Managing Change: Improvise through the Threshold

Oct 22, 2015 Managing Change the Second City Works


by Kevin Frank and Sandy Marshall
October 22, 2015


At Second City Works, the innovative business arm of the world famous Second City, we’re proud to return as a supporter of TEDx Toronto: this year focusing on the theme of “Threshold”:

“Each day, humanity crosses technological, political, scientific and environmental thresholds
with far-reaching consequences we may not yet understand.”

We got to thinking about the notion of crossing a threshold, and what it might mean in terms of improvisation — and how moving through change demands confidence, agility, and openness. To win over audiences without the aid of a plan or script, Second City improvisers lean on bold action, a comfort with ambiguity, and the absolute trust of the ensemble in order to succeed under pressure.

With this in mind, we thought we’d share 3 ways to incorporate improvisational techniques when managing transformation in the world of business — specifically, focusing on empathy and authenticity to enhance 1-1 conversations during times of change:


  1. Support Your Ensemble

Everyone feels they can contribute new ideas. The real challenge is being open to everyone else’s ideas. Your peers might not be inclined to contribute if they feel their ideas won’t be valued or accepted with an open mind. To get over this hurdle, create an environment of support. At The Second City, our ensembles begin every show with a simple ritual of huddling backstage and patting each other’s backs while saying “I got your back,” fostering an environment that will give everyone permission to add to the process on stage without judgement — which leads to a wealth of ensemble-originated creative rewards.

Focus on peer support input in a trusting environment. The outcome will take care of itself.


  1. Be “Others Focused”

When you listen to understand – and not just to respond – you’re completely present and related to what the other person is saying. Rapport and connection flow naturally from this type of listening. Practice “Active Listening” by actively setting aside your agenda to be fully available for another person moment by moment. Eye contact and nodding demonstrates you are listening and you value their input. Using words you’re hearing in your response clearly demonstrates your listening and understanding.

Set aside your agenda and be available.

  1. Change can be scary. Start to like it.

Going through the threshold means becoming more comfortable with ambiguity and the notion of failure. We run an exercise where we set-up teams and give them a simple task. As they’re performing the task, we interrupt and introduce a small change in the rules. Moments later we switch a few team members and finally after 10 minutes we rotate team captains. There’s a clear evolution of how the teams handle the changes. The first change, although the simplest, is also the most disruptive. The last change is handled in stride and does not negatively impact the outcome.

Change gets easier as time goes on.


When managing change, avoid globalizing to solve all the world’s problems in a single breath. Incorporate the improv tenant and “bring a brick, not a cathedral” — you don’t have to have all the answers when initiating a change or following your fear. By holding back your ideas because of a “fear of being wrong,” you’re depriving the rest of your team from the inspiration to create something new. New things are always on the way, and you need to stay in front of it. (On this great episode of “The Backline” podcast, Toronto Second Citizens Rob Norman and Adam Cawley talk about this notion of fear and crossing the threshold of the unknown, stating that “Doing things that scare you will help you grow…”)


So what’s The Bottom Line?

Philosopher John Dewey said: “The universe is in a constant state of flux.” Resisting change means going against the basic laws of physics. Accepting the change that happens opens the possibility of infinite outcomes.


Focusing on others and accepting their input will ensure that you’ll stay out front of change, and use it as your competitive edge.


Kevin Frank (@KWalterFrank) is the Artistic Director of the Second City Training Centre (@SecondCityTC). Sandy Marshall (@MarshallSandy) is Vice President at Second City Works (@SecondCityWorks). #MakeWorkBetter.