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Managing The Unexpected


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation

When Dan Pink joined us on The Second City Works Podcast, he quoted a line that Bob Sutton used, “Fight like you’re right, listen like you’re wrong.” When we taped our podcast with Bob Sutton (which we will post next Tuesday), he told us the quote was originally from Karl Weick, an organizational theorist who has written a number of books and is currently a professor at the University of Michigan.

I picked up Weick’s book Managing The Unexpected that he wrote with Kathleen Sutcliffe back in 2001. In looking at how businesses can either thrive or be undone by internal and external forces, Weick and Sutcliffe propose a kind of Rosetta Stone for corporate governance whose framing device is incredibly similar to the constructs of improvisation.

In a study of success, they observe the structures and behaviors that exists on the flight decks of various aircraft carriers. The authors write:

“One pattern that seemed to recur was a sustained focus on small failures, less abstract specifics, ongoing operations, alternative pathways to keep going, and the mobilization of expertise.”

But this isn’t all of it – because different aircraft carriers can operate, well, a little differently, The authors note:

“The variety within this pattern came from local customizing that produced meaningful practices that did not compromise the adaptive capacity that the pattern generated.”

Small failures were recognized and baked into the process – so that big failures never happened; there was an emphasis on specifics as well as a tending to the ongoing practices; because flux is a constant, there existed a culture where alternative choices were embraced; and information was never withheld – it traveled.

Further, respecting that every carrier would naturally have differences within culture or style or tone – those differences were supported – as long as they didn’t put the core at risk. The core had to remain adaptive in real time.

Weick and Sutcliffe give plenty of examples of how the collapse of these patterns are center in the collapse of banks, railroads and other institutions.

So much of this starts with a person or an institution’s orientation. The improvisational mindset is one in which obstacles and mistakes are constantly looming, so we develop practices to use and incorporate them in the least risky moments. It would be inexplicable to enter a scene otherwise – with the assumption that everything will work out, step by step, line by line.

But so many people and businesses do just that – they assume logic, competency, stasis.

Weick and Sutcliff use the term “Mindful Organizing.” They cite the orientation and behavioral structures  that successful organizations follow on a regular basis:

“Turning flux into circumstances, turning circumstances into a comprehensible situation, turning comprehension into a direction and an intention, and turning those intentions into their realization.”

This is exactly how The Second City has used improvisation to create content for nearly sixty years.

why improv


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