The Need for Improv in Business


When you hear the word “improv,” you more than likely think of Saturday Night Live, your local improv theater, or about any number of comedians. You think humor. Improv is a fundamental part of comedy because, like great comedic moments, it is spontaneous and unplanned—you’re dealing with the unknown within humorous parameters.

The thing is, business is one big act of improvisation. Each day you’re dealing with the unexpected, but the result is hardly ever funny. The problem comes with the paralyzing fear that you feel when you don’t know what to do next. As a result, we get stuck, which can cause self-inflicted harm, as opposed to the feeling of being enabled to respond with spontaneity and confidence.

This is why improvisation has become such a focus in business today, and why it is actually being integrated in some of the top business schools around the country. Improv is not just for comedians; it’s for effective business leaders. Having the ability to improvise within any given situation and work with those around you is an invaluable asset in your career.

What makes improv so beneficial? When individuals follow the elements of improv, they (and their teams) can generate ideas quickly and efficiently—making something out of nothing—and break down organizational silos.

The main idea of improv is this: accepting what is offered and adding to it. Any improv class you take will involve several other participants whom you will interact with. Through a series of exercises and activities, you will come to recognize the importance of listening (listening to understand, not just to reply), as well as the importance of accepting what others have contributed, not discounting it, but by adding to it. That’s the energy you’ll feel when you watch a talented improv group; they work off each other toward a common goal—making the audience laugh—as a team.

There are seven elements of improvisation. Each one is as important as the other, just like improv. They are:

  1. “Yes, and . . . ”
    Think about how often you use the phrase, “Yes, but…” in your conversations with colleagues, friends, spouses—even your children. It takes what was just said to you and stops it in its tracks, discounting it with one word: “but.” Now replace “but” with “and” and see the dramatic shift that can occur. This accepts what was given and continues the conversation.
  2. An ensemble
    Improv requires an ensemble, a team of individuals who each bring a unique element to the group, and who are committed to working with each other for the same end-goal.
  3. Co-creation
    Just as it is important to have a group of people for an ensemble, so is the need for each member to contribute and build off one another. Each person’s contribution is unique, and may provide insight you hadn’t considered before—you may add to another’s idea that elevates it in a way not previously thought of. You co-create and discover solutions you would have never found otherwise.
  4. Authenticity
    Ensembles that co-create need unique viewpoints, experiences, and skills. They need honest—and respectful—input. They need each member to be authentic in what they contribute. This takes a certain level of vulnerability and trust that those authentic contributions will be heard.
  5. Failure
    Innovation breeds failure . . . until you succeed. Making mistakes means you’re trying . . . if you keep trying to figure out the right solution. Being willing to fail will free your creativity, allowing you to throw out any and all ideas.
  6. Follow the follower
    This is a great warm up exercise to foster listening “nonverbally.”  As players start to mimic each other, note how it significantly improves our ability to observe what others are doing and form and exceptional bond with your partner.
  7. Listening
    Did you know 85 percent of what we know and learn is from listening? Out of the workday, 45 percent of our time is spent listening, but only 25 percent is comprehended. Being a more effective listener is essential to improvising. Listen to understand, not just to say what’s on your mind. Those who practice improv successfully listen intently to the person(s) in the conversation, and add to that message without starting an unrelated thought.

Implementing improvisation techniques in the workplace can change how you experience your job and increase productivity. It allows your team to approach work with creativity, confidence, and positivity as opposed to fear, doubt, and negativity. Find out more about my executive and team coaching courses that integrate these proven tools.

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