Improvisational comedy provides a framework for new horizons in corporate leadership

An improv is a form of live entertainment wherein the material is generated and riffed on live, in the moment. Sufficiently hilarious improv performers have gone from starring in the famed improv theater scenes ofChicago (Second City) and New York (Upright Citizens Brigade) to producing their own successful improv-based sketch television shows (Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock).

Improv is devised on the spot, but its successful execution is rooted in a set of rules of conduct. The reason these rules are so applicable to the business world is, of course, that corporate enterprise is itself a type of improv. We take in a fast-paced environment and quickly changing circumstances and react to them on the spot. We come up with innovative ideas spontaneously. More than anything else, we work together on the ongoing performance of the company to ensure operational seamlessness—and hopefully a standing ovation.

Here are some basic rules of improvisation, and how we can apply them to excellence in our businesses:

Always Agree

Happy smiling businesswoman with thumbs up gesture grey background

Since improvisation involves creating whole worlds on the spot, the primary key is to always agree with whatever the other performer has declared into existence. If your partner says “Oh no! We’re sinking in quicksand!” And you say, “No we’re not”, then the scene is over.

We all know that guy. The one who sits in the corner during team brainstorming and only opens his mouth to shoot down every single idea anyone generates. “That won’t work, because…”, or “I don’t think the CEO is going to like that…” Of course, he never offers a positive reaction, let alone an alternative idea. Don’t be that guy.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you actually have to agree with everyone’s peculiar notions. But, especially during the nascent first stages of a project, it’s important to give positive space for idea generation, free of premature editing. If we start cutting up the film before we finish writing the script, we’ll never get our movie. We need to start out by hearing out every idea and giving it a chance to breathe.

Yes… and

This is the next step after initially agreeing. Imagine your scene partner says, “These mountains are so high!” and you say, “Yup.” You did well in agreeing, and you’ve allowed the mountains to exist in the scene, but you’ve still brought the action to a standstill, and placed the onus of moving things along back on your partner. But if you pile on a “Yes” with an “and”—another idea, or an extension of your partner’s, things continue getting more and more interesting:

          “These mountains are so high!”
          “Yes they are. Good thing we brought our jetpacks!”

          “Boy, am I tired.”
          “Me too. I guess we shouldn’t have taken those horse tranquilizers.”

There’s a next step to “Yes and”: In her book Bossypants, the legendary Tina Fey recommends to avoid asking questions. If you’re constantly asking your partner “Where are we?”, “What am I doing?”, she’s left having to make everything up herself. Instead, keep the positivity going by agreeing, and then making statements. This once again ensures that your partner is not left with the sole responsibility of coming up with the scene’s content.

By stacking “Yes and” statements on top of other people’s ideas, you become an active participant in action planning, problem solving, or goal-setting.

Make the Other Person Look Great

All of the above rules kind of flow into this principle, which is a lot less about what you do, and a lot more about setting the right intention. If you walk into an improv sketch with the single-minded goal of one-upping the other performers, or of proving to the audience that you’re funnier than your partner, the scene will flop. Improvising, like business, is inherently collaborative. This means that if you work hard to make the other person look great, the whole thing will look great. The whole thing really will be great.

Lose Yourself in Play

Loose yourself in play.

Loose yourself in play.

Any seasoned improviser will tell you that being funny and captivating an audience is dependent upon getting into a certain kind of flow, where you lose yourself in the moment. A stiff, stuck-inside-his-head performer doesn’t improvise well. Remember that a play is about… playing! If you give yourself over to the joyful spirit of play, you’ll create great things. And this joyful spirit will bleed into other parts of your life.

Finding joy in everyday life might not seem like the most obvious way to get work done. But guess what? Experts are convinced that a positive work culture combined with real and perceived meaningful work makes all the difference when it comes to employee engagement and retention. So create a culture of supportive play, where the ideas that lead to meaningful work can bounce and roam. It’ll pay off.


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Philip Uglow is the President of Renshi Consulting Group. Renshi lowers clients costs by pulling ideas from your people in the moment, when they are most busy with real work. This is when they learn. This is when they change.