New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Building Blocks

I was talking to attorney Ken Jacobs, a partner at Smith Buss & Jacobs, about house rules when the subject of improvisation came up. It was a strange juxtaposition of subjects because improv (as popularized by the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?) seems to be the polar opposite of house – or any other – rules. Improv looks to be about managed chaos.

But improv has its own set of rules, which boards in co-ops and condos could heed if they want to try a fresh approach to governance. I should know: not only have I been on my board for 22 years, but I have studied and performed improvisation since 1981, have taught it since 1987, and even co-wrote a book (with Carol Schindler) on the subject, A Doctor & A Plumber in a Rowboat: The Essential Guide to Improvisation.

What does improv have to do with cooperative and condominium life? The simple answer is it can make you more flexible in decision-making and open you up to new ideas that you might otherwise have missed. It all comes down to one word: yes. The first thing you learn when studying improvisation is to accept all “offers” (offers are anything that you receive from a fellow improviser). It takes people a while to learn this, and it’s a different headset from what we experience in the world where most tend to resist new ideas and be judgmental. This is very common with beginners but not surprising. Saying “no” is a way for a person to keep control, to stop the action from moving forward into the unknown.

A key corollary to saying “yes” is the concept of “Yes and…” Imagine two people building a house. One puts in a brick, and then his partner puts in another brick. Each keeps adding “bricks” until the house is built. That’s saying “yes and.” Doing that changes it from being your idea or my idea to being our idea (and isn’t that what cooperative living is about?) The opposite scenario occurs when someone says, “No.” This is like having one person put in a brick, which is then replaced by someone else’s brick, and so on. Nothing gets done, and the “house” is never built.

In short, when you say “yes and” to new ideas, you have more of an opportunity to discover new approaches to a problem. When co-op board member Francisco Di Blasi, an international management consultant, offered himself as the man to take over an extensive roof garden at 245 East 24th Street, the board might have felt justified in turning him down. After all, he seemed an unlikely candidate for gardener. Yet the members noted his passion for the subject (and his childhood care of plants in his father’s garden), and said, “Yes.” Five years later, the garden is a thriving, valuable amenity. All because they said, “Yes.”

Jacobs, the attorney, has actually used this principle (unknowingly), when he advises his co-op clients to be flexible when dealing with those who break the house rules. “Any solution is preferable to a legal proceeding,” he says. “If the board of directors can work something out privately with a shareholder to solve the problem, that is clearly better.”

I’m not saying that improv is the answer to every problem. But it can help open you up to new ideas. Before you say, “No way – that’s crazy,” try saying “yes and.” You may be surprised at the results.


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