Dawn Stevens, CIDM

Very likely many of you have seen Whose Line Is It Anyway, an improvisational comedy show featuring four actors who create unscripted scenes based on a situation provided by the show’s host or suggestions from the audience. Having been involved in theater for a large part of my life, both as actor and director, I found the show inspirational for my drama team, and for years I incorporated improv exercises into our weekly rehearsals.

Truthfully, these exercises often caused quite a bit of stress as actors, trained or not, felt the pressure to not only respond to the situation, but to make it funny. On many an occasion, these situations led not to inspired dialog in a cohesive scene, but to long moments of silent thinking. Early on, actors could easily become self-conscious, afraid of saying something stupid, and the situation became awkward, and not funny at all. Indeed, “whose line is it anyway” seemed an appropriate title when a scene came to a screeching halt with the actors staring at each other, each hoping someone else would say something.

Nevertheless, my exercises persisted and eventually paid off. I remember with great pride a live show where someone knocked a plate of cookies off a table and it shattered all over the stage. Before I could even panic as the director, a character waltzed onto the stage with a broom and a dustpan. All actors stayed completely in character and they improv’d a few minutes of dialog as she cleaned up the mess so that the show (which involved later scenes where glass on the stage could have been quite dangerous) could go on. I don’t think that the audience even knew the whole thing wasn’t scripted.

Our improv training had become second nature to the crew. They had learned to be present in the scene, react to the situation at hand, planned or not, and adapt on the fly. It occurred to me then, long before I knew business improv, was a thing, that these skills were highly transferrable. What is life, after all, but scene after scene of unscripted situations that we must react and adapt to?

Of course, our reactions cannot and should not always be geared to get a laugh. But comedic skills were not the real point of our improv exercises. Contrary to popular belief, improv isn’t about comedy; it’s about being able to think on your feet, being able to react and adapt very quickly to sometimes unexpected things. Most people associate improv with comedy, not because of some definition or limitation of improv, but due to the entertainment factor. Who really wants to see an improv’d serious, dramatic scene where someone is trying to prove the ROI for securing the funds required to buy a new content management system, or where a team is being reorganized and is learning to adapt to a new manager and new processes? These are the types of scenes into which we are placed on a daily basis. They are not always funny nor is a comedic response appropriate. However, some kind of response is necessary and expected, and I have come to believe that improv provides excellent skills to draw on in these situations. Consider the seven principles of improv as described in the book Yes, And by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton:

  • Giving every idea a chance to be acted on. Actors call this the “yes, and” mandate. It demands acceptance of the situation you’ve been given. You cannot walk away or reject the premise offered to you, but you must build and improve on it.
  • Reconciling the needs of each individual with those of the entire group. Improv is not dependent on a single star, but uses the skills of each person to reach the goal. In improv, actors surrender the need to be right, the need to be the center of attention, and the need to be in control, and allow themselves to be used as needed to further the performance.
  • Monitoring the reactions of the audience and adjusting accordingly. Clearly, in acting, the success of the scene is measured by the audience’s laughter, gasps, and applause. If the scene is falling flat, actors make adjustments on the fly to compensate, hold the audience’s attention, and earn their appreciation.
  • Being unafraid to challenge the status quo. Improv actors are encouraged to do the unexpected. Doing so can turn a predictable scene into an overnight viral sensation.
  • Not only accepting, but anticipating, failure. Improv actors often practice failure, acknowledging a mistake and incorporating it into the rest of the scene so that they are not paralyzed should something go wrong in a live performance.
  • Giving any member of the group the chance to assume a leadership role. In improv vernacular, this is called “follow the follower” and it recognizes that each person has specific expertise at different points in the scene. Although it may not be apparent to the audience, everyone on stage begins taking direction from that person until that skill set is no longer the main focus and someone else needs to take over.
  • Listening to understand. If every actor on stage is simply listening in order to plan what they are going to say next, the resulting scene is unimpressive. Good improv actors actively listen to their peers, not reflecting on the past or thinking ahead to a response, but staying in the moment to ensure they fully have digested what’s going on and respond accordingly.

According to Leonard and Yorton, these seven principles, when applied consistently within an organization, can make us more compelling leaders and more collaborative followers. “Professional success often rests on the same pillars that form the foundation of great comedy improv: Creativity, Communication, and Collaboration.”

I truly believe this and with great enthusiasm chose to dedicate the upcoming Best Practices conference to these principles. For the conference, we’ve taken these three pillars and expanded them to four, which we’ve labeled the I-CAN mentality for information development managers:

I Innovate!

The creative process thrives in a foundation of “Yes, And.” When your team builds on and supports each other’s ideas, they filter and judge less, enabling new approaches to take off and gain traction.

C Collaborate!

The principles of “Yes, And” builds trust within your team, creating ensembles who effectively work together to meet a common goal, believing in the idea that “all of us are better than any of us.”

A Adapt!

With a “Yes, And” approach, your team is prepared for any change in direction, focused on how to make it work rather than why it won’t work.

N Negotiate!

When your team is aligned with the “Yes, And” philosophy, they look for ways to reach agreement, validating the legitimate concerns of the other person or group while keeping the door open for common ground.

We’ve dedicated a half-day to each of these pillars, selecting a fantastic array of speakers who will share their experiences and advice for strengthening each essential pillar. Underlying it all, we’ve chosen the book Getting to Yes, And by Bob Kulhan as our guiding theme. We are privileged to have the author as our keynote speaker to introduce the idea of business improv and to give us practical exercises for applying the principles in our organizations. I’m excited about this event and the possibilities it provides for our community to interact with each other in new, potentially scary, but definitely rewarding, ways. It’s my hope that everyone will leave the conference with fresh eyes and a nimble mind, ready to face their next business challenge.

If you haven’t already registered for Best Practices, it’s not too late. Go to
<https://bp.infomanagementcenter.com/events/registration/>. I hope to see you in Burlington, Vermont on September 11-13.