THE BLOG

It's No Joke: Business Lessons from Improvisational Theatre

02/12/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

Change has always been a part of life, but the pace of that change is faster than ever. We see examples of rapid change in every sector of the economy, technological advances, medical care and even our environment. Knowledge and experience have always been at the core of leadership, but improvisational skills are also necessary to confidently navigate change in the modern business world.

Can improvisational skill be taught?

As the famous 19th Century scientist Louis Pasteur said, "Fortune favors the prepared mind." Some business schools and companies are creating programs to train leaders to develop improvisational skills. Entrepreneurs, salespeople and improvisational actors actually have a lot in common; they all have to deal with novel situations, unpredictable people and their "unscripted" reactions while maintaining their composure. Those who can think quickly on their feet will have a better chance of competing in today's challenging business world.

Many prestigious business schools are building comedy into their curriculum. MIT's Sloan School of Management was among the first business schools to bring improvisational acting into the classroom. The Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, teamed up with Second City to provide improvisation classes to their students, arguing improv comedy helped train their students to think on their feet and react quickly.

Tina Fey's "Rules of Improvisation" apply to business leaders:

Read the room

Improv teaches you to pay attention to your scene partner. In real life that could be your client, your co-worker, or your boss.

Weigh the information in your environment and then respond.

Fey says, "Taking the time to connect with your audience almost always results in a better relationship."

Full Attention
Choose one thing to focus on and give it your full attention.

Give and take focus
Practice listening which is more than just hearing and involves your whole body as well as paying attention to the other person's body language; this will significantly improve your communication.


Learn when to take risks

Improv actors are always putting themselves in vulnerable situations because they don't follow a script. The improv actor's quick and witty response engages and entertains the audience.

Understanding when to take risks, and how to handle those risks is equally important in running a business. Each novel situation affords a new chance for you to apply your knowledge and wit to confront and overcome challenges.

Begin improving at improv

Agree and say yes

Tina Fey explains that the first rule of improv is to always agree with your scene partner.

Fey explains. "Start with a yes and see where that takes you."

You're going to strongly dislike many people you work with or for. You're probably also going to think your ideas are always better than everyone else's. Even if you're right, give other people a chance before automatically dismissing them or their ideas.

Say yes, and...

Change the way you respond from "Yes but..." to "Yes, and..." -- which is much more inclusive. Saying "yes," suggests your more open to working with other people, which will help you negotiate a better deal. In a scene with your improv partner, you aren't just agreeing with them, you're also helping them move the story along. Therefore the best response to give is actually, "Yes, and..." The reason is that a simple "yes" is neither helpful nor entertaining.

If you offer your own ideas and contribute to the conversation in some way, you help move the organization along and leave your mark.

Make your partner look good

Try to bring about an outcome where everyone benefits

Hear offers -- be an active listener

Listen to the information and visual clues the other side is offering rather than concentrating on your response and planning what you're going to say next. "No, I can't move ahead right now" is also an offer. They're saying they will move ahead at some future time. You just need to figure out when that will be. Reframe your interpretation of what people say so you hear the "yes" in their "no." It could be that you're just catching them at a bad time.

Think of solutions, not questions

In Bossypants, Fey explains that asking question after question makes your scene partner think of all these responses alone. No one likes that much pressure. The adage "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions" holds true here. Once you identify a problem at work, come up with a solution instead of describing the problem. Don't say, "This project is going to fail and we're going to lose money." Think about how you can fix the problem first and then bring up the problem. Tell your boss, "This project has some serious setbacks, but here's what we can do to improve our chances of success."

See mistakes as opportunities to improve

If you're improvising and think you're acting out one thing, but everyone perceives it as something else, you can't stop and tell them they're wrong. Their perception is now the scene you're acting in and it's your responsibility to go with it.

"In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents," Fey writes.

In the workplace there are accidents. Once a mistake happens, it happens, and whining about wanting a do-over doesn't change anything. It's now your responsibility to make whatever mess you're in have the best possible outcome.

Sometimes you'll fail

Fey says that Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels often told her, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30." His point was that the show is live and will be on the air at 11:30, whether or not you think everything is perfect. "You can't be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, over thinking it. You have to go down the chute. If you're too afraid to make a mistake, you'll never get anything done, which means you'll never have any successes either. Sometimes the misfires happen and, although you're upset, your life isn't ruined. Make sure the successes outnumber the failures and you'll be fine."

How to get better at improvising?

Daniel Pink's bestseller To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, describes how improvisational theatre teaches many useful lessons on how to improve our conversations so we engage people and steer them in an ethical way to foster our views.

Pink suggests that you designate one day a week as a "slow day" where you listen and wait five seconds before you respond in every conversation. You'll be amazed how much more you hear when you let other people finish their thoughts rather than butting in.

It's not always the smartest person in the room who moves things forward. It's the person who uses his intelligence, wit and energy to analyze data quickly, thinks of clever solutions and delivers it back in a timely manner that determines the success of a project. Improv training can improve the way your team communicates. Leaders, managers and executives learn to react in the moment, exploiting change as an opportunity. Learning improv is one way to increase your competitive edge. When an unexpected situation occurs, you'll have better skills to "stand up" and manage the unpredictable more effectively.

For more information on the subject:

Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: Using Music, Improv, Storytelling, and Other Arts to Improve Teamwork by Linda Naiman

Funny Business; Comedian, marketing and branding expert, career advisor and author, Bill Connolly

Improv: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone

Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madison

Beth Kuhel, M.B.A., C.E.I.P., is a Gen Y and executive career coach. She writes about career strategies and improv- ing the workplace for The Personal Branding blog, CJN -sponsored articles by Weatherhead School of Executive Management/Case Western Reserve University, U.S. News & World Report and Entrepreneur Magazine. Connect with Beth on Twitter @BethKuhel