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To Cultivate Innovation, I’ve Got Two Words for You

What do you get when you put two Second City executives into a room with a Grammy-nominated songwriter? Turns out you get a lot of insight into innovation.

October 16, 2013
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From left: Kelly Leonard, Peter Himmelman and Tom Yorton. Photo courtesy of Second City Communications.

What do you get when you put two Second City executives into a room with a Grammy-nominated songwriter? Turns out you get a lot of insight into innovation.

The three panelists at the “Work, the Remix” panel discussion at Chicago Ideas Week had a clear message: There are two words that are the progenitors of innovation and creativity. Yes and …

“And what?”

“Not and what. That’s just it.”

“What’s just it?”

Sorry to turn this into an Abbott and Costello routine, but “Yes” and “And” are the two words that make innovation happen, especially at Second City, the Chicago-based improvisation troupe where comedians like John Belushi and Tina Fey got their start. At Second City, those words are used to keep innovation and particularly improvisation going strong, said Kelly Leonard, Second City’s executive vice president, and Tom Yorton, the CEO of Second City Communications. Peter Himmelman, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, who was the third panelist, seemed to be in agreement. He mentioned the two words in an improvised song he sang at the end about an attendee named Drew Block who not only “rocks” but asked a question about whether Himmelman could sum up the discussion in a song. Yes, he could.

According to the triumvirate of talent on stage, there’s nothing that stops an idea from percolating like that two-letter word that begins with “N,” which is often used indiscriminately in the workplace. Just try to write a blog without including it or spend a day trying not to use it. It’s a word that we hear over and over again from the time we are tots trying to turn the TV into a jumbo Etch A Sketch. Not that I’d advocate such behavior, but maybe there is a better way to approach the situation, which draws a different conclusion.

On top of killing any momentum at the time of the inspiration, the problem with busting out an “uh-uh” is that, especially if it’s coming from top leadership, it could cause a worker to hesitate to offer suggestions in the future, which leads to stagnation in the company and potential indignation from the worker. 

Besides that ominous exclamation that will go unmentioned here, Himmelman, who founded Big Muse, an organization that teaches innovative thinking via songwriting, also had a word he didn’t like using: failure. He said the paradigm about the word failure is that “it’s not useful very often.” Contrary to the old saying, he has learned a lot more from his successes than his failures, but, with failure, at least you’re putting yourself out there.

And talk about putting yourself out there, there was an interesting anecdote that came out of the discussion. Every year the Second City players and workers do a burlesque of senior management, which is no-holds-barred and encouraged. A few years ago, Leonard said, the participants sang a song about the senior leaders, and at the end a waitress went up to the CEO and sang about the company not offering health care benefits. Guess how quickly that changed, Leonard quipped.

Innovation is all about the power to create. If you enable your workers to use their imaginations to make the company better, the company will be better even if the idea is a dud. That’s what a successful business is all about, no?

And, yes, I mean yes!

James Tehrani is Workforce’s assistant managing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Tehrani on Twitter at @WorkforceJames.

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