Start with a YES and see where it takes you – Adopting the ‘Rules of Improvisation’ in School Leadership

My only experience of a live improvisation show was in Paris in 2000. An English ‘group’ featuring the legendary Tony Slattery and Stephen Frost were in town for 2 shows.

I had not thought about this for years until a few weeks ago when a colleague approached me with an idea to which my immediate reaction was YES. This sparked a long distant memory of that night in Paris and somebody explaining to the audience the ‘rules of improvisation’; rules that could be employed as a great guide by school administrators.

The recurring 5 ‘rules of improvisation’ seems to be:

  • Start with a YES and see where it takes you
  • Say YES followed by AND
  • Don’t block
  • There are no mistakes only opportunities
  • You can look good if you make your partner look good

Responding with an immediate YES had the powerful impact of validating my colleagues idea, while also confirming to her that as an administrator I was instantly fully supportive of her and her vision.

The Yes followed by ‘AND’ also moved the idea forward, and gave the sense that there was now a team approach to this idea, providing instant support and removing any sense of isolation.

Now obviously we’ll have to talk about time, budget, space, resources and all of the other factors that will play a part in this idea becoming a reality – but it is incredible how passionate people who are given support are able to make ideas work within, and despite, the ‘constraints’ of logistics.

By starting with YES we have created an opportunity to do something great – logistics are easy after that. Blocking any idea because of issues that might arise places policies and logistics before ideas and innovation, and that is a recipe for mediocrity.

Ideas often don’t work, they often fail spectacularly, but embracing and celebrating failures as loudly as you celebrate successes turns ‘failure’ into opportunities for improvement – and models to the whole school that failure is encouraged as long as lessons are learnt.

The last rule explained to us on that snowy Paris night was ‘You can look good if you make your partner look good’. Most of us don’t try new things to make ourselves look good, however as admin we must support and celebrate the work of people willing to try new things and take a risk; by doing so we support our best staff and show the whole community that we are always striving to be better. Giving our staff the credit they deserve for their ideas and innovations also makes the whole community look good.

When ‘Yes… and see where it takes you’ is your first response you create a culture of innovation and risk taking across your whole organisation, giving credibility to those wanting to push the boundaries, and creating a culture of growth that all schools need.

The rules of improvisation are a pretty good starting point to make all of this happen.

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