by Theodore May

Everything is improv!

May 20, 2019
IT LeadershipIT Skills

Creativity, innovation and disruption rule business today. So, the idea of incorporating improvisation – or improv as it’s popularly known – as a potential engine for creativity into tech organizations makes sense.

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Credit: Amazon Studios

Some days innovation and disruption seem to move so fast, and the demands for quick, flexible decision-making seem so close to imperative, that we find ourselves simply reacting to events rather than managing them. The traditional executive management focus on analysis, deliberative decision-making and planning falls by the wayside. We’re scrambling just to keep up and the cri de coeur “everything is improv!” seems to pretty well sum up what we’re experiencing.

So, improv classes find a home in open workspaces next to climbing walls, foosball tables, spin classes and pilates. We invite employees to flex their creativity not just their biceps.

Why we love improv

Whether we’re thinking of interviews, meetings, or business presentations, improv keeps popping up as an ideal solution. And for obvious reasons:

  • It’s fun. For most of us, an hour of improv sounds a lot better than an hour of sitting through another aimless meeting. We look to improv for relief and a good laugh.
  • It looks easy. No preparation or rehearsal required. All you have to do is throw yourself into improbable situations, overreact to everything, and say whatever comes into your head. Easy!
  • It’s super creative. When they do improv, people seem to come up with the craziest ideas and then do and say the most hilarious things. Who knew we could all be so creative?

Improv appears to be the ideal tonic for data-driven analysis, logical decision-making, and all the requirements docs, bug lists, and escalation paths that weigh us down. Improv promises to be instantly exhilarating, like doing repeated shots of high energy drinks.

A tool, not a solution

The ability to think on our feet and respond quickly to changing circumstances is an important adaptive skill in business. But whether in an interview or in the Scrum it’s not all Improv all the time in business.

It would be hard to implement a business strategy designed to increase your company’s market value with the general directive, “Just improvise.” Just as it would also be challenging to raise seed capital with “I need $10 million – the rest is improv” as your investor pitch.

The application of improv technique should be seen as a tool, not a complete solution or substitute for analysis, decision-making, and planning.

Even improv is not all improvised

Bad improv is chaotic, selfish and ultimately ridden with clichés. Good improv is structured, collaborative and highly disciplined. It has clear rules and requires lots of practice. Without the discipline, structure and technique, things fall apart quickly.

Improv has been around for hundreds of years, achieving high art status as commedia dell’arte in Italy during the 16-18th centuries. We know from la commedia that even improv is not all improvised. Commedia relied on classic narrative structures and a set “playlist” of scenes involving clearly defined stock characters. Actors and audiences were familiar with the plot outlines and characters, knew how all the pieces fit together and so were able to improvise.

Improv is fundamentally a group performance technique. I like to think of the goal of successful improv as what I would call symphonic symbiosis: the pleasure of watching diverse humans working together in harmony to overcome obstacles and achieve life affirming objectives.

We improve our own collaborative and creative skills by focusing relentless and responding directly to others. In improv, we take from the audience and our fellow performers and contribute something back to the greater whole. When everything is working well, all are working together seamlessly to achieve a kind of symphonic symbiosis.

Skills you can use

Three of the key principles of improv that I believe are immediately relevant to business all pertain to working in coordination with others.

  • It goes without saying that in the workplace we’re not good listeners. We tend to hear what we want to hear, and not wait until someone has finished their thought before formulating and then promoting our own. Improv technique relies on listening.
  • Sharing focus. It’s hard for senior managers to step out of the spotlight and share focus with others. But validating the contributions of others is key to winning their participation in constructive ways. Improv demands that we share focus.
  • Presence in the moment is key to “thinking on your feet” and engaging fully with others. Presence draws you out of your routine and away from your fixed agenda.

Given the current propensity to try and gamify everything we like to think of improv skills development as a series of games. They are playful, but I think it’s more helpful to think of them as exercises that strengthen and stretch us…and like exercises, they need to be done regularly to be effective.

Where improv can help

Where I think improv can help business the most is:

  • We tend to think of brainstorming as the surfacing of competing ideas. The “Yes, and…” technique of improv helps source complementary ideas that take the interests of all stakeholders into account.
  • The development of an effective business and implementation plan requires the willing participation of all. If we listen, share focus and are mindful of the presence and contributions of all stakeholders, plans will be more inclusive and more widely adopted.

Improv in the business presentation

While many presentations appear to be entirely improvised. The best benefit from a little improvisation in rehearsal (ideation) and the ability of the presenter to improvise in real time based on circumstances (presence in the moment.) But good presentations require preparation. Improv is a good tool for overcoming unexpected obstacles. But we should always work to stay on plan.

The collaborative nature of improv is why companies today should be interested in developing improv technique; not as a respite from work but as an integral part of the management tool set. Successful companies are those that not only communicate well but collaborate well. 

The biologist E. O. Wilson observes that while it’s true that selfish individuals can sometimes triumph over other individuals within the same group, it’s also true that collaborative groups win over selfish groups. Successful improv is ultimately a collaborative group endeavor. If we want our companies to be creative, collaborative and winners then improv can help.