Improve Your Business Dealings with Improvisation

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"Nothing is accidental ... use everything." -- Keith Johnstone

Even the best-laid plans, the proverb goes, go oft astray. And by learning how to improvise like actors or jazz musicians, corporate types can better adapt to the always changing situations that you face.

What is improvisation? Trying to explain improvisation is like to trying to describe to someone how to ride a bike. The actual experience of riding a bike is much different than the description. Improvisation comprises the crucial mental skills needed for individuals, teams and organizations to thrive in change, innovate and think effectively under pressure.

Although many people are familiar with improv through the television show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?", few know this interactive art form has been highly valued for its ability to empower performers to respond immediately and inventively to each other and their environment. It originated in Europe in the mid-1500s.

Improvisational structures are governed by rules that require participants to accept and cooperate with each other, listen interactively, and jointly advance the action of a given task while continually supporting each other to be successful.

Improvisation fosters successful collaboration. To succeed, participants must attend to their partners' communication and accept and build upon each other's actions while remaining as flexible as possible. As a result, everyone is empowered to interactively discover his or her inherent creative potential.

When I first was exposed to an improvisational workshop many years ago, I saw the tools that we learned to use -- such as taking risks, accepting each others ideas, exploring them and moving them forward -- were exactly the tools that people in the business world would have to develop to foster ideas under pressure. If people in organizations are unable to think under pressure, build ideas, challenge assumptions and think creatively, their survival will be hampered.

Most people aren't thinking about how they can improvise at work, however. But what they do want to know is: "How do I get my people to share ideas with each other?" Most of the trouble with sharing our ideas derives from our fear that we'll be judged for our ideas and our fear of looking foolish.

To break down barriers and generate ideas, try this fun improvisational exercise, called Ad Room.

Everyone who participates in Ad Room is part of an ad agency. Your goal is to come up with an ad campaign for a fictional product -- gasoline that you can drink, for example -- that would include the customer benefits, slogans, spokesman and jingles.

Have everyone agree not to block new ideas and instead accept and explore ideas together, no matter how bizarre or strange the initial idea sounds. Pay attention to the reticent ones in the group and encourage them to share. If this is next to impossible in the group session, encourage quick one-on-one sharing.

Always debrief by asking what happened. Inquire how they felt about having their ideas agreed with and expanded? Where they stopped themselves? This post-discussion can help everyone learn about how they collaborate with each other.

Improvisation also requires taking risks, which in turn requires tolerance for making mistakes. When you can embrace failure, you can open the door for better innovation. For example, you wouldn't want your airline pilot improvising on takeoff, but you might want the airline to innovate and improvise in other areas, such as ticketing or baggage handling. Even zero-tolerance environments require the skills of improvisation in crisis, as demonstrated by the Apollo 13 mission when the team of astronauts and ground crew had to come up with an innovative solution to filter carbon dioxide out of their space module.

The lesson here is, you'll never have all the information you need to feel totally confident. You just need to leap ahead with the information you do have and trust you'll handle things as you encounter them.

A number of years ago after I had started learning how to improvise better, I was selling radio advertising. I was making a big sales pitch to a retailer on how we could help his business attract new customers. He didn't like my sales pitch and asked me: "What else have you got?"

At that point, I stepped into the unknown and started to improvise other solutions with him. After about 30 minutes, we had created a new, more exciting ad campaign for his establishment. As a result, I got even a bigger sale.

Had I argued with him, I'm sure I would have left with nothing, but by improvising in that situation, I realized there were more ideas to explore. Eventually I found one he liked and bought.

Another improvisational exercise, called "Freeze Tag," demonstrates the challenges associated with changing situations.

Two people begin to play out a scene. When one observer sees an opportunity to step in, he or she calls "freeze" and replaces a player by assuming his or her physical position. The new player restarts the action, taking the scene in an entirely new direction. Individuals must be open to the opportunities in the situation and what they can offer to advance the scene forward. When a new person enters, the person remaining must be ready to support the new direction.

Finally, remember that life is like improv. It's a performance; make it a performance that you're proud to participate in. Be willing to take more risks, accept and advance others' ideas, and trust you'll know what to do. The magic of improv is it nurtures us as creative, connected human beings -- not because it increases your profits.

Copyright In the Moment Productions, Inc. 2002

About The Author

Terrill Fischer, the Chief Entertainment Officer of In the Moment Productions, has given over 1000 paid presentations to audiences of all ages as a professional comedian, Improvisational performer and trainer. He is also the Co-founder of Humor University, and the co-author of the book Making Work Fun: 139 Ways to Lighten Up the Workplace.

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