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October 2015
Dean Andy Boynton

Reading list

Lessons from Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Company


By John and Linda Powers Family Dean
Andy Boynton


Most of us who lead schools of management would be the first to admit that there are perennial gaps in the B-school curriculum. Here’s one we might not be quick to recognize: the need for laughter and improvisation.

The point is made in Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration—Lessons from The Second City (Harper Business, 2015), by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. The two are executives with Second City, the famed improvisational company that has brought us the likes of Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and many other celebrated performers.

Early on in the book, the authors quote Elliott Masie of the MASIE Center, a corporate learning think tank. Speaking of how important it is to innovate quickly and find ways to ramp up your performance, Masie says:

“It’s about filling the room with truth and trust rather than just with loudness and noise. The one piece they don’t teach you in business school is laughter and humor, yet I can’t think of a single important contract, acquisition, sale, event—for that matter, any hiring or firing I’ve done—when there hasn’t been some humor in it, or some laughter.”

Yes, And is not about delivering one-liners in the conference room. Truth be told, it’s not a very funny book, even when it tries to be. The authors are Leonard and Yorton, not Fey and Colbert. But the book does introduce to a general management audience the techniques and perspectives of improvisational comedy. These methods have an affinity with some of our best ideas about leadership and innovation.

As Leonard (Second City’s executive vice president) and Yorton (who consults with business professionals on the techniques) demonstrate, improvisation isn’t just about making it up as you go along. It’s a much wider set of tools and methodologies.

Take for example, the very title, Yes, And. The phrase is catching on among people in business, but it began in the workshops of Chicago-based Second City. It means that the most creative response to someone else’s idea is to explore and stretch it— “accepting what’s offered and adding to it,” the authors write. Rarely if ever does it help to pour cold water on an idea, regardless of what you might think about it. Yes/And is “absolutely foundational to everything we do at The Second City,” Leonard and Yorton testify.

Key to Second City’s creative process is what it calls “the Improv Set.” This is essentially an act added on to a performance—the third act in which a comedy troupe tries out new material in front of an audience, for free. “The Improv Set is the research and development arm of our company,” Leonard and Yorton point out.

The work, however, starts long before the experimental revue. It begins with a diverse collection of cast members usually including six actors, a musical director, a stage manager, and a director. They spend 10 to 12 weeks rehearsing new ideas. They are pointedly called “ensembles” rather than teams, because the goal is to bring together different points of view, not to field a team of like-minded people. Maybe we need more ensembles and fewer teams in our organizations.

A related theme in the book is “co-creation.” That’s what the performers are doing when they try out their ideas in front of an audience (which, I would add, could also be your customers, clients, bosses, or colleagues). They’re involving the audience in the creation of the product. “Nobody likes to be sold an idea; they’d rather help create it, or at least have some chance to weigh in on it before being asked to make a final decision,” the authors rightly assert.

Staging a Core Curriculum

Improvisation is ultimately about testing and experimentation—which we’re doing our fair share of, at Boston College.

This fall, the University is piloting a renewed undergraduate Core Curriculum, an experiment in contemporary liberal arts learning. Featured in the pilot are a broad variety of new courses, collaboratively taught with an interdisciplinary focus on urgent problems in the world and perennial questions about the human condition.

Three years ago, I was part of a three-member ensemble that spearheaded the effort to renew our University’s long-standing Core. The other two were my friends and colleagues, historian David Quigley (then dean of Arts & Sciences, now provost of Boston College), and literature professor Mary Crane (director of our Institute for the Liberal Arts). Together with a larger group of ensemble members, we forged our innovation in ways not unlike those of Second City.

For example, we invited everyone (especially faculty members) to co-create with us. We did so, uncommonly, with assistance from a global design and innovation consultancy, Continuum. The firm excels at the Yes/And way of generating ideas, and it helped choreograph much-needed conversations among faculty, students, and administrators on campus. These included a yearlong series of town hall-style meetings on the future of Boston College’s Core.

Now we’re piloting a renewed Core in the spirit of genuine experimentation. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t all through this academic year, and we’ll bring in new pilot courses next year. In a sense, we’re creating a stage for our innovation. We’re testing our co-created ideas with a view to learning more about these ideas and continuing the co-creation.

Even if your last name isn’t Belushi or Aykroyd, this is what you have to do if you want to innovate successfully.