Books | Change / transformation | Leadership | Management / Strategy

‘But’ closes doors. ‘And’ opens them

Comedy, it turns out, is serious business.

That's a lesson I didn't expect to learn from a book on the DNA of humor, but there it was, smacking me in the face on page 27.

The book in question is The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny, by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. The book follows a professor and a journalist as they travel the world in search of a comedic formula — a combination of given quantities that will make us laugh. "This plus this equals funny" — that's the kind of thing McGraw and Warner were chasing.

Early on, they document their attempts to perfect the art of improvisation, or "improv," as its known in the business. That's the art of making things up on the fly. The standing rule of improv, they explain, is "Yes, and …" No matter what the other person says, you agree and add to it.

"In improv, it's all about letting the interaction of the performers progress to see what sort of things unfold," McGraw and Warner write. "An argument stops that process cold. Instead, improvisers are trained to agree with whatever their colleagues say, then use it to further the action."

That's how collaboration and innovation work, isn't it? We don't shoot each other down — we build upon each other's best ideas and create something special. The best businesses are "Yes, and …" businesses.

Like most really great ideas, though, that notion of improv as a business tool has some serious legs.

Peter Margaritis — a friend, CPA, Business Learning Institute instructor, and part-time comedian — flew to St. Louis recently to deliver a BLI keynote, and I happily met him at a nearby restaurant for some good food and conversation. I told him about The Humor Code, and his jaw hit the floor.

Peter, coincidentally, has just finished writing a book about that very concept. It's called Improv Is No Joke: Using Improvisation To Create Positive Results In Leadership And Life, and man, is THIS an important book. Listen to just a few of Peter's brilliant nuggets:

  • "To improvise simply means, as the dictionary tells us, 'to compose and perform on the spur of the moment and without any preparation.' "
  • "Improvisation is going with the flow. The day never goes quite as expected. … If you accept the fact that change is going to happen, you can adapt and adjust."
  • "Improvisation is about assessing the needs of a situation by listening, understanding, adapting, and taking action to address issues as they arise."

If that's not the key to doing business in a changing and complex world, I don't know what is.

"It's all about agreement," Peter told me. "It's about accepting what the other person says and building on it. 'Yes, and …' keeps conversations going and spurs creativity. It's positive. It helps you find clarity in very chaotic situations."

Put another way: "But" closes doors. "And" opens them … and you can see a hell of a lot farther through an open door.

Improv Is No Joke is available now, and it's a terrific read. Order your copy here.


William D. Sheridan