improvisation — intense listening, focus, energy, engagement, teamwork, authenticity, adaptability — are skills that any businessperson can use to make positive changes in the workplace.

Beyond the scope of our rapidly changing workplace lies the simple truth that we are still human — creatures of immense gifts, and limitations — and we will always have to interact with each other on a basic, personal level. This need for human connection is very powerful and is the stem for the socially conscious Millennial. Improvisation is a powerful tool for fostering interpersonal communication, making connections and building strong relationships.

Corporate culture has become an ever more important focus in the business community. A slew of common buzzwords and phrases get thrown around whenever companies discuss the kind of corporate culture they're after: creativity, risk taking, innovation, flexibility, strong and supportive teamwork, empathetic connection, authentic leadership, and of course thinking outside the box. Everyone seems to agree these end goals are positive. However, using a tired phrase like "thinking outside the box" to pay lip service to the idea that creativity should be encouraged is not going to get the job done. If you want change and fresh ideas, then don't think about that same old box at all. The challenge for us businesspeople is not in coming up with catchier ways to describe our end goals. The challenge is in whether we actually know how to get to these end goals within today's corporate climate.

Do you know concrete steps to create a culture in which people are not afraid to fail and are not afraid to openly share ideas? Do you know how to instill trust and mutual support in your team? Do you know how to inspire an attitude of openness and acceptance in others? Do you know how to connect and engage with people quickly to build strong relationships? If you want to say yes, then improvisation can give you the tools to make it so. In the following pages we'll lay a foundation for the entire book by demonstrating how improv is used in business, describing the skill set necessary for improvising well, defining the barriers to successful improvisation, and examining the core concepts of divergent and convergent thinking.

Training Smart

To understand the way that improv will work for you, let's take a look outside the business world for a moment. In the world of professional athletics, competition has never been fiercer; long-standing records of achievement are constantly being broken. Athletes have responded to increased competition — and increased rewards for their success — by training harder, smarter, and ever more scientifically. The way athletes compete has changed and the great competitors accept the fact that there's now a premium on well-muscled bodies that operate at peak physical fitness. There are not a lot of pro athletes who look like Babe Ruth anymore.

Businesspeople, like athletes, must respond to the competition and challenges in their fields by training harder and smarter. Improvisation techniques work on the brain the same way physical exercises work on muscle groups. The brain that's been tuned and toned by improvisation may be capable of much quicker decision making; however, the speed of decisions is a side effect of the process. The primary, desired result of improvisation is not that decisions get made quickly; the objective is to increase the probability that a great decision gets made. At its heart improvisation is about better decision making, and in your case better decisions make for better business.

Let me contextualize this with a brief quiz: take five minutes to jot down your own barriers to creativity, collaboration, improvisation, and change. In other words what keeps you from being creative? What blocks collaboration from taking place? What impedes successful improvisation? What stops you from embracing change? If it helps to separate these four items and just focus on one of them, that's fine too! You will find that the barriers to creativity are likely the same as the blocks to collaboration, which are identical to that which keeps people from improving successfully and driving change.

So, what are the barriers? For most, the answers commonly start with

• Fear (of losing control, of uncertainty, of being wrong, of looking like a fool, of the repercussions of being wrong or right, of not being aligned with the boss)

• Organizational structure (bureaucracy, rules, rituals, space, silos, hierarchy)

• Status (the boss speaks first, so you follow what the boss says; one or two vocal people dominate the meeting with their version of the right answers)

• Time

• Money

• Insufficient motivation ("It's not my job")

• Personal biases (previous success, complacency, status quo bias, "If it's not broke, why break it?")

As you will learn, the tenets of improvisation can be used to remove these barriers. Individually, improvisation is going to allow you to defend against all distractions and bring a laser-like focus to the task you want accomplished. Within a group, improvisation opens up communication and ensures that there is a meritocracy of ideas. The businessperson who embraces improvisation is taking a qualitative, proactive step to keep his or her brain — and thus business skills — in top shape.

Improvisation, again, is a tool and as with all tools you have to know what it does and how and when to use it. The hammer is a great tool, though it does nothing for you just hanging on the pegboard over the workbench. If you want it to help you get the job done, you've got to grab it, hang on to it, and put some effort into swinging it at its target. Improvisation is that kind of tool — if you want it to work, you've got to commit to it. On stages where improvisers are trying to entertain, the moment one of them starts thinking about the audience, or about how they're going to get the next laugh, or about anything outside the process of improvising, the improviser disengages and the show suffers. Everybody onstage has to commit fully and consistently to the same goal at the same time. The business applications of improvisation are going to require that kind of commitment as well.

Wait! Why Should I Listen to You?

Hold on though. Before I begin to tell you specifically how improvisation can serve business needs, let me answer a question that may have occurred to you a few pages back: "Who the heck is this Kulhan guy and why should I listen to what he has to say about improv or business or business improv?"

To put it quite plainly, I am a businessman and a professional improv comedian, and I absolutely love the art form of improvisation with all my heart. I learned about comedic improvisation the first week of college at Illinois State University when I read a "Local Girl Does Good" newspaper write-up about Megan Moore Burns performing with The Second City in Chicago. Reading about what The Second City actually did — improvisational comedy — was a revelation. I promptly tracked down Megan (which in 1990 took a fair amount of sleuthing). Megan's advice to me was to begin learning the art of improv at the Players Workshop of The Second City. The next summer I moved roughly four hours north from my hometown of Effingham, Illinois, to Chicago to take classes at the Players Workshop. For two punishingly hot, humid months I slept on an ever-deflating air mattress on my cousin John's living room floor and ate past-expiration pies and cupcakes I'd bought for 35 cents from the Hostess Thrift Shop across the street. I walked about a mile to and from improv class. That summer I studied solely under Martin de Maat, the man who would eventually become my mentor and who is credited for cocreating The Second City Training Center with Sheldon Patinkin (also a brilliant and kind man who I'd have the good fortune of working under at Columbia College roughly ten years later). I could not have been happier.

I became so impassioned and committed to this art form that when an opportunity arose for me to accept my very first term of employment with The Second City I jumped at the job — as a walking trash can. Technically the job was to be a "mascot" for The Second City, a costumed character who would walk around the grounds of the famously rambunctious Taste of Chicago festival handing out flyers that announced the theater's new show. And it just so happens that the show The Second City was doing that summer was called "Winner Takes Oil," playing on the Persian Gulf War. The mascot was to be a cross between an oil barrel and the old Depression-era cartoon caricature of a guy who had lost everything. I was directed to wear nothing but shorts and shoes, and hoist a giant plastic keg over myself, which would be held up by two lengths of tug-of-war rope over my bare shoulders. If I kept that barrel on and spent a day handing out Second City flyers, I'd make $5.50 an hour. This sounded like an unbelievably sweet deal at the time.

It was a fairly clever costume and I wore it in service of a really great show — the cast that summer included such incredible talents as Steve Carrell, Michael McCarthy, and Jill Talley with more than occasional doses of Stephen Colbert. I'll be the first to say that Chicago is an amazing city that really knows how to get exceptionally festive at the Taste of Chicago. What I had not counted on was that to a crowd of several hundred thousand Chicagoans who had spent the day downing 16-ounce plastic cups of Old Style beer in the summer heat, a young, scrawny man-boy in a giant plastic barrel looked exactly like a walking trash receptacle. I spent a good deal of time fighting off the crumpled beer cups and half-eaten bratwursts that were slam-dunked in my costume.

If my budding love for improvisation had wavered, I might have just left that barrel next to a real trash can and shrugged the whole thing off as a stupid summer job that wasn't worth the mustard stains and rope burn. However, I stayed committed, and through a bit of reacting, adapting, and communicating I worked my way to a payoff that literally changed my life: I got my employment deal sweetened to include a pass to the show on nights it wasn't sold out. So all summer, once my barrel work was done, I watched that Second City show over and over and over, studying every little nuance of the performance and performers and falling more and more in love with the art of improvisation and sketch comedy. I returned to Illinois State University for my sophomore year and then transferred up to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) for my junior and senior years of college, so that I could continue to take classes at the Players Workshop.

Well before I graduated from UIC I also began indulging my budding entrepreneurial spirit. I served as a one-man marketing department for Michael Jackson Software, Inc. (no, not that Michael Jackson) — one of the first companies to put multimedia elements into computer-based training systems. Through that job I got my first taste of mixing improv and business through guerrilla marketing: posing as a delivery person, I got MJSI media packages onto the desk of every prominent business reporter in Chicago. Positive press coverage of the company ensued as did a Bank of America Small Business Award for Creative Marketing.

In the early 1990s, before American eyes had ever seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? the term "professional improviser" was an oxymoron. It did not matter — I was thoroughly hooked. I went on to coach and perform improv at iO (Improv Olympic) and the Annoyance Theatre. At iO, I got to study with another improv guru, Del Close, and cofounded the improv troupe Baby Wants Candy ("America's seminal completely improvised musical group"), which toured internationally and won the 2005 Ensemble of the Year award at the esteemed Chicago Improv festival. Baby Wants Candy offered me a chance to fulfill my double passion for entertainment and business; while our focus onstage was improvisation, offstage the troupe had to be run just like any other small business.

I was also frequently part of other improv groups that were called in to do corporate training. After many of those workshops I began to hear the same sort of comment: "That was a lot of fun, but I can't use any of it. In fact, now I have to go back to the office and work harder to catch up on the work I missed while we did this."

It was after one of those corporate gigs that I had my Eureka! moment: Why not create a program that would be enjoyable for businesspeople and would also give them something they could use in the real world? In the fall of 1999 a serendipitous encounter with a professor of management at the prestigious Duke University Fuqua School of Business led to the discovery that one of the deans at Duke Fuqua was soliciting ideas for a one-week intensive MBA course with an experiential learning component. I jumped at the chance to develop a course that showed the true potential of improv in business, and collaborated with academic experts to create the world's first improvisation program in a top-tier business school. In December 1999 "Business Improvisation" (the course) was born.

Since that time Business Improv (the company) has created programs for top business schools in America and has served a large roster of blue-chip clients such as PepsiCo, Capital One, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Naval Academy, the United Nations, Hilton Hotels Worldwide, and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. I've got a team of a dozen trainers, working with over 3,500 C-level executives and another 2,000 businessmen and businesswomen annually. And though I never fancied myself the academic sort, I have served as an adjunct professor of business administration at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business since 2002. I have also held guest professor spots at the Columbia Business School at Columbia University, and I teach regularly as part of the executive education programs at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. I stay busy in classrooms and conference rooms; however, whenever I get the chance I'm back up on an improv stage, performing in New York City at the PIT, the UCB Theaters, and the Brooklyn branch of the Annoyance Theatre. Baby Wants Candy also lives on!

So those are my bona fides. I'm a professional improviser (now a better-understood vocation), a person who has worked in businesses and is now at the helm of one, and a "pracademic" who works with brilliant business professors to bring the art I love to the business classroom. Looking back over the last 17 years, I can say that I'm proud as hell that the "crazy" notion of teaching businesspeople to do better business by way of improv techniques has led to an extremely high percentage of success stories.

True Story

In order to give you a feel for how exactly those successes can happen — how business and improvisation can interact in the most positive way — let me present you with a case history. A couple of years ago I created an intensive three-day seminar called "Story of a Lifetime" conducted at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and sponsored by UCLA Anderson's Executive Education Department. The course details had been clearly laid out in session descriptions and everyone in the room had made the explicit choice to be there. In fact this particular program had been created to reward VP-level financial advisors employed by one of the world's top financial management firms. It was a thank-you from the company to its elite earners. Other rewards had been available; all the enrollees in my program could have opted for spa vacations, trips to Hawaii or Europe, or open enrollment programs at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Wharton, and MIT. They had ended up with no view of a Hawaiian sunset and no chance at a hot stone chakra massage. Instead, they were under florescent lights in a room with me.


Excerpted from Getting to "Yes And" by Bob Kulhan, Chuck Crisafulli. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: More than One Way to Hit a Piñata 1

1 Thinking Outside of Thinking Outside of the Box 11

2 Just Say "Yes, and …" 26

3 I'm with the Brand 52

4 Energy Independence 74

5 Teaming Up 102

6 Must Be Something Ideate 124

7 Busted 150

8 Take Me to Your Leadership 175

9 How to Eat an Elephant 201

10 And Wait … There's More! 230

Acknowledgments 239

Notes 243

Index 253

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