13 Apr 2015

Corporate bonding a laughing matter

4:28 pm on 13 April 2015

Corporate team building and bonding are often considered dirty words.

But a business that has turned out top comedians for over 50 years, from James Belushi to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, is using the tools of improvisational theatre to change that.

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Photo: 123rf

The Second City in Chicago is an improvisational comedy enterprise, which was the first improvisational troupe in the United States and Canada.

They have taken what they've learned about developing comedic talent to help corporate clients run their businesses more creatively and successfully.

Having previously worked in advertising and marketing at agencies like Ogilvy, Grey, and Hal Riney, CEO Tom Yorton said he suffered through many bad corporate training sessions before he joined the company.

CEO of The Second City Works, Tom Yorton.

CEO of The Second City Works, Tom Yorton. Photo: Supplied

"I knew The Second City as a funny place, but I didn't recognize the applications of training and learning from improv until I got there. Fun and training don't usually go together but then I found that the lessons are super-relevant to business."

Mr Yorton and Executive Vice President Leonard Kelly put the tips in a new book calledYes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City.

The workshops they run for businesses are not a far cry from the ones they run for aspiring actors.

The comedians who go on stage at The Second City receive a list in the office every day with concepts designed to help them succeed at making people laugh, including ideas like 'be curious', 'make your partner look good' and 'read the room'.

The corporate workshops are not about turning Bill Gates into Steve Carell, but hope to help people communicate and collaborate.

"In improv, if there are six actors on stage and no script and 300 people who expect you to be funny and interesting, you have to have a way to create that material. If one actor makes a suggestion and offers an idea, it doesn't matter if the rest of the ensemble thinks it's a good idea or not: it's their job to build on it," said Mr Yorton.

Improv actors and business leaders are expected to create something from nothing more than an idea. Mr Yorton believes 'Yes, and' is a good launching point.

"There is always time for 'no'. But if you start there all the time, nothing is possible."

He said laughter could also be a powerful business tool.

"Usually we say things are funny when they're true. And in business we're not often as truthful as we should be and I don't mean that in a malicious way. 85 percent of the time we hold something back, we hedge."

The Second City teaches corporate clients how to use humour to point out things that didn't work as well as they should have, he said.

Book Cover: Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration--Lessons from The Second City.

Photo: Supplied

Business ideas don't always work, but neither does improv.

"Humour and comedy can break down walls. But there are always people who practice comedy without a license and use it with poor judgement."

But he adds that being boring and too stiff is a bigger problem.

"No one ever measures the consequences of a disengaged workforce or a workforce bored out of their minds".

Failure, in improv and in business, is an important teacher at The Second City. Improv actors have to be fearless, said Mr Yorton. But fear can paralyse on stage or in the boardroom.

"For 56 years we've created content for our stages. The dirty secret of improv is that a lot of it fails," said Mr Yorton.

"But the ability to have a fast failure, and pivot off an idea that's not working to what will work, is what separates the best companies."