News & Perspectives

Improvising at Work

Improvising at Work

Perspective// Posted by: Lisa Kay Solomon / 6 May 2015

There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers around than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other.

— Keith Johnstone, Improv: Improvisation and the Theatre

As an educator focused on innovation and leadership, I help students and executives learn how and when to say “Yes” while the rest of the world is reflexively saying “No.” Innovation relies on inventive, flexible and generative thinking. There’s no better guidance for this open mindset than this centuries-old theater practice.

Although “improv” may seem like theatrical magic in the moment, three important books reveal its value as a deeply disciplined, rules-based craft. These three books—one older, two recent—shed light on the behaviors, attitudes and incentives that can help fuel a personal openness to risk in exchange for collaborative reward.

Yes, And, by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton (Harper Business, 2015) —Two Second City executives tell vivid stories of famous comedians who passed through the doors of their Chicago comedy institution: Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Keegan-Michael Key, among others. Beyond the practice of improv, the authors also explain its cultural and organizational benefits through chapters like “How to Build an Ensemble” and “Audiences Want In on the Act.“ The pair suggests that organizations use improv as a talent management practice—allowing for shared risk without individual blame, and the collective sharing of rewards.

Do: Improvise: Less push. More Pause, Better Results. A new approach to work (and life), by Robert Poynton (Do Lectures, 2013)—Philosopher and consultant Poynton skillfully illustrates how improv practices can help organizations better respond to challenges in a world characterized by extreme variations and uncertain futures. Consciously practicing a theater strategy called accepting all offers, Poynton claims, “enables you to use the resources you have in a more satisfying, surprising and enjoyable way” and recognize opportunities amidst challenges.

Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson (Random House, 2005) —Madson shares 13 “maxims” of improvisation—including Showing Up, Making Mistakes, Saying Yes, etc.—to empower readers to create meaning in the moment. More like a personal spiritual guide than playbook, each chapter opens with inspirational quotes and provides anecdotes and exercises from Madson’s decades of experience teaching improv at Stanford University.

In a world with no easy answers, improv’s highest value may be the freedom it affords us in breaking free from our traditional training to be “right,” in favor of potentially better, but unknown future possibilities.

Lisa Kay Solomon teaches innovation at the California College of the Art’s MBA in Design Strategy and co-authored the best-selling book Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change.