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"Yes, and...": Using improv comedy for project management success (WordCamp LAX 2016)

Published on Sep 11, 2016

One of the most important things a project manager does is say no to people, whether it’s the client or a member of the team. The problem is that “no” is one of those words that ends the conversation, cutting off growth that can benefit the project (and your bottom line). No matter how outlandish the demand, I will show you how the principles of improv comedy will let you use the word “yes” to ensure both you and your client get what you want.


""YES, AND...""

Using Improv Comedy for Project Management Success
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• Production Manager,
Zeek Interactive
• Penn High School
Drama Club President,

Where do these two disparate occupations intersect?

I was an awkward kid in high school, as most of teenagers are. Talking to other people outside my circle could be a weird and uncomfortable experience.

I joined the Drama Club's after-school rehearsals for improv night mainly out of habit (gotta stack up all the extracurriculars I could for college applications), but I quickly realized I was being taught the tools to navigate almost any conversation, no matter how weird and awkward. And, let's face it, being a project manager involves a lot of weird and awkward conversations.

But first, what am I talking about when I talk about "improv comedy"? Let's watch a video.
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Colin and Ryan on "Whose Line Is it Anyway?"
Link to Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NC6t1zfBMY

This is a clip from ABC Family's "Whose Line Is It Anyway?," which conveniently had its original run while I was in high school.

In this video, Colin and Ryan lead each other through a scene in a barbershop. Pay special attention to how they communicate who they are to their scene partner, and how their partner moves the scene forward.

Who are you?

  • Character
  • Relationship
  • Objective
  • Conflict
  • Setting
When you perform improv comedy, it generally starts with a suggestion from the audience. In the course of your business, this suggestion is generally whatever your client is asking of you. Instead of "We're going to do a scene in a barbershop," it might be "We're going to do a scene about a website that needs to be built."

But first, you have to figure out a few things about yourself, and you have to think fast. Colin and Ryan established each one of these requirements in each of their first lines.

Character - what does your character do, sound like, look like? This is your opportunity to reinvent yourself into the business guru you always wanted to be.

Relationship - Are you co-workers? Ex-wives? No, you're probably a client, or a vendor.

Objective - What do you want or need to accomplish?

Conflict - Where do your objectives collide, and how do you resolve it?

Setting - Where in the world are you? (Probably on a conference call.)

rules of engagement

Get ready to play the game
So, now that we know who we are, we need to know how we're going to communicate.

There are 10 rules of improv, written by David Alger. They originally appeared on the San Francisco Pan Theater website, but that page no longer seems to exist.

I got these from improvencyclopedia.org.

First, we're going to go over the rules, and then we'll discuss those situations where rules may not apply.
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say "Yes, and..."

The #1 rule, to which the next several rules expand upon: No matter what someone says to you, no matter how much it defies logic, say "yes, and..."

In the barbershop scene with Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, there are several instances where saying "yes, and..." allows the scene to continue. Colin doesn't turn down the shot of Barbicide, even though it's a gross idea that no one would ever want to do.

This is the magic phrase that will allow you to take almost any input and shape it into what you need it to be.
Photo by hey mr glen

After the "And"

Add new information
When Ryan offers Colin a shot of Barbicide, not only does Colin accept it, but he also says his character has been drinking it since he was a child.

Your scene can't move forward unless you add new information.

This is where the magic of "Yes, and..." really happens. The "and" is where you redirect.

"Yes, we can absolutely incorporate these new requirements, and we'll build them at the end of the originally planned development cycle."

"Yes, we can design this, and we'll bill hourly for it."

Don't Block

The opposite of "Yes, and..." is blocking or denial.

If you receive a crazy request, and of course we do, your initial reaction might be to say "no, that's not possible." It might indeed be an impossible request. However, keep the conversation going using "yes, and..." and resist the urge to throw up brick walls to what your client is asking.

"Yes, and..." allows you to really dig into the problem your client is experiencing. It also allows you to come up with what might be a simpler, more elegant solution than your client may have originally requested.
Photo by Fey Ilyas

Avoid questions

(kind of)
Improv beginners are advised to avoid asking questions in a scene because it makes your partner do twice as much work to establish character and relationships and move the scene forward. It's lazy. It's a punt when you were supposed to run it down the field.

However, when you're in an intake meeting with a new client, you're going to have to ask them a few questions. The important thing to remember is that you're leading the meeting, and your questions should be framed so you're always shaping the project, not trying to make your client do all the work for you.

Think about the difference between "So, what do you want the website to be?" and "Tell me about your most important business goal and your biggest obstacle."
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Focus on the here and now

In an improv scene, the change, win, loss, and struggle happens for the characters on the stage in those few minutes. Their backstory doesn't matter. What happens next doesn't matter. It all hangs solely on this window of time.

Similarly, focusing on the here and now makes sure you're moving your project forward, no matter how badly something went at the start of the project. You can't do anything about what's already happened. Your opportunity to move things forward can only be found by focusing on this moment.
Photo by Michael Dales

Establish the location

This one can be a bit of a stretch when applying to business. In an improv scene, you need to let your audience know if you're at a bus stop or at the White House. In project management, you need to let your client know where you are in your project roadmap.

Have they failed to deliver something that will result in development delays? Has your developer underestimated the time a feature will take to create? Figure out where you are and communicate it to your client.
Photo by Johan Larsson

Be specific

Provide details!
David Alger writes, "Details are the lifeblood of moving a scene forward. Each detail provides clues to what is important. Details help provide beat objectives and flesh out characters."

Providing details gives your scene partner something to respond to and work with. In client work, these details may be deliverables like wireframes or other documentation.

Give your client enough to respond to and move the scene forward, but do it with care. Overwhelming them with information create analysis paralysis.
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focus on characters & relationships

For serious and dramatic scenes
Is your project going south? Is your client unhappy? Let's call that a "serious and dramatic scene."

Focus on their business and what's not being addressed as it pertains to their business goal.

If this is a client you've had for awhile, dig into your existing working relationship. What's worked in the past? How can you apply that to the here and now?

This strategy is your key to turning things around.
Photo by Alan Cleaver

Focus on actions & Objects

For humorous scenes
Everyone likes fun. When things are going well, focus on actions and deliverables to keep things moving forward.

This is where you commit and dig deep to take choices to the Nth degree.
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Sometimes, it doesn't work

You might be asking yourself, "Well, what do you mean? Isn't this supposed to be the magic process to make everything run smoothly?"

In improv comedy, you're working a scene with someone who is committed to the same rules of the road that you are. If the scene fails, they look bad in front of an audience.

In business, your scene partner may not have any awareness of the rules of engagement. You may be a very low priority in their day, or they very simply may not like you.

If your scene partner isn't willing to play along, and they won't respond to your attempts to lead them, there's not much you can do. You might hand off the project to someone else on your team, or you might part ways with the client. You can't push a rope.
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Make it happen

You got this!
Hopefully that last slide didn't bum you out too much.

Most of the time, the project is something your client actively wants to succeed, and they hired you because you're the best one for the job.

When you agree that you both have a hand in the success of this project, you commit to giving what the other needs to succeed. That's true whether you're on "Whose Line" or the conference line.
Photo by Will Montague


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