Saying Yes to the Mess – The Improvisational Mindset of Frank J. Barrett

In the midst of change (large or small), our natural instinct is often to try to control the chaos and the mess.

What if instead of fighting it, we said yes to this mess?

This question and more is one posed by author and professor Frank Barrett in his new book, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.”

His approach is one we might recognize, as the author of “Appreciative Inquiry – a Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.

We can safely say he is a fan of the tenants of Improvisation and Positive Psychology and their application to leadership and management.

This Improvisational mindset is one we’ve discussed:

  1. Face the mess
  2. Learn to take action with incomplete information – you can’t always stop and problem solve
  3. Build affirmative competence by learning how to respond in the moment
  4. Solo and Support – Learn to play both roles, let others shine, while following your instincts.

Learn more from Barrett in this insightful interview here!

On change, and choice and new beginnings

Just make a choice.

“Ambivalence and timidness are the death of an improviser on stage.  Since everything is made up, you just have to make a decision and go with it.  Once you make a decision, it’s up to you and your scene partner to go with it and make it work.  In life, we don’t get things done because we haven’t decided what we want, and until we do, we’ll never be able to achieve it.  Make a choice, that’s the start.” – unknown

In this blog we’ve talked about commitment, “the polite dance” , strong choices, and accepting whatever is in front of you.

We’ve talked about risk and change and applying a “yes, and” mindset in our work and our lives.

Many of us have that gut feeling, the one where we know it’s time for a change but we can’t quite pull the trigger. Has this happened to you? Wise scholars and song lyrics say that change is inevitable, but when true ‘change’ feels like a choice, between taking a big risk or staying safe, between embracing what scares us and enjoying what comforts us, it’s easy to waver.

When change is a choice, how can we be sure we’re making the right one?

Here’s what I know. Embracing change, whether it is at work or at home is hardly ever easy. When change is forced upon us, we go along with it, and seek a manual to navigate us through it.

When change, or something new, is ours to decide, both in the amount and scope, we don’t often get to read the manual.

We make a choice and we go with it. We improvise, scared as we may be.  Because in Improv we know that whatever choice we make will be the right one, we’ve got the tools to make it so.

A new way to think of change

In an Improv scene, a movie, a story, or a great presentation we find resolution by completing this sentence,

 “and ever since that day”…

What changed?

This change is brought about by what we call a tilt. Something a character says, does, expresses, and admits to, etc in a scene.

It is our goal in an Improv scene to be open to change and to actively seek it. This change then answers the question, “what was different about this day”.

As innovators, creative problem-solvers, leadership coaches, managers, trainers, and facilitators we push positive change.

“And ever since that day”….

The tilt, the catalyst for change, comes from being hyper-aware to what offers and ideas have already been expressed. What is around us that we can use? What are our characters feeling, expressing, and wanting and what honest reactions and desires can we pull from to help our characters organically grow and evolve?

We can think of it this way:

Once there was…
And every day…
Until one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that…
Until finally…
And ever since that day…

Improvisers want to be changed. The static scene and character that stays the same from beginning to end is not our friend.

To embrace change is to ask… “and ever since that day”… and to see the world of possibilities that appear when we making even one small tilt pushes us in a direction we couldn’t have predicted.

The organization of the future – where failure is an option

Last week, San Francisco hosted the Wisdom 2.0 Business conference – a gathering dedicated to harnessing the innovative mindset at work and creating the conditions for innovation to occur.

Key to this  mindset is having the courage to fail.

The definition of failure is changing and innovative companies of the future believe failure is an option, a necessity.

Organizations of the future will focus on what failure builds, instead of what it destroys.

Organizations of the future believe you can  train the courage to fail, and the ability to manage fear around that “failure”.

But it all starts with the organizational mindset.

Training the courage to fail is something I learned (and still actively practice) in Improv classes.

It was there I learned:

  1. How to fail happily, visibly, and how to embrace failure
  2. How to view mistakes as gifts and use it in a productive fashion
  3. How to use a failure mindset or mistakes as a way to gain trust, connection, and support across a team
  4. The more risks I take, and the more I fail – the more I learn, grow, change, improve.
  5. How to own up to my mistakes and to not be afraid to try again.

I was trained on how to fail. But, I was in an environment where failure was an option so my learning and development was accelerated.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better. But make sure the failure mindset you train extends outside the classroom.



How to foster a culture of courage and creativity – the results

The improv-based learning initiatives at have received wonderful praise and publicity, and most recently this write-up in Fast Company.

Management wanted innovation and big ideas. The question was, how to jump-start it?

CEO Doug Leeds took a cue from Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which points out how improvisation can lead to more creative thinking and innovation. “[Leeds had} seen it sprinkled in other management books, but that was the tipping point to really investigate.”

He admits, there was some initial concern and fear – but quickly learned Improvisation was not about teaching people to be funny, or jump on stage a la “Whose Line is It Anyway”. Instead, Improvisation lays a foundation for a trusting, supportive, engaged and creative work environment by teaching the basic Improv principles and applying them to their specific work environment.

The result:  “Folks said it was the most impactful training session in their entire career…The bonds of trust and common skill set and language of improv allow us to come together … There’s a sense of trust and when you feel safe all kinds of amazing things emerge.”

How to celebrate Leap Day literally

Let’s pretend, just for a moment,  what would happen if “Leap Day” branded itself, hired a marketing team and became known around the world as a “magical extra day dedicated to taking leaps, jumps, risks and chances”.

Sure, some TV shows may make fun (I’m looking at you beloved “30 Rock”), but what a day this could be: a day dedicated to all the things we wanted to do, but were too scared and so many of the experiences we’d like to have but kept putting off or piling the excuses on instead.

If taking risks and chances were celebrated and encouraged, or even mandated,  instead of feared… what leaps would you make?

Yes, sometimes these leaps are forced upon us, and when this happens we don’t often want a “leap day” to remind us that we should really be taking more chances.

Maybe instead, what we need are reminders about all of the great, unexpected, sometimes challenging, yet always rewarding learning experiences that come from taking leaps. If we can change our mindset, we have the power to accept, encourage and embrace leaps and change.

If this could become our mindset, I’d vote for Leap Day to be celebrated every year, or every month, or even every day.

When we leap, we can choose to focus on what could go wrong, or what could go right. When we leap and don’t know where we are headed, we can learn to embrace the unknown, respect it, and yes, even enjoy it.

After all, change is necessary.  Complete control is impossible. Our happiness, and perhaps our success as individuals and as companies depends on our ability to make friends with the unknown.

Celebrate leap day. Use your instincts, trust, patience and hard work to navigate the uncertainty and the feeling of risk, no matter how small. I can tell you… you’ll face the next day stronger, smarter, more confident, and yes, a day older.

What will you do today to change the world?

“What will you do today to change the world?” – read a morning text message from one of my best friends, Marc Harris.

It’s a daily exercise between friends on opposite coasts of the United States and a daily drill I’m very grateful for.

We share small to-do’s, accomplishments, or random acts of kindness back and forth via text message. Each day it makes me smile.

He and I are on similar journeys in different cities. We met 4 years ago in a early level Improv class in San Francisco, went on to co-found an Improv troupe and spent years playing, laughing, and leading an ensemble together.

We both work in learning and development and both have big dreams and goals.

This exercise reminds us that even if we didn’t change the whole world today, we were still capable of making a small, positive difference.   It reminds us to focus on the here and now, to keep things in perspective and to keep moving when it’s so easy to feel restless and eager to teach, facilitate and reach as many people as possible.

No matter the goal, there are small changes and acts we can commit to making each day. Having someone in your life to help keep you accountable, motivated, and focused is a wonderful tool that anyone can add to their toolbox.