Turmoil is the new normal, and turmoil causes people, businesses and markets to tighten — to freeze and wait for the chaos to slow. The art of flow, not a strategy of resistance, is needed to maneuver through the obstacles and the possibilities to keep your business moving. Flow means flexibility to move, staying in readiness for movement (like the back line in tennis), joining rather than resisting, being present and real, staying relaxed while not knowing the next step, but being in tune with what is and ready to dance with it — without losing the pace and rhythm of what needs to get done. Improvising builds energy.
Improvisation — the creation of something without preparation — is a skill that helps bring flow to a business. I have taught it in leadership retreats and brought in Chicago’s Second City improv troupe to work on improvisation with executives. Some people froze and said they would not, could not, participate. Some got extreme and overdid the exercise. And some went with the flow; they kept to the purpose and guidelines of the exercise and created a kind of ease with the unexpected.
Do you improvise? Does your improvising build energy and allow flow? If not, here’s how:
The first response to a surprise should be to say “yes, and.” Note what is real. Don’t fight it. You are being asked to dance, to jump in. Don’t leave the situation or the person stranded with a no that gives no chance for engagement.
After you have agreed and understand what’s been started, you can begin to redirect. This is the time to respond, “Yes, and how about —.” (I’m sure you have seen comedy routines fall flat when someone ignores a cue and doesn’t say “yes, and” to pick up the thread that was offered.”
Be clear, specific
Don’t be muddy or nebulous; give the person or crisis a very clear response to the unexpected development. It provides something to work with. Then, allow a reaction to occur. Add information to clarify or solve the situation, even if your response is to not take action: “Here’s what we will do for now. We will call in X or Y and meet in the morning at 10.”
Or your clear and specific reaction could be, “This situation is yours to respond to. Keep me posted daily until you are satisfied.”
You don’t want people leaving your office feeling they are spitting in the wind or left dangling.
Don’t worry about mistakes
In improvisation, there are no mistakes. You are in the moment and have to finish whatever it is — together. I was once in with a CEO during an important presentation that was headed toward disaster. While waiting for a very late and very important guest speaker, I began interviewing the CEO about mess-ups in general. I shared a few first. Then she began to throw out questions to the 300 people in the audience about awkward moments and public failures.
We all danced together and shared lots of laughter. The poor guest who was late fell very flat after the energy of the large group being authentic together. This wonderful two-hour mistake could not have been planned.
Break free of habits
Habits can deaden the energy of any company. Meetings can be the worst energy killer of all. Going with the flow and improvising break habitual patterns. I once led a meeting where a very tough decision needed to be made. All kinds of cross tensions kept everyone’s brains in deadlock.
I asked everyone to get up and walk around the huge conference table while they talked (or didn’t). I reversed the direction of the walk every once in a while. Ideas began to come. Irritations were put on the table. The huge blockage was gone.
It lasted about half an hour. It was what the moment needed: physical movement to break an impasse. It worked because it was odd.
Know that improvising builds energy
Improvising builds energy. It’s more than being authentic as a person. It’s the energy that comes from creating on the spot or taking bold action in the moment.
A gathering of 250 leaders at a resort featured great break-out rooms but no central room for the whole group. The solution was a tent — until it rained torrents and electricity went out.
One leader went to the kitchen and returned with boxes of huge trash bags; another dug up five or six bullhorns. The show went on with everyone dressed in trash bag ponchos, using bullhorns for talking. The pride and fun at that moment did more for leadership cohesion than any leadership development approach could have.
You have to recognize and be open to an opportunity for connection when it crosses your path. You have to go out into your world and company and bump into your customers, your associates, other ideas and irritations. This gives you fodder to play with later on.
Being accessible lets you dance in the here and now, where opportunity lives. It takes nonjudgmental openness as a first response.
Learn how to tell stories
When something unexpected happens or is handed to you, the ability to tell a story that makes sense and engages a positive response will be remembered and retold.
Part of my work in one large company was guiding a department in managing a downsizing. Our reaction upon learning of this task was chagrin. Then I said, “Yes, and we will do it very differently.” Someone else said, “Let’s make it enjoyable.” Another said, “Let’s not allow any shame. Let’s make the experience like a spa re-employment center.” That moment began the story.
We asked to do the work of downsizing in-house and set up a special space for the work. Those leaving were given career counseling and financial advice, as well as respect and pampering, not to mention the time to talk with others. We created a pertinent library for taking breaks from the work that they were finishing up. They could read their agreements in advance and seek legal counsel if wanted. We also had a big dinner and celebration for the people leaving the company and their families.
The downsizing “spa” became the company’s Learning Center. (And, yes, this was all done under a progressive and pragmatic CEO.)
Going with the flow, or improvising, builds energy and brings surprise solutions in any situation. It’s a leadership skill needed to capture new ideas and action when the flow of the company is blocked.
Joyce Wilson-Sanford has more than 25 years of experience in progressive, bold global organizational development work at the C-suite level and most recently was the executive vice president of strategic organizational development with Delhaize Group, now Ahold. Wilson-Sanford also is an author and podcaster.
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