When Leaders Toss The Script
February 3, 2017
Alan Derek Utley
Regional Human Resources Director / Management Faculty
Topicscreativity, Leadership Development, Self Development, Teamwork
It was 1994 and I was in Indiana, attending the National Thespian Convention with my high school theater mates. We were losing ourselves in plays and musicals from some of the nation's best.
"Please excuse our mess, we're remodeling."
This line had just been spoken by the actor playing Mr. Mushnik, a main character in the musical production of Little Shop of Horrors.
Only, there was a problem. That line was not in the script. It was not part of the play. Those words should never have been spoken.
So why were they?
Because the show must go on.
If you're not familiar with the play, the majority of the show takes place inside a small rundown flower shop, owned by Mr. Mushnik.
It was early in Act I, and without warning, the large wooden frame of the shop - about the length of the stage itself - plunged to the ground with a resounding thud, narrowly missing the actors.
They stopped cold.
So did the audience. Silence ensued. Picture me: jaw dropped, eyes wide and glued to the stage. Everyone knew this was not supposed to happen and we all wondered, "what will happen next?"
Suddenly, Mr. Mushnik turned to Seymour and said those five magical words I'll never forget:
"Excuse our mess, we're remodeling."
That was it! Peals of laughter erupted from the audience, followed by grateful applause. We knew that actor had just saved the day and the show would go on.
What did the actor do right? He employed a very simple technique actors have been known to use for centuries.
He said "Yes."
Actors often spend time training in the art of improvisation. It helps prepare them to handle whatever might happen onstage because in live theater the stakes are high and anything can go wrong. Set pieces can fall from the sky!
No matter what happens, the show must go on. And for this to be possible, everyone must be present in the moment, ready for anything. This requires active listening, partnership, and quick thinking. It requires improvisation.
There are many rules, but one stands above the rest as critically important.
Rule #1: Do not deny (or just say Yes!)
During a fully improvised scene, stage partners will make an offer of some kind – this is any action or piece of dialog that may advance the scene – and it must be accepted by the other actors. The more accepted offers, the more interesting and real the scene. Denial is the number one reason most improvised scenes go bad. By accepting all offers partners work to create something better, together.
Think about Mr. Mushnik and Seymour. They weren't improvising. They had a script. But when something unplanned happened, they were ready.
What other choice did they have? They could have said "no," denying what had just happened, and just stood there, panicking, waiting for someone to draw the curtain.
But in that split second they knew that wasn't their best option. They knew what to do. For a brief moment the script was tossed aside and the actors said "Yes!"
Leaders Also Say Yes!
How does this relate to the rest of us - that is, most of us - who aren't starring in a play?
I believe that in our own way - no matter what business we're in - we're doing live theater. We have our "corporate scripts" to guide us, but think about the many situations when things don't go as planned and we're called to think on our feet.
A client unhappy about his service. An employee seeking assistance. A peer with an idea for a new product. A manager asking for your opinion. A student asking you a tough question. A prospect not buying what you're selling.
Each of these scenarios requires us to react. To perform. To improvise.
Like the actors know already, when we say "yes," we turn a problem into something better - maybe even magical.
By contrast, that moment we say "no" the momentum stops and the corporate curtain is drawn.
Imagine what could happen in your life as a leader if you accept more offers than you deny. What if you tossed your corporate script aside and improvised?
"I'm not a good improviser," you say?
That's okay. Like other skills, this is one we can develop.
How to Say Yes!
Your first step in becoming an improviser is listening to yourself. In everyday conversation, is your default to say "no?" If so, try replacing it with "yes, and..."
There are variations on this. All it takes is keeping the lines of communication open. For example, try these: Tell me more. Go on. Let's build on that.
You can also try playing improv games because games are great for teaching or strengthening skills. While this may sound daunting, trust me when I tell you a theater background is not required. What if I told you you're already a world-class improviser and you don't even know it?
Fact! You improvise everyday, only you call it something different. Like being creative, innovating, or quick thinking.
There's one very simple improv game I love to play that you can adapt for use with your teams.
A Simple Improv Game: The Last Word
This game strengthens listening skills, collaboration, and creativity.
- This can be done with a group, but involves two people at a time - Partner A and Partner B
- Partner A offers a sentence on any subject.
- Once Partner A finishes their sentence, Partner B starts a new sentence featuring the very last word spoken by Partner A.
Partner A: This morning before work I ate a bowl of CEREAL.
Partner B: The CEREAL aisle is my favorite at the grocery STORE.
Partner A: I plan to STORE my Mercedes in your garage while I'm out of TOWN.
Partner B: TOWN and Country magazine suggested the Mercedes is making a COMEBACK.
- The discussion continues like this for a few more rounds until it is time to rotate.
- A new partner replaces one of the previous speakers - leaving someone still up there - and the discussion continues where they left off.
- Keep rotating until everyone has had at least one turn "on stage."
- Warning: expect uncontrollable laughter!
The keys to success for playing this game:
- Active and patient listening. You have to wait until the very last word spoken - not something we're always good it.
- Making statements, not asking questions. Because questions make the other person do all the work.
- Offering your partner something to work with - don't leave them in the dust with a throw-away word that's hard to build on. This requires teamwork.
If you can't imagine selling the idea of playing an improv game with your team, just call it a "team-building exercise." But we both know what it REALLY is - and that'll be our little secret.
Want more games? Check out Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. It is a wonderful resource for additional reading on this subject and offers a plethora of improv games you can try in any work setting. The game above was inspired by their book.
Be the leader who just says "yes!" Go wild. Have fun. Do something different. Stand back and see what happens.
I really enjoyed your article! What a creative way to add positive thinking into our ever changing environment.
Thanks, Agnes. It IS all about positive thinking! 🙂
Alan, what a great title, story and message! You did a great job of connecting improv to leadership skills – gave us practical tips too!
I’m going to use that game as a listening skill activity in my coaching skills training program. That game is magnificent! Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, Mary. I adapted that little game from the book and my sales managers loved it. I think it’s a hit. Let me know how it goes.