I recently attended my first improvisation class. It was everything I thought it would be: scary, difficult, fun, and a unique learning experience. What I noticed was the similarity between the skills you need to be good at improvisation and those skills you need to grow professionally and to become a good leader.
The learnings from my first class are:
1. Collaboration is Critical, Trust is a Must. Improvisation is all about collaboration and effective collaboration cannot exist without trust. You have to learn to go with the ebb and flow of who is “running” the skit. It can start with you but shift quickly to your partner based on what she says. You have to trust that whatever you say will be accepted and built on by your partner, and vice versa. Without collaboration and trust, the conversation goes nowhere.
As a leader or an aspiring leader, you know that you can’t do it alone.Any work product you deliver is often the result of requests you have made and of information you have received. This collaborative effort can only succeed if you trust the information others provide to you based on their willingness to do what it takes to give you what you need. And their willingness is also based on trust.
I had a client who worked on a project for three months only to discover that she had misunderstood the project almost from the get-go. The truth was that she felt she could complete it better and faster by herself than she could by enlisting the help of others. She didn’t trust them to provide her with meaningful assistance. In retrospect, had she asked for help, she would have gained more insight into the project itself and been able to produce the right results in a timely fashion.
2. Be Flexible, Be Nimble, Be Open. I learned very quickly that you can’t get stuck on the way you want a skit to play out because the great unknown is what your partner is going to do or say next.
I was part of a two person skit. In my head I wanted it to play out as an impatient editor (me) dealing with an overwhelmed reporter . It ultimately turned into a story about a woman throwing her husband out the window. And it worked much better than I could have imagined. The shift energized me and made my creative juices flow. I just had to allow the shift to happen and find the words to make it work.
The same holds true for you as a professional. Many of us when faced with a project have preconceived notions of how the work should be handled based on our past experience.
How often have you found yourself delegating (or being told) what to do, how to do it, and then getting it done in just that way? What if you allowed others to provide their views of how it could be done or even who could do what?
Yes, it might be very different from what you intended. It might even take more time or yield different results (good or bad). What it will result in is better engagement by those on your team, an increased sense of responsibility and ownership on everyone’s part, and more creative ideas being presented in the future and therefore better performance. And let’s not forget, it might even yield better results than you imagined.
3. Think Creatively – Take a Broader View and Have an Elastic Mind.Improvisation is a little like being inside a Rubik’s Cube. There are so many ways to respond to what someone says. Looking at your response in a 3 dimensional way allows you to be more creative. For example, when I was fed the line that the wife pushed her husband out the window, by thinking of different scenarios, I could have said, “Wow! She’s the Senator from Oklahoma, won’t that make a juicy story since she’s up for re-election.” And then the story could go off in different directions. Of course, it was my first class. I didn’t think of that line at the time, but I learned how to work my mind around that type of situation for the next time.
Training your mind to think creatively is a necessity in today’s world. Looking at problems in a 3 dimensional way allows you to see the implications across departments. Finding issues before they become problems, or finding new ways to produce a product, deliver a service, or do the job you have always done demands a broader view and a more elastic mind.
4. The Power of “Yes And.” One of the cardinal rules of improv is not to negate what your partner is saying to you but rather to take what they say, acknowledge it by saying “yes, and”, then add more substance to the statement which helps it move in some direction.
Have you ever been in a work situation where you make a recommendation and it’s quickly negated by your peers or managers? What effect has that had on you? Being shut down on a regular basis makes it difficult to continue to make suggestions on an ongoing basis. And if that ceases to be part of your behavior, it will limit your growth potential. As a manager, leader or peer, take the time to say “yes, and” to see if the suggestion has merit and then, if necessary, lead the discussion in another direction.Acknowledgement provides room for future ideas to emerge.
5. Be Fearless. Taking this class brought out my two biggest fears – performing in front of group without a script thereby making a fool of myself, and a fear of failing. This is not to say that I have overcome my fear, but I also learned that the adrenaline boost I get makes my mind sharper and more focused. I still feel a bit foolish and uncomfortable, and I know some of the skits fail to take off. But I think the risks will ultimately be worth the reward.
Fear of failure and fear of making a fool of yourself are the two reasons why we don’t often challenge ourselves enough at work. Being comfortable feels good, but it won’t get you very far from a career standpoint. Challenging conventional wisdom, taking on projects not necessarily in your wheel-house, trying out new techniques or new ways of doing the same old same old all require taking on some risk. And sometimes you will fail. But I know the risk will be worth the reward.