Organisational improvement? Just say ‘Yes’


THE EMPLOYMENT dream is changing.  Professionals are resigning in droves, causing many unfilled positions and organisational stress.  But executive leaders can adapt.

Pushed to the brink by a healthcare catastrophe that has brought the country to its knees, under-appreciated and under-respected professionals across the US are arriving at a consensus: the dream job doesn’t have to be at a prestigious organisation or come with a huge salary.

Applied Improvisation
AIM is a scientifically proven approach to address a wide range of organisational issues. Photo: Applied Improvisation Network

The aim is to perform meaningful work at a firm where growth opportunities are attainable, competencies are enhanced, and collaborative contributions are recognised.  Simply put, professionals want the opportunity to grow and develop their management skills to face new challenges.

And professional staff — and not just at the menial level — are finding that this dream is both attainable and worth departing a firm to pursue.

Enter “The Great Resignation.” Professionals, managers, and even executives are abandoning their positions at record rates, with businesses experiencing a historic voluntary termination rate of 3.4 percent.  Resignations are widespread, affecting thousands of professional employees. The problem might even be more prevalent than many thought, as a 2021 study conducted by Monster found that 95 percent of U.S. employees are considering changing jobs, and 92 percent of them are willing to switch industries to make that happen.

McKinsey & Company appreciates the shift: “[Staff] want a renewed and revised sense of purpose in their work.  They want social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers.  They want to feel a sense of shared identity.

“Yes, they want pay, benefits, and perks, but more than that, they want to feel valued by their organizations and managers.  They want meaningful — though not necessarily in-person — interactions, not just transactions.”

So, what are senior business executives responsible for running major organisations supposed to do? Old, tired, traditional HR solutions no longer work, and senior executives need to innovate.  What about an approach that improves collaboration skills, increases communication effectiveness, builds trust and reduces harmful information silos?  Visa, Schwab, United Health Group, Sun Life, Verizon, Astra Zeneca, Bayer, GSK, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Proctor & Gamble have discovered first-hand that Applied Improvisation (AIM) programmes — techniques for improvising in a professional, business setting — are precisely suited to help professional staff embrace the unknown, react appropriately in the moment, and enhance leadership skills.  When experts teach AIM techniques, it can stem the tide of staff resignations.

“Gone are the days of workers punching in and out day after day, year after year in jobs that don’t interest or excite them,” said Laura Lindenfeld, executive director of the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science and the Dean, School of Communication & Journalism at Stony Brook University in New York.

“Today, workers expect feelings of strong connection to their work and their colleagues. Applied improvisation can build strong teams by allowing individuals the opportunity to connect to each other, and to their professional interests and ambitions, in a way that is safe, engaging, and fun.”

AIM is a scientifically proven approach to address a wide range of organisational issues. In the past 20 years, academic studies have dramatically demonstrated AIM’s relevance in dealing with business situations related to ambiguity, collaboration, communication, and creativity. The experiential learning process has strong theatrical and comedic roots, and for good reason, as noted by Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “I’ve looked at many different types of teams, at a wider variety of organisations all over the world.  The group that communicated best, with everyone contributing and learning, wasn’t in a corporate office park; it was in an improv comedy class.”

But AIM is not comedy.  Since appearing as an academic field in the 1990s, research papers and anecdotal research illustrate how AIM programmes can improve key leadership competencies.  A recent study has established three base values and nine critical principles of AIM, which connect improvisational techniques with leadership theory.

Base values include active listening, and “say yes”. Improvisational principles are a bit more mysterious.  They include Awareness, Connections, Presence, Initiation, Agreement, Vulnerability, Simplicity, Value, and Creation.  These serve to influence one’s thinking and ultimately create practices that transform management behaviour.

All levels of management can leverage AIM. Executives learn techniques for improving their leadership, listening, and team-building skills and empowering those they lead. Middle managers hone their communication and problem-solving skills through improvisational techniques. Improving leadership has benefits for individuals and the organisation.

AIM’s core principle is that collaboration is of paramount importance, which means that the silo mentality and wariness that runs rampant in organisations have no value or purpose. In teaching leaders how to promote the sharing of information, AIM can increase productivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and foster the development of fresh and creative ideas.

Louis Petrovic, chairman of the Action Innovation Network, says there is a growing wariness across the board. Collaboration, communication and trust are required to maintain focus. Initiating this change can mean actual cost savings.

Reducing employee turnover expenses can provide a profitability boost. By removing silos and making an effort to recognise valuable contributions, an organisation will operate with greater effectiveness while retaining those directly contributing to the organisation’s mission.

When leaders make professional staff feel confident and empowered, the culture of intimidation diminishes. AIM programmes achieve improved collaboration by instructing staff how to create, enhance, and maintain an environment where ideas and opinions are considered.

“Saying yes” does not mean implementing bad ideas for the sake of inclusion; it means listening, and acknowledging another person’s position.

Since fear and lack of trust in management are common reasons for staff to quit, reducing friction in the workplace is a crucial incentive for professionals to remain committed to their work and the company.

Despite remote work providing clear value to employers, video conferencing presents its own set of challenges involving communication, inconsistent technology, and management techniques. Using Zoom and similar platforms to establish interpersonal relationships has a host of problems that cannot be solved, only dealt with.

Applied improvisation programmes held infrequently, but in-person, can build trust among professional staff, enhancing collaboration and refining communication skills.

In these troubling, ambiguous, and rapidly changing times, firms must innovate. Companies offering sign-on bonuses to attract new talent, and material goods to keep valuable workers, are missing the point.

All it takes is saying that initial “yes” to improving.