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Why Every Business Leader Should Study Improv

Updated: May 9, 2018

I have been doing improv since I was in high school and now at the age of 34, I've been teaching improv (to high schools, middle schools and adults alike) for over ten years. The thing that struck me very early on about improv was that it was much more than a performance skill or art form. It was more than a hobby or a rehearsal method. Improv was a way of proceeding. As I continued to get older it became clearer still - improv was a style of leadership.

A few years ago, IBM conducted a study in which CEOs identified creativity as the most important leadership skill for success in business. The study featured over 1,500 heads of business across 60 different nations, representing over 30 industries. This is an encouraging shift in thought from business leaders, but too few are doing anything to cultivate creativity among their teams.

Enter improv. In recent years, Kelly Leonard and the folks at Second City Works have become trend-setters in the business world by bringing comedic improvisation into the workplace. The results: increased productivity, innovation, collaboration and a shift in culture - from a place of "no" to a place of "yes." Comedic Improv is not only for Google, Oracle and the folks in Silicon Valley. It's for everyone from scientists, to teachers, to financial analysts, to marketing professionals. The list does not end. Improvisation will make you a better person and better people make better businesses. So, why should you study improv, Mr. and Mrs. Business Leader?

1) Yes, And

This is the first and most important tenet of improvisation, and is the guiding principle upon which all others are built. Another way of phrasing “yes, and” would be “accept and build”. In the workplace, just like on stage, this promotes the approach of starting from a place of yes. In improvisation, when we reject the ideas offered by members of our team, we cannot move forward. When it comes to brainstorming and the sharing of ideas, an attitude of “yes, and” allows for all ideas to be received in an open and non-judgmental fashion. This is very useful in promoting a sense of inclusion, leading to team cohesiveness and actually having a productive brainstorming session, for once.

2) Listening and Reacting

One of the biggest impediments to successful creation is an inability to listen. Firstly, improv teaches us to actively and attentively listen, rather than to react before we have heard what is being offered. When we listen and react in conjunction with “yes, and,” we begin to combat the “my idea” syndrome that plagues many workplaces, and can destroy creativity and open generation of ideas.

3) Mistakes = Opportunities

For many individuals, this is the most revolutionary concept. Our society, educational systems, and workplaces tend to perpetuate the “perfection” model. This model leaves no room for mistakes and, as such, removes potential for growth. Companies with this type of structure often become incubators for stress and angst; the result can be high levels of employee burnout and turnover. In improv, the world we inhabit is being created as we go along, and we are the creators. There is no possibility for mistakes, because there is no barometer by which we are judging ourselves or one another. The world is ours, whatever we say or do or offer merely becomes a new part of that world. When this tenet is fully embraced, brilliance is often the result.

4) Make Statements (Offer Something)

Many improvisers and instructors will refer to this tenet as “Don’t ask questions.” Questions are inevitable, though, and are useful for generating ideas; however, by limiting questions asking for input, and encouraging statements providing input, we start the process of team contributions. The idea behind this tenet is about making statements – in improv, we call them offers. When you make an offer instead of posing a question, you are giving team members something to accept. If you don’t offer something, then team members cannot “yes, and”, or “accept and build”. Questions posed too early in the process can put pressure on the other person to create alone, rather than allowing that person to build on what has been offered. It is analogous to offering some initial structure as a scaffolding in which to create something new.

5) Give Yourself Up for the Good of the Team

The sacrifice this suggests can be daunting. Think of it rather as, “your job is to make everyone else look better.” This is the best way to create a cohesive, effective team. In the context of improvisation, the various players are focused on making their teammates look amazing, while their teammates are doing the same for them. The result is that everyone looks and feels successful. On the contrary, when one player continually tries to redirect attention to him/herself and attempts to take full credit for what is actually a team effort, the entire team cohesiveness unravels. This is a common occurrence in many workplaces, when employees become willing to throw another team member “under the bus” to get credit for an idea, etc. This rarely results in sustained productivity. Rather, it breeds resentment and frustration, and often results in high turnover and employee attrition.

There you have it. Either get motivated and sign yourself up for an improv class or, if you're the boss, bring improv into you workplace for a team-building and professional development opportunity for your staff.

Michelle Olsher contributed to this article.

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