Improvising is an indisputable part of the startup life.

I speak from experience: our business today is simply not what we thought it would be when we launched a few years ago. That has to do with a new business getting its feet underneath it, so to speak, but it's even more about the need to reflexively respond to clients and the nuances that the market is willing to bear. The core capabilities are the same; in our case, it's how they're put to use that continues to evolve dynamically.

There are a lot of ways to evoke the in-flux nature of improvisation, from "thinking on your feet" to "lots of moving parts." As an entrepreneur and business owner, however, it isn't always the most comfortable position to be in, especially if your personality preference tends toward calm stability rather than dynamic roller-coaster.

So how can we adopt the healthiest attitude toward the kind of improvisation that's required in the startup life? For starters, we can learn from the pros who improvise (voluntarily!), like actors and theater directors. Here are three tips and exercises to put into play.

Hold off on defining the finishing product.

Actors call it "devised theater," and you may have also heard it called collective creation. Essentially it means that the end product (such as a performance) results from collaborative engagement during the creative process rather than one person's scripted idea of the outcome. In other words, it requires the input and passion of everyone involved to pull it off.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs, and how we operate? It has to do with the tension between expectations and innovation. 

"If you decide what the end is going to look like, then you miss out on all the chance and the presence of mind to see where the sparks actually are," said Quinn Bauriedel of Philadelphia's Pig Iron School of Theater, who also leads a day-long experiential learning module at Wharton on best practices for team alignment.

"Think about executives who come into meetings with their job title front of mind," Bauriedel said. "There's not a lot of room for innovation because people are set in a hierarchy that's hard to find flexibility in. It's hard to break out of."

Instead, invoke your inner jazz musician. Listen well, so that you can understand your role in the band and achieve, ultimately, the most harmonious, maximum effect.

Change your patterns, even if it's a little thing.

Have you ever noticed how often your team members sit in the same chairs at meetings? Do they also respond in the same predictable way? Can you almost anticipate the agenda, and what the outcome of any decision is likely to be?

Those patterns are clear signs that you're in a rut, and it's the opposite of being truly present. "Checking out" of the simple decisions and letting them become routine threatens to segway all too easily to similar behaviors on more meaningful decisions too, because your team members need to process back to proactive thinking before engaging in more substantive ways.

What can you do? Notice the patterns, first of all, and the types of behavior that result. Then implement "baby step" changes, like varied seating arrangements or flip-flopping set agendas. "Those days when we change the pattern, we get a lot more productivity," Bauriedel said.

Question as many assumptions as you can.

This is a lot harder to do than it sounds, especially when you deconstruct something like your product or sales cycle step by step. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

  • Fundamentals: How do you show up? Where do you show up? How do you conduct business, step by step?
  • Alternatives: Are those the only ways that you can imagine operating your business?
  • Think high-touch. What can we imagine doing differently? Maybe home in on high-touch points of access that will have a high impact, like mentorship and performance reviews.

Finally, take the time to question decisions about how your business operates, Bauriedel recommends. Tease out how to do those operations differently, and allow the process to be influential in the eventual product.