"An eight-foot tall baby discovers a taste for sand while being chased by its bewildered 16 year old Valley girl baby sitter in the Sahara desert...." Thinking on your feet is never so important (and interesting) as when a part of an improvisational comedy performance. After attending a couple of Second City improv shows in Chicago (an incredibly fun experience), the idea of using the principles of improv as management training intrigues me.
Many of us fall into the trap of fully relying on the safe and predictable business processes that we put in place to keep our organizations on track. Now don't get me wrong, I realize that it can be very necessary to have a general template to filter new information and keep decision making from becoming a paralyzing process.
But, when taken to the extreme, this reliance on structure becomes a fault. To move forward, leaders need to stay vulnerable in accepting change and unexpected data in their world. In short, you must embrace the ambiguity of daily business life and be ready to swerve away from the storylines - and even contributing characters and voices - to make your plot more successful. Enter the craft of improvisation.
1) Listen Intensely and Embrace the "Yes, and...'
The best improv actors must remain completely childlike in their wide-eyed acceptance of new data. You listen, you absorb, and you react without filters. Eight-foot tall baby? Exploding pancakes for Mother's Day brunch? Unexpected customer requirements on your biggest project? New entrants in the marketplaces? Instead of saying 'no, but...' and wringing your hands over business plot twists, you say 'yes, and...' - and voila, that's when ideas for solutions begin. People many times block innovation through their biases and filters, with their default reaction to why something will not work, rather than allowing their subconscious to uncover new patterns and solutions.
Consider it in the light of 'the innovator's dilemma' - your keen ability to analyze project ROI data and discard those with low probability of success and as a result, overlook ideas that are riskier but have big payoff potential. What are you missing when it comes to the 'yes, and...' concept? What are the solutions you are missing, the opportunities you are blind to because you fail to ask 'okay, and how COULD we get that to work'?
Some of the most clever improv stories are those that seem to pivot off on unexpected paths, then at the end of the story magically circle back to something said very early in the story - neatly making sense of it all. Audiences can be stunned by this clever recirculation (it's a taught technique). As a leader, it's important once you've discussed ideas to ensure you too circle back to ensure you are achieving the objective you initially set and see if there are new patterns that might have emerged.
3) Support Your Colleague's Storylines At All Times and At All Costs
Another basic rule of improv is that you must, at all times, make your team look good to keep the ideas and performance flowing. At Second City, the audience is on the edge of their seats not because of a stellar individual performance that controls scene after scene; but because each troupe member has unique input that everyone on that stage builds on. Sure you might have a great idea for how the story / business project could develop, but if you limit the narrative too much and try to direct it without being open to new ideas or new facts, you will stilt progress, block potentially brilliant voices and your scene will die. This happens in business where people have their minds already made up when allegedly listening to others' ideas.
Imagine how painful it would be to watch an improv performer try to undermine a fellow actor onstage; you really are rooting for everyone. Does this happen within your own office walls? Are employees gasping for attention to the detriment of progress and the unique perspectives of their co-workers? Recognize that unfortunate discord for what it is and squash it immediately. There should be no room in your culture for prima donnas on or offstage.
You Are Not Imaginably Impotent Until You Are Dead
Just as anyone can do improv when taught the necessary mindset and skills, in business anyone can come up with new ideas and be creative. As written in the improv classic primer, Impro, "switch off the no-saying intellect and welcome the unconscious as a friend." It will lead you to places you never dreamed of, and produce results more original than anything you could have achieved by typical processes.
The world truly is a stage and everyone is an improv actor.