Happy Accidents: The Transformative Power of "Yes, And" at Work and in Life

David Ahearn, Frank Ford & David Wilk

208 pages, Wiley, 2017

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Happy Accidents explores what we can learn from improv comedy about how to build on the power of open-mindedness, cultivate supportive relationships, and adopt a win-win mindset. Most of us, in an attempt to preserve our precious time, energy, and sense of control, often default to “no.” Yet this choice only closes the door to our growth. The secret is to add more “yes, and” to our lives. “Yes, and,” a well-known improv approach, allows us to reframe unexpected challenges as “happy accidents” that can help us get from where we are to where we want to be.

We at the Four Day Weekend Comedy Theater have learned the power of “yes, and” and happy accidents first hand. As leaders in the culture transformation and team empowerment field, we’ve gone from a simple idea and a six-hundred dollar investment in our improvisation and sketch comedy company 20 years ago to performing in nearly 6,000 shows and events, and operating one of the most successful comedy and corporate training organizations in the southwest. We’ve performed for two US presidents, armed forces abroad and military veterans at home, thousands of company professionals, management and leadership teams, teachers and students, and more.

There’s nothing quite like a monumental crisis to bring people together. There we were, about to perform at Fiserv Forum for 5,000 banking CEOs, presidents, and other high-level bankers at the Venetian in Las Vegas, when there, splattered all over the front pages of the New York Times, was the headline that read, “Lehman Collapse Sends Shockwave Around World.” None of the members of Four Day Weekend were bankers, and our knowledge of complex banking regulations was limited to having a free checking account. Yet we knew this was a potential crisis that could grind the US economy to a halt.

There are two things that can happen to an organization when crisis arises. It can take a splintered group and destroy it, or it can bring an organization closer together and ultimately make it stronger. Which tack the group takes depends on the leadership of the organization. Everyone gets scared when crisis arises. However, the best leaders let those they are leading know that everything is going to be okay. We always say there’s a big difference between saying a very frightened, or not assured “I don’t know” and saying a calm and confident “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out.”

For instance, once during the middle of a live show a gentleman had a stroke. We could hear murmurings of a problem during our performance, and then suddenly we heard the words no one ever really wants to hear: “We need a doctor!” Immediately, everyone could feel the uneasiness of the crowd as they wondered what was transpiring. Instead of panicking, everyone in the cast remained exceptionally calm and we called the necessary emergency caregivers to arrive to the theater to give aid to our patron. The gentleman was quickly taken out of the theater and brought to a nearby hospital, where medical professionals cared for him. In this situation, it was incumbent that we remain calm in the face of this very serious situation—and we did. The audience followed our lead, and the situation was handled quickly and without further problems.

And like any crisis, there was a silver lining and a happy accident to this gentleman having a stroke in our theater. His daughter had been a long-time fan of the show, and she had brought him to a live show. Obviously, no one wants to have a stroke; but had he been alone at home, as he usually was on a Saturday night, he may have not been discovered until the situation became even more dire. Because he had his stroke in our theater surrounded by people, he was able to immediately get medical attention.

Because the audience was so supportive and empathic of this man’s situation, we told our audience we were going to take a quick intermission to regroup, and then we would do an extended show for the remainder of the performance.

Something interesting happened following the intermission. As the second act began, we noticed that the cathartic laughter in the theater was especially boisterous. The energy was electric, and why was that? It was the pure healing release of tension and stress that manifested itself through laughter. We saw firsthand the healing qualities of laughter in the face of crisis. Crises do arise, and sometimes lightheartedness is needed to navigate those waters.

As we made our way through the remainder of 2008 and into 2009, the financial meltdown became one of the best disasters to bring us together. As America’s businesses ground to a halt and budgets became tighter, one of their first line items to be eliminated was the entertainment budget. Soon, much of the corporate work that we had grown so accustomed to doing was gone, leaving huge gaps in our booking calendar. Many Fortune 500 companies slashed their entertainment budgets, opting instead to have one of their own people emcee their events.

Although this temporarily hurt us financially, it soon became one of the happiest accidents of all. The dire financial situation gave us a lot of additional time on our calendar, and soon we found ourselves back in our theater working more on our live production for our weekly shows. We spent the time working to revamp the show with new material, and we worked on the theater facility to improve and repair some of the things that had been ignored due to our busy schedules. The theater improved, but most importantly the show improved because our relationships improved.

Once again, we found ourselves laughing and having fun doing the very thing we loved the most, and it was the reason why we got into this to begin with—our live show. Soon we found we were having more fun than ever, and it began showing in our live performances. Audiences looking for an escape found the Four Day Weekend Theater the perfect place to come to sit back, unwind, and have a good laugh. Believe it or not, in the midst of a crisis we began having the time of our lives again. We were loving what we were doing.

America felt frightened and scared by the financial meltdown, and many people sought refuge in laughter. People were so bogged down by the persistent drumbeat of bad news day in and day out that many searched for some sort of fun in their life. Four Day Weekend provided that.

We knew people needed a break, and we took steps to avoid talking about the bad news in our show and become the healing salve of laughter that they were seeking. We helped our audiences get some relief from the bad news. Countless times after shows people would come up to us and say, “Thank you for the laughs. I really needed it.” We were seeing the transformative power of our Four Day Weekend mission statement, “healing through laughter.”

A leader’s job starts when crisis begins. When your team is doing well and things are rolling along nicely, the best thing you can do is to step back and allow your team to shine. The time a leader is needed the most is when your team begins to struggle. A great leader jumps in and guides the team out of the choppy waters of the sea, and like Captain Smith of the Titanic, a leader’s job is to ride the ship all the way down if that is what is meant to happen. There is a very big difference between a leader who says, “Charge that hill” and the leader who says, “Follow me, we are charging that hill.”

In improvisation, we call this the “hotspot.” In improvisation when a scene is going poorly, an inexperienced improviser will stand on the sideline in fear and say, “Well, that scene is sucking. No way I am going into that one.” A seasoned improviser sees fellow improvisers in the “hotspot,” and the experienced improviser says, “They are in trouble. I need to get in and help out.” If things are going well, we step back and let our fellow improvisers shine—and only when we are needed do we enter a scene.

This is true of great leaders as well. The “hotspot” is a term we use to identify crisis. The “hotspot” is where very few people feel comfortable residing because it implies danger. Things are not operating as they normally do, and this often creates paralysis in people. Leaders recognize this and see opportunity in the “hotspot”. Great entrepreneurs use the “hotspot” to gain an advantage.

Slowly, the economy recovered and US corporations began getting a little bit of flexibility in their budgets again. One of the beautiful happy accidents that occurred was that companies began to see new value in what we added to their corporate functions. … Our phones began ringing again as companies began reinvesting in live entertainment because they saw value in what Four Day Weekend brought to the table. Prior to the collapse, we were viewed as a luxury expense; after companies did one conference—and in some case two conferences—without professional entertainment, they discovered our fee was not a luxury but a necessity for conveying their very important business messages.

Our calendar slowly began filling in again, and soon we were making our way back out on the road to perform corporate events. Post-collapse, we saw a different paradigm in corporate functions. More and more companies wanted to bring the fun back into work after the frightening times of the last 18 months. Many companies realized the inherent value of investing in fun for their employees. Statistics show that an energized workforce that’s having fun is a more productive workforce. The attitude became, “If we can survive the Great Recession, we can do anything.”

In addition to better communicating the value add of our live entertainment services, the downturn also forced us to create new services in continuing education. This included keynote speaking, team-building workshops, and new employee training. We found that these educational services were not seen as a luxury item but as a necessity for a company in an ever-changing economic climate. As a result, it was much easier to justify a budget for this, and our continuing education offerings have outpaced our private live performance bookings three to one! That area of our business is now the fastest-growing part of incoming revenue streams.

Perception is everything in life. The economic collapse was by all accounts just shy of calamitous, and there was little any of us could do about it. For Four Day Weekend, we could go back to what we did the best, making people laugh, while we weathered the storm. We concentrated on our live show and did everything we could to see the proverbial silver lining around the storm cloud. We didn’t have the luxury of hindsight at the time, so it was often difficult seeing the happy accident in all of this. But continued success requires patience. We must have faith in what we are doing and allow things to align for our success to take hold. Do the work you can and let things happen, as they will.

We couldn’t see that the economic collapse would actually prove our value to companies in the corporate circuit. In our minds at the time, we considered that the corporate segment of our business might be gone forever. The words “next great depression” were being uttered daily, and we were thankful that we had our live theater operation to keep us afloat.

Happy accidents wait for those who keep moving through the darkness. You either adapt or die. We must only be able to do the work that is necessary and trust that things will work out in our favor if we work hard and keep a positive mind-set.