• Improv techniques for business

Improvisers are the masters of dealing with change. Ideas are developed thick and fast every performance, with the players remaining in a state of constant innovation. Communicating effortlessly; and at times seemingly telepathically, they weave together a brand new performance as a team.

While this looks like magic, improvisers are using a set of techniques that they have learned through training. Through rehearsal, improvisers practice to become experts in the fields of dealing with change, innovation and communication. These techniques are not only applicable to the stage but also apply to create agile thinkers, which is why we use them in our improv training for business workshops.

So you can start working more like an improviser, here are 5 improv techniques for business that you can start applying right now!

1. Active listening

Listening sounds like the most basic of all skills but how often do we really listen? A commonplace example of poor listening skills takes place at the pub after work. One of your colleagues will be telling a funny or interesting story and everyone will look like they’re listening intently. However the truth of the matter is that by the halfway point in the story everyone at the table is thinking of their own funny or interesting story to share. As your colleague finishes their story, everyone around the table nearly spills their drink in rushing to be the first person to talk: “Great story! That reminds me of something that happened to me…” That’s not good listening, that’s waiting to talk.

This happens much less obviously when we’re communicating at work but it’s still just as prevalent. Often when we say we’re listening, really what we’re talking about is preparing our own response. By formulating a response as the person is speaking, we feel we’ll remove any awkward silences and give ourselves extra thinking time to create a better reply. However this is back to front thinking, how can we adequately respond if we’re not actually fully listening to what they’ve just said?

When we’re not taking on board everything a colleague or client is giving us, we end up imposing our own agenda rather than looking at what they actually need. Next time you’re in a situation like this, instead of pre-planning your response, give yourself permission to just listen. See how much more information you find yourself able to work with and how it affects your ability to directly respond. As a bonus, see how many times you catch yourself swapping from listening to pre-planning mode. We think you’ll be surprised at how much that tally tots up throughout the day!

2. Respond honestly

Allowing ourselves to be obvious or average sounds exceptionally counterintuitive as a business technique but this is how improvisers allow a free flow of ideas to occur in live collaboration. Our inner critic is often a powerful barrier in any collaborative process, preventing us from contributing as our ideas aren’t ‘interesting’, ‘good’ or ‘clever’ enough. It’s stifling and sets an unrealistic expectation for your own contribution.

Imagine we are building a cathedral. We do so by building it brick by brick. Through an iterative process of placing the bricks we end up with a beautiful cathedral. However if we were told that we had to bring the cathedral immediately in a single step, we’d baulk at the idea. This is what we’re doing whenever we let our self-critic win. We expect more of ourselves than bringing the next brick, which consequently means we bring nothing at all.

Instead, suggest what you believe to be a potential next logical step in a project or an idea, rather than waiting for the pie in the sky perfect finished article to pop into your head.

3. Yes And

The improviser’s golden rule is to ‘yes and’ ideas that are given to us. The ‘yes’ refers to agreement with the other party. The ‘and’ refers to building on top of that agreement. This is how improvisers build ideas quickly and efficiently, vital for when they are performing live on stage. It’s worth noting that applying ‘yes and’ to business doesn’t lead to flippancy, instead we use it to defer judgement and build concepts quicker.

When a new idea is on the table, we feel like we’re doing a service to the group by pointing out problems. It comes from a good place, after all we don’t want to devote resources to an untested idea. However there is a tendency to say no far too early into the process, killing fledgling ideas before they’ve had a chance to develop. This also sets a precedent that every idea needs to be fully formed and bullet proof before we can even begin to mention it. These high expectations don’t inspire a group, instead they leave everyone terrified of judgement.

Next time a new idea comes out in a meeting, identify what’s good in the idea and press forward instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water. We can never call ourselves innovative if we never give new ideas a chance.

4. Using your individuality

Individuality is a term that is thrown around as a valuable asset to teamwork but it often feels lost in the day to day workings of a company. In improvisation the players are constantly working together as a team but their uniqueness is still of the utmost importance. If they don’t bring their unique perspective into the show, the performance becomes one dimensional and shallow. So how can we bring this combination of teamwork and uniqueness into the business world?

Honesty is of utmost importance here. While we talked about improv’s golden rule being ‘yes and’ that does not mean we strive for teams full of ‘yes people’. The ‘yes’ is to do with our attitude in how we approach problems, with positivity and commitment regardless of whether it was our idea or not. The ‘and’ is where we can bring our individuality, we use our unique perspective to suggest directions to go, giving a team options so they can pick what sounds like the best course of action.

Individuality does not mean selfishness, it gives a team another potential angle and skill set in which to approach a project.

5. Treating mistakes as gifts

Improvisers embrace mistakes. They are valued as a learning opportunity but also as an unexpected detail that can be weaved into the tapestry of the scene they create onstage. It can lead to the funniest moments when a misspoken line becomes a new material for improvisers to play with and explore.

The difficulty in applying this into the business world is that mistakes are highly stigmatised. This happens in spite of the fact that we know that no one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Improvisation embraces this fact. Improv doesn’t teach us to avoid mistakes but rather to change our attitude towards them.

Consider the attitude of mistakes in the field of scientific research. Science is fundamentally built on mistakes. We test assumptions by putting them in situations where there is the possibility of failure. Without the possibility of failure, there is no value in a scientific experiment, the outcome was so vague and closed off that the experiment was a waste of time.

Penicillin was quite literally discovered due to a mistake. One of Alexander Fleming’s samples was contaminated with a mould due to his carelessness. Instead of throwing it away he examined it causing a massive leap forward in medicine. A more directly applicable example comes from the way that Dyson operates. Through iterative attempts on different designs, they are constantly testing and improving their products. The amount of failed prototypes far outnumbers that of the successful ones but these successes are only possible due to the sheer number of attempts.

Penalising mistakes doesn’t stop people making them, it just causes people to hide their mistakes, robbing a corporation of the opportunity to learn from them. The airline industry has fully embraced this philosophy with their creation of the black box.

Every airplane contains a black box which contains all of the inflight data, monitoring every intricate detail of the journey including an audio recording of the conversations in the cockpit. In the unfortunate event of an airplane crash, the black box is recovered and the information is openly shared and analysed. From looking at the data, experts are able to identify any potential mistakes which caused the crash and then use this information to change procedure to minimise the future risk. This open attitude to mistakes is a large part of the airline industry’s success and exceptionally low mortality rate.

Changing your attitude towards mistakes opens you up to opportunities of unlimited potential. Next time your team makes a mistake, as opposed to starting a witch hunt, turn it into a scientific investigation that will benefit the entire team.

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