• Business Improv

When improv comedians take to the stage, they receive a suggestion from their audience and immediately begin performing. With no pre-planned material they begin making up scenes, characters and sometimes entire plays through the process of live collaboration. They are the masters of adaptability and teamwork, putting the needs of the ensemble before that of any of the individual egos on stage.

While this initially sounds like a thousand miles away from a company’s day to day activities, the skills of being adaptable and a team player are top of the list for businesses looking to thrive. So how can we apply the behaviours of improv performance to improv for business?

Presence

One of improv comedy’s major selling points is that ‘everything is ‘made up on the spot’, however this is only partially true. Even the best improvisers aren’t making up everything from a vacuum, they are taking inspiration from every single detail their partner gives them in a scene. Initially there is a great deal to be gathered from lines of dialogue, tone, inflection and tempo of speaking. The best improvisers go even deeper, noting the way their partner is standing, subtle facial expressions, everyone’s placement on the stage and of course the response from the audience. The best improvisers are like detectives, using all of the information around them to discover the scene in front of them as they make it up.

Improvisers can take in all this information by being present to everything that is going on around them. They cannot be inwardly planning their next move or else risk missing important details. Taking in and responding to these details gives them a compass for navigating in the unknown and allows them to make decisions in the best interest of the room.

Likewise, presence is vital in business. In environments in which people are sharing and developing ideas, our contributions are severely limited if we are not following the flow of information. Like in improvisation, presence expands beyond taking in the ideas at face value. It allows us to sense the tone and atmosphere surrounding our colleagues and clients. This allows us to respond even more effectively, giving us vital information about their attitude and where their enthusiasm lies. We can meet them at their level without missing their point or ruffling feathers.

Presence also expands to having an acute awareness of how our own actions and behaviour affect those around us. We can check in with ourselves to make sure we’re being open and receptive to those around the table and not be buried in our phone. No matter how good you are at multitasking, you are not truly present unless you are giving your undivided attention to those around you. Please leave checking your phone until rush hour like everyone else does.

Follow the follower

During improv rehearsals, groups often have creative directors or coaches who shape and outline goals for their shows and their development as a company. However once all of the performers get on stage this status evaporates. While the players are following previously established outlines, everyone has equal control in the direction that the show takes.

Every idea that presents itself onstage is committed to and developed. If the higher status group members start pulling rank and diverting away from where their team mates are going, we end up with an awkward tug of war that makes an audience yearn for the bar. The leadership roles are still of vital importance to the improviser but rank isn’t pulled arbitrarily.

Similarly, leaders are of exceptional value in the business world for providing direction but run into problems when authority is asserted to ‘remind everyone who’s boss’. It’s a status move that closes leaders off from everyone else to inflate the individual’s ego with the result of fracturing teams. It robs a company of the insight of everyone apart from the most senior members of the team, defeating the point of having a team at all.

To see this in practice, we’re going to look behind the scenes of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy. Prior to the failed mission, five engineers approached their superiors at NASA to ask that the launch be delayed due to a significant level of danger to the astronauts. These warnings were disregarded with NASA wanting to stick to their target of regular launches. Looking back at that day, Engineer Bob Ebeling explained that “[NASA] had their mind set on going up and proving to the world they were right and they knew what they were doing. But they didn’t.” The launch was a massive disaster and NASA’s hubris cost the lives of seven astronauts.

Mistakes like this don’t come from having leaders but from attaching too much stock to every one of their ideas. We don’t have to pretend that those on top of the hierarchy are infallible or that they are aware of every possible perspective. The US Navy’s flight team fully understands this and have their officers removes signifiers of rank before debriefing a mission. This removes status that might otherwise influence feedback for improvement and allows everyone to improve.

By levelling out the status in the room, everyone can bring their perspective to the table. A company opens itself up to approaching a problem from multiple different angles, allowing a fuller picture of the challenge at hand. We don’t want to get rid of leaders but we do need them to be good followers.

Disagree but commit

The first action in an improv scene is called the ‘initiation’. Whatever the initiation might be (as long as it doesn’t toe the line in taste and decency), it is always accepted and built on by the group. This happens regardless of any of the individual improviser’s initial personal judgement of the initiation. They have to discard thoughts about whether the initiation is interesting, clever or funny enough and instead commit to it.

If an improviser lets their personal judgement get the better of them and critique or u-turn the initiation, the collaboration is brought to a stand still and it becomes exceptionally difficult to continue building the scene. In short, the improvisers’ challenge is to commit to the idea as if it is their own.

As you may have discovered yourself, people are fantastic at disagreeing. In fact they are so good that they will continue to disagree long after it’s valuable to do so. After verbal disagreements, this will manifest as approaching a task half-heartedly, with low energy and folded arms.

This partly comes from the preservation of their ego. By signalling to everyone that they think the idea is a bad one, when it does end up failing they get to say that they were right all along. The gain is a hollow victory and a thoroughly unpleasant atmosphere for everyone in the room.

The fact of the matter is, the dissenting person may be correct. The idea that the team has decided on legitimately might fail and may not be the best possible option. However, approaching a task with a self-sabotaging mentality will mean it will never be as good as it could be.

Similarly to the improviser, the challenge here is to still have the same level of enthusiasm as if the idea was their own. After a certain point, disagreement unnecessarily slows a process down when a team needs to get down to hashing out the project.

Disagreement and honesty is of exceptional value but (similarly to leaders pulling rank), it is best served in appropriate and useful moments. We disagree to challenge and explore ideas as well as to bring our unique perspective to proceedings. However once the group has decided on a course of action, we commit to that idea as if it was our own. Remember that commitment does not mean agreement, instead it’s much more about our attitude and the energy we bring to the team.

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