Sunday, February 12, 2012

How a newsroom is like a hit comedy

If you are running a news organization, you have much in common with the coach of a sports team, the director of a ballet or the producer of a hit comedy. The issues are the same. 
  • Motivating people.
  • Encouraging creativity.
  • Developing people's talent to its highest level.
  • Maintaining the discipline to meet deadlines and stay within a budget.
  • Continually surprising fans.
So I found the book "Bossypants" by Tina Fey rich with lessons for people whose success depends on organizing and harnessing the talent of creative people. She is famous for her work as a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live" (Weekend Update, Sarah Palin impression) and as writer, producer and performer on the hit comedy "30 Rock."

No mistakes

For news editors faced with hourly deadlines, she has some good advice: "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; the show goes on because it's 11:30" [the broadcast time of "Saturday Night Live"]. For journalists, that means do the best you can in the time you have. Meet the highest standards. If you can't verify the juicy detail, leave it out. You can always work it in on the rewrite.

Her Rules of Improvisation are also relevant. These are principles she learned while working in the Second City acting troupe that specializes in improv comedy and they could apply to running any organization, including a family. Here are three of them:

"The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you're improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we're improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That's not a gun, that's your finger. You're pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas, you bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.... Start with A YES and see where that takes you. As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can't do that. No, that's not in the budget. No I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of a way is that to live?" 
To me, agree means to see if you can find a way to help the other person get what he or she wants. Starting from this point means you will always have to ask a lot of questions because there will be dozens of reasons why a really creative proposal cannot be done within the limits of your organization. You will need to be a good listener. 
"The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can't believe it's so hot in here,” and you say, “Yeah.....” we're kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can't believe it's so hot in here, “ and you say, “What did you expect? We're in hell.” Or if I say, “I can't believe it's so hot in here,” and you say, Yes, this can't be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can't believe it's hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog's mouth,” now we're getting somewhere.To me YES, AND means don't be afraid to contribute. It's your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile."
 Even if the idea offered by someone else is not yours, you can still have the satisfaction of contributing and make yourself valuable if you build on that idea. If you can't be the star, find a way to make yourself indispensable to the star. 
"THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I'm a hamster in a hamster wheel. I'm not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up being a police hamster who's been put on a “hamster wheel” duty because I'm “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents."
As the boss, you should create an environment where mistakes are learned from, not dwelt upon. The easiest way to do that is focus on the future. "All right, we got beat on that story; what can we do to beat our competitors next time or avoid getting beat again." Be optimistic, upbeat. People will love to work with you. 

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