Corporate America pays handsomely for the chance to play these games. In 2013 U.S. firms spent over $70 billion on corporate training and approximately $15 billion on leadership development, with much of that money spent on “intangibles training”—programs focused on such unquantifiable skills as leadership and creativity.1 Companies often pay at least $5,000 a week to send a VP-level employee to a top business school, and it has become common for comedy-oriented improv groups to run these programs or be a significant part of them.
For a young drama student improv games may provide a wonderful first step into the world of improvisational comedy. For businesspeople such games may provide a bit of fun, a pleasant day out of the office, or a chance for the VP of sales to finally learn the names of those IT folks (it’s Pat and Deanna, by the way). So, does the simple act of bringing traditional improv games to a corporate setting provide businesspeople with anything of substance? Anything practical? Anything that might be useful in the real business world? In a word, Nope.
And yet a true understanding of the art of improvisation can offer businesspeople the most impactful, culture-changing, success-enabling tool imaginable. There’s much, much more to improvisation than games and giggles, and for the past 16 years my company, Business Improv, has specialized in teaching improv techniques to corporate executives with the express intent of developing skills that allow these serious people to accomplish serious business in the most effective way.
Though the techniques of improv can be used to entertain, in the following pages I will show you how these techniques can be used just as easily to run a meeting, handle negotiations, spark a brainstorming session, and positively influence those around you. The tenets of improvisation can help you help yourself, your team, your department, and your entire company to succeed beyond what you think you’re capable of. Yes, a great improviser can be a very funny person. And great improvisers don’t just play games.
Consequently the work that goes into becoming a great improviser is a little more involved than simply binging on episodes of Whose Line Is It, Anyway? To make the best use of this art, we have to draw on the range of communications-related sciences: behavioral decision theory, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and behavioral economics. Together these foundations point us toward a smarter way of reacting, a more effective way of adapting, and a deeper way of engaging—the things true improvisation provides.
It is a driving passion of mine to get people to understand that improv skills can be effectively translated into the business world with powerful results. I thirst to make this connection for people. For those who might react to the idea of “business improv” with apprehension and skepticism, I have a confession: I empathize with you. Yes, improv techniques are often taught without a detailed exploration of substance. If your negative assessment of the value of improv was crystalized when you invested good money to spend a day playing Zip, Zap, Zop—a basic improv game with no practical business value—I feel your pain. There is no Zip, Zap, Zop in this book. “Return on investment” means something to me. And that is what you will get if you suspend your disbelief and follow me through these pages. I enjoy the challenge of winning over the skeptics, and the first step in notching up those wins is to emphatically and decidedly debunk the two biggest myths around improvisation.
Myth One: Improvisation Is Comedy
Improvisation is in fact not comedy. Nor is it simply an approach to acting. Those are two specific types of improvisation, unique to the context in which the improvisation is taking place. There are many more contexts for improvisation, though. Improvisation is a key element of busy emergency rooms; it takes place on NBA basketball courts; it’s a part of the skill set for every policeman cruising the streets—all contexts in which comedy is certainly not intended to be part of the picture. The context dictates the style of improvisation required. The improvisation an emergency room doctor uses in performing a lifesaving operation is unique to that situation, and the kind of improvisation a starting point guard employs in facing an unexpected defensive strategy only makes sense on the basketball court.
A fantastic example of high-level improvisation took place in 2011 when a team of highly trained U.S. Navy SEALs undertook Operation Neptune Spear—the deadly raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. This mission had been meticulously planned; the SEALs trained for it over months and several contingency plans were developed and put into place. Still, when one of the navy’s Black Hawk helicopters crashed within the compound, a very specific kind of improvisation was required if the mission was to succeed under shifting circumstances.2 In this case improvisation had everything to do with adapting to changes within a strategy to achieve real, tangible outcomes.
I certainly concede that the most common understanding of improvisation is as a form of comedy. Curb Your Enthusiasm, the aforementioned Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the films by Christopher Guest all showcase amazing comedic work that is based on improv. On a personal level I’ve been incredibly fortunate to spend an enormous part of my professional life on the great Chicago stages of The Second City, the Annoyance Theatre, and iO (where I was coached by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and performed alongside such notable folks as Jack McBrayer, Ike Barinholtz, Thomas Middleditch, Jordan Klepper, Jason Sudeikis, and Seth Meyers along with many other famous and less famous, equally brilliant comedic improvisers). In that context we were performing with the focused purpose of delivering comedy. The payoff we were after was audience laughter and a great show.
Laughter is not the payoff a surgeon, a jazz musician, or a SEAL team is after, though, and it’s certainly not the payoff a businessperson is looking for either. If you’re in front of the board of directors after a dip in fourth-quarter sales and you get thrown a hardball question, the challenge is not to quickly come up with a way you can use your necktie as a comedic prop to make the board laugh (lest that necktie become a noose with which you strangle your career). Instead you must react and adapt to the circumstances and communicate in an engaging and inspiring way.
The takeaway here: improvisation as it applies to the business world is a specific type that works in the business context. The heart of this book is to explicitly demonstrate how the art of improvisation can be used as a serious means of getting serious results.
Myth Two: Improvisation Is Making Stuff Up as a Last Resort
What we’ve got here is both a misconception and a matter of semantics. If you grab five random items out of your refrigerator, throw them in a pot of water, and bring it up to boil, technically you might say you were “cooking,” a word that could describe the simple application of heat to foodstuffs. But we all know that the simple act of cooking can be raised to an elite art form, one that depends on skill, training, technique, thoughtfulness, and imagination. A hot pot of gross mush and an elite chef’s tasting menu may both be cooked, but there’s quite a tastable difference in the quality of the cooking there.
Similarly we sometimes call it improvising when someone is driven to make things up on the spot after discovering that plans A, B, and C have all fallen apart. This kind of improvisation is a sort of survival skill and coping mechanism, and can certainly be relied on when all hell breaks loose and the scramble-sweat is flowing. However, this is a terribly limiting definition—improvisation as an emergency measure or last-ditch effort. This conception of improvisation does not factor in technique, training, practice, and thoughtfulness and seems to imply that the need for improvisation is only dictated by the level of chaos one finds oneself in.
In fact improvisation at its most effective is a deliberate strategy that draws on intelligence in concert with instinct. Improvisation isn’t simply panicky reaction; it’s a way in which people can actively explore possibilities, synthesize available information, and innovate in response to a challenge in real time. Improvisation thrives where planning meets execution, and the art of improvisation is really about making fast decisions and adapting when faced with unanticipated situations. The quality of those decisions—of the improvisation—is in direct proportion to an improviser’s abilities and the degree to which those abilities have been developed through training and preparation. Improvisers don’t really make stuff up in the moment; they have been trained to draw on everything around them and on everything they’ve learned right up until the moment they have to improvise.
Preparation and awareness are hugely important parts of improvisation. Those Navy SEALs carried out their mission effectively even when their planning did not specifically cover the circumstances they encountered. The SEALs trained extensively for the raid on the bin Laden compound, created scale models of it, and drew up several contingency plans to cover what-if scenarios such as a Black Hawk helicopter going down—a previously experienced contingency that unfortunately had very real mortal consequences in Mogadishu, Somalia.3 When the raid finally took place, the SEALs discovered that the intelligence they’d based their plans on was not entirely accurate. There were a number of unknown variables (how many people they would encounter, the types of people, the weapons, the doors and hallways, etc.).4 So they had to improvise—not by making things up but by drawing on every bit of skill, training, and knowledge their preparation had equipped them with.
I recently spoke with Navy SEAL captain Jamie Sands, who at the time was working at the Joint Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, and was preparing to take command of SEAL Group 2. Our conversation focused on how planning, preparation, and training affect the way people react and adapt when a plan cannot be executed flawlessly. Not so surprisingly the improvisational thinking required of SEALs is not a matter of “making things up” but instead one of drawing on a previously developed skill set.
“Training to a very high standard is an imperative,” said Captain Sands. “It provides the foundation for everything else and creates muscle memory. The fact is, repetition matters, as it affects all aspects of performance: mental, physical, situational preparation, communication. Shooting, for example, is a perishable skill. You need repetitions to be at the highest level of proficiency. Training prevents brain freeze.”
Whether you’re on the battlefield or in the boardroom, practice and repetition of the specific skill set required for the task at hand puts you in a position to succeed when that task must be carried out in times of uncertainty or even chaos. Regarding the specific skills required for throwing oneself out of a plane, Sands had this to say: “When you first start free-falling, your awareness of space is very small and you can only focus on what’s right in front of you—gauges, timing, ripcord. Around your tenth or twentieth jump, you begin to feel comfortable. However, it is only after your fiftieth jump that you’re seeing the whole sky and even thinking about what your next moves are once you land.”
The point here is that no matter what you do—cooking, accounting, playing sports, jumping out of airplanes, or embracing business improv—your skill level is achieved and maintained through practice. Especially in times of crisis, you want to be able to rely on well-developed muscle memory, not on making stuff up.
In theatrical improvisation one of the common phrases is “performing at the top of your intelligence,” a concept that is about 180 degrees away from simply working off the top of your head. If you think about some of the other great improvisers I mentioned earlier—the soldier, the athlete, the chef—they don’t respond to unpredictable events by doing just anything, willy-nilly. They work at the top of their intelligence, drawing on all their skills, training, and experience to make fast choices about the actions they will take. When musicians improvise, they “make up” the music in the sense that they are playing notes of their extemporaneous choosing. However, the success (and listenability) of that improvisation depends on the players’ musical knowledge and skills and their ability to communicate with fellow musicians and an audience. If you don’t actually know how to play a trumpet, improvising on one isn’t going to help you sound any better.
Even when improvisation is actually about comedy, it’s not just about making stuff up. Somewhere around 1996, very early in my improv career, I was serving as the host of the iO’s evening shows and I described to first-timers in the audience that the improvisers onstage would be “making things up off the top of our heads.” Offstage I was promptly and vehemently reamed by improv legend Noah Gregoropoulos, who impressed upon me how insulting that phrase was in relation to the level of work done by improvisers. Lesson learned. This resonates strongly with me to this day. Performing at the top of your intelligence is a lot different from flying by the seat of your pants.
The myth that improv is a means of last resort dismisses the knowledge and training, coordination, focus, and intellect needed to perform in the moment. If you are drawing upon everything you know and working at the highest level your abilities allow, you are improvising at the top of your intelligence—a stunning feat when seen.
With that debunking out of the way, you’ve got a better sense of what improvisation isn’t. So what the heck is it then?
Improvisation, when stripped down to its basic building blocks, is about reacting, adapting, and communicating. You see what’s happening around you. You quickly consider how to respond. You communicate to others. And then you do what needs to be done to succeed. Repeat as necessary.
The first step in any improvisation is indeed reaction. This is not reacting blindly or out of panic, however. With effective improvisation, reaction involves being focused and present, being in the moment, and being completely open to the idea of responding honestly to whatever it is that requires a response. There’s a parallel force existing alongside reaction, and that’s adaptation—the skill of being ever aware of the shifting parameters one is working within while keeping in mind the specific objective that needs to be achieved. Reacting and adapting are channeled together to create the true resultant force of improvisation: communication. Communication in this context refers to productive engagement in any form—between individuals, within or between groups, as part of a process, or the final stage of decision making.
Why would this definition of improvisation make sense in a business setting? Because improvisation is a method of dealing with situations in which we need to send and receive messages accurately, effectively, efficiently, and quickly.5 Of course as a businessperson and an improv veteran I’d say it’s always important to set proper expectations, so one of the things that has bothered me incessantly over the last decade is the overpromising that takes place in corporate training sessions—promising often done by smiling (though great) improv coaches who honestly want to spread the message that if you simply relax, adopt a positive attitude, and trust your instincts, your business will thrive, your job title will turn to gold, and you’ll receive the keys to glorious executive washrooms that can only be discussed in whispers.
I love these people. I am friends with hundreds of improvisers who teach this way. They are awesome performers, coaches, and teachers, and without question their approach to business improvisation is ineffective, because it does not dive more than an inch below the surface of a sea that is thousands of feet deep.
Improvisation is not a panacea or a silver bullet. It is an art and a discipline—a set of techniques that have to be used at the right time and in the right place. Improv can improve the way ideas are generated. It can open a free flow of communication. It can boost the sense of organization within a workplace. It can help you manage the unexpected. And it is not the ultimate or only way to run a business. Potential improvisers, whether actors, athletes, or business leaders, all have to decide when and how improv techniques will be valuable. There’s more than one way to hit a piñata and improv is only one possible stick to swing—though I’ve found it to be a very effective stick when it comes to opening that sucker up and getting the sweet stuff inside.
Improvisation is not so much a creation of something out of nothing as much as it is the creation of something out of everything—everything one has been taught, everything one has experienced, everything one knows. Improvisers observe all and try to take advantage of everything around them: every word, every movement, every sound; every facial expression, body gesture, moment, data point. Improvisers will pull from all information at their disposal and will not dismiss anything that might possibly be useful. A great improviser can look at the tiny details and the big picture simultaneously. Improvisers observe everything for its worth and assess every situation as accurately and honestly as humanly possible. Great improvisers aim for the best possible overall solution in the moment, as opposed to “This is the best I could do given a set of circumstances.” And seasoned improvisers acknowledge that the unknown will happen no matter how well they attempt to plan things out. Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” For improvisers these aren’t words of caution but a rallying cry: when you are performing at the top of your intelligence, you not only expect the unexpected; you embrace it.
In the following chapters, then, let me guide you toward becoming a great improviser in your career. Here’s the path we’ll take: from personal development to interpersonal application, to team application, to creating culture. We’ll begin with a practical overview of how improvisation can be used as a tool to break through the barriers to creativity and collaboration that are common in workplace environments. Then we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of improvising by way of improvisation’s core principle: “Yes, and . . .” We’ll look at the ways improv can be used for personal growth and empowerment—a method of strengthening your personal brand. We’ll also explore improv’s role in manipulating energy and attitude. Moving beyond personal growth, we will chart a path to implementing these techniques outwardly in dyadic and small group conversations. Then we will examine how improvisation can impact team dynamics by looking at its practical applications in fostering better group ideation and the breakdown of silos—a persistent workplace problem. We’ll then take these foundational blocks to show how improv techniques can improve leadership skills and how improvisation can be used as a catalyst for positive change in a corporate culture. In the final pages of this book we’ll focus on transferability and sustainability—how to utilize improvisation in your workplace immediately.
I do not teach with talks or seminars alone. Instead I favor intensives based on experiential learning. In that spirit I’ve packed this book with step-by-step instructions for some of my most effective and practicable exercises. I hope you’ll give them a try.
It is my explicit intention in these pages to get you to think differently about yourself, your work, your company, and of course your use of improvisation. No matter what your particular business is, the goal here is success. I promise I won’t ask you to take a trust fall or participate in a group hug. All I ask is that you commit to helping yourself. Done? Alright then, let’s go!
1. O’Leonard, Karen, The Corporate Learning Factbook 2014: Benchmarks, Trends, and Analysis of the U.S. Training Market, January 2014, www.bersin.com
2. Owen, Mark, and Kevin Maurer, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Navy Seal Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden, Dutton Adult, Printing Edition, 2012.
3. “What a Downed Black Hawk in Somalia Taught America,” All Things Considered (NPR), October 5, 2013, www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html
4. Owen and Maurer, No Easy Day.
5. “Six Soft Skills to Hire For in 2015,” January 2015, http://blog.adeccousa.com/hire-candidates-soft-skills-2015/ (accessed January 4, 2016).