Why I think improv is the perfect training ground for business

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A lot is being written currently about the lessons improvisation (or ‘improv’) has to teach people in business. Matt Matheson’s ‘Church of Fail’ (a work practice that embraces failure and learning through a blend of improv, theatre and business logic) was recently featured on the Virgin podcast, and Fast Company published an article last month about why top companies and MBAs are teaching improv.

So what is it about the theatrical form of improv that’s so relevant to the world of work? Never one to shy away from a new experience, I decided to sign up for an eight-week improv course with Monkey Toast to find out.

What is improv?

Put simply, improvisation is creating something spontaneously or without preparation. The course I took teaches a type of improv called ‘long form’. Long improv players are able to take a word from the audience and spin it out into a scene or collection of scenes that might last forty five minutes.

Unlearning for a new business environment

We’re all natural improvisers — we don’t script our everyday lives. And yet we spend most of our childhood and adult years practising how not to improvise. We’re conditioned to value thinking, reflecting, being polite, and planning. A huge part of improv training, especially at level one, is unlearning all of this.

I’m currently reading ‘Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World’ by General Stanley McChrystal who led the transformation of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He realised his team was no match for the speed and agility of the Al-Qaeda. They ended up having to unlearn a century of conventional wisdom and become instead a network that combined transparent communication with decentralised decision-making authority. McChrystal argues that organisations everywhere are facing the same challenges. When the landscape is complex and unpredictable,“adaptability, not efficiency, must become our new central competency.”

On an improv stage, you have no way of predicting what the audience is going to suggest or what your scene partner is going to do or say. You cannot plan in improv and therefore it requires a huge amount of discipline to be completely present, listening and noticing what’s happening, and responding in the moment. In his book, McChrystal describes this as a kind of ‘shared consciousness’. The necessary conditions are trust and a shared sense of purpose. Sounds a lot like the necessary conditions for a positive work culture, right?

So let me share some improv principles and their parallels to the business world.

1. Everything is an offer.

One of the most basic principles in improv is agreement. This doesn’t mean you have to literally agree with someone, it means that you take what someone gives you and build on it. You might have heard of the “yes, and” concept. Try it in a meeting — whatever someone says, respond with “yes, and…” before you add your own words. It might feel unnatural at first, but you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to generate new ideas this way. Innovation never came from “yes, but…”.

In an improv scene, whatever someone gives you — a word, a look, an action — is an offer, a gift. Something for you to take and turn into something amazing, like building a beautiful cathedral brick by brick.

“Discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what
no one else has thought.”

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

2. Generative listening.

If everything is an offer, you need to really listen to receive it. Generative listening is being talked about more and more these days in the context of leadership and coaching. It involves being truly present, letting go of preconceptions and ego, and seeing what emerges together. Improv is great practice for this because you’re building a scene entirely in the moment, allowing your subconscious to respond to whatever stimulus your scene partner gives you.

The most skilled improvisers are able to listen with their emotions and pick up minute details of non-verbal behaviour to move a scene forward. One activity we do to practice this skill is pausing for three seconds after a line to ask the following questions internally before responding:

  • What have I learned?
  • What haven’t I learned?
  • How can I move it forward?

You’ll notice the questions aren’t about judgment. It’s not “what do I think?”, just “what have I learned?”, in other words: what have I received?

3. Treat others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists, and they will be.

This comes from a book called ‘Truth in Comedy’ by Del Close, the man widely regarded as the father of improv. It builds on the notion of ‘everything is an offer’ because it means trusting your scene partner implicitly and never judging their idea.

The industrial era built companies on the assumption that employees are stupid and lazy and must be managed. Today progressive companies like Buurtzorg, Semco and FAVI have proved that’s utter nonsense. I often ask HR Directors: what their policies and guidelines would look like if they believed their employees were intelligent, responsible and creative? “Very different,” is the general consensus. If leaders presuppose people are excellent, they won’t feel the need to micromanage but instead will concentrate on creating an environment in which that person can thrive.

4. There is no such thing as a mistake.

This is another soundbite from Del Close. Treating others as if they are poets, geniuses and artists isn’t too difficult; treating ourselves as these things is harder. A big part of improv training is learning not to hear the voice of judgment that tells you, “that idea is s**t”. If you mispronounce a word or do something ‘wrong’, your scene partner accepts it and builds on it. Many a hilarious scene has been born out of what we would consider an error in the real world. In improv we celebrate f**k ups.

When mistakes in organisations are taboo or forbidden, it’s bad news. The reality is, mistakes happen so you can either create a culture where they’re shared and learned from, or create a culture of fear and unconscious incompetence.

5. Make a choice.

London Business School Professor Julian Birkinshaw believes we are in the ‘post-knowledge’ era where the biggest scarce resources are: decisive action and emotional conviction (I wrote about it in this blog).

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These two things are precisely what we practice in improv training. When your scene partner says or does something, you can make a passive choice or an active choice. A passive choice is one that takes what someone’s given you and builds on it by taking it forward.

My improv teacher Lauren say, “be in the scene you want to be in.” If you judge someone’s idea and feel like you’re in a dull scene, you’re responsible for that. You can make a choice that makes it a scene you do want to be in. The same is true of leadership. If we play the victim of circumstance, we’re unlikely to get the outcome we want.

Our world has become increasingly complex and the most important skill is adaptability. I’ve learned that improv is the perfect space to practice this skill as well as many other valuable work and life skills like listening, being decisive, and being innovative.

And, of course, it’s a huge amount of fun! I haven’t said much about the comedy element of improv but there’s actually a lot of science about the power of humour as a tool for learning (and the benefits of humour at work in general). So if you’re thinking about what to invest in next in terms of personal development, why not try improv?

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Written by

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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