‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ hit our screens in September 1988, making the likes of Paul Merton, Tony Slattery and Josie Lawrence household names in the process. This remains most people’s first association with the word ‘improvisation.’ Thousands of people take ‘improv’ classes every year because they want how to make people laugh-many come to those run by my own company, Hoopla. But what our students soon discover is that improvisation can have profound and transformational effects off-stage too, both at home and at work.
Improvisation is the art of acting when your plan turns out to be incomplete or even totally useless. In a context of constant uncertainty and change, the ability to improvise becomes a crucial skillset. But beyond being a meta-skill to thrive in this ‘new normal,’ it’s worth pausing to reflect on just how much of our daily work-life is improvised already. When we communicate with colleagues or clients, when we solve complex problems, or when we collaborate with others: we are improvising! There are no scripts in these situations. When framed like this, then, improvisation doesn’t seem a niche skill at all. In fact, it’s a skill on which all our others depend. Our capacity to improvise allows us to apply all our knowledge, skills and experience to the unique context and unique person in-front of us at the time. In short, it makes us flexible and adaptable.
Now I’ve hopefully whetted your appetite, let me give you a quick introduction to the key concepts and how they might help you in your leadership practice.
1) Listening is the willingness to be changed.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but improvisation is more about listening than it is about talking. Unfortunately, real listening is rare in life. So often we aren’t really listening to each other, we are waiting to respond. We are stuck in our heads, going over the script of what we want to say, and missing what’s actually going on in the conversation. Improvisers define listening as the willingness to be changed. Do you let the other person’s words, ideas, and feelings land on you and change your response? Listening like this is the secret to brilliant communication. (And good communication is at the heart of effective collaboration.)
2) ‘Yes, and’ thinking.
Beyond listening, another secret to productive collaboration is to respond to other people’s ideas with ‘Yes, and..’ rather than ‘Yes, but…’ (Which can so often be our default.) ‘Yes, and’ in improvisation is all about looking to accept and explore the contributions of others, to try and make that person look good. Why do leaders block other people’s ideas? It’s rarely because they are rude. Most often, we are unaware we are doing it. When it’s conscious, shooting down a solution can still come from a good place: it’s a way to show our expertise and experience. We are trying to help.
However, by saying ‘Yes, but’ and not ‘yes, and’ we can inadvertently create a culture where people don’t want to share their ideas at all. Why would you if they are just going to get shut down? Also, the new, innovative ideas that tend to make the difference to business performance often don’t come out fully formed. If we don’t make a habit of suspending our judgement of these nascent, ugly fragments, we may miss out on lots of potential breakthroughs.
3) Give and take focus.
In an improvised performance on stage, no one performer is pre-determined as the leader of the show. However, this doesn’t mean there is no leadership. Leadership is present in every moment, but it is distributed across the group, with different people stepping forward at different times depending on the demands of the moment. Improvisers call this concept ‘follow the follower’ and it requires us to give (and not just) take focus. Giving focus to others can be emotionally challenging for leaders, as they are afraid that giving away control-however temporarily-makes them look weak. But the ability to surrender control of the process allows leaders to both unlock the collective intelligence of the team and also to ensure the group is as responsive to change as possible.
4) When things get scary…keep making choices.
One of the reasons leaders don’t like surrendering control is that people might mess things up. Yet, Jeff Bezos at Amazon points out that there is difference between reversible decisions and irreversible decisions. Most decisions fit into the reversible category. While there may be some time and resources wasted in a decision you reverse, your reward is that by delegating this sort of decision to others you remove yourself as a bottleneck, speeding up your team’s capacity to innovate.
The key to responding to change is to keep making choices, even under conditions of incomplete information. Improvisers say that the only bad choice you can make is no choice. Because even when we make a bad choice it means that something is happening. If something is happening, then we are getting feedback. If we are getting feedback, then we are learning. Remember, we can always adjust our course if that choice turns out to be wrong. If we don’t make choices, however, we just move sideways.
Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classes, shows and corporate training.
There’s nothing like trying it for yourself! So, in that spirit, here’s one of my favourite improv training exercises you can try at home. You’ll find it’s a great way to train your listening skills.
THE WORD AT A TIME STORY
- Find a friend to play with. (This may be your spouse, say, although this is a great game to try with your kids too!)
- You are going to create a story together, using only one word at a time, taking it in turns to speak.
- Your story starts with one person saying ‘One’ and the next person saying ‘day’. You continue by each saying one word at a time to create the story. For example:
- Take the pressure off yourselves: don’t try to tell a good story. Just listen and respond with whatever comes to you in the moment.