Leadership and improvisational comedy are a curious mix. Yet they are increasingly found together, as leaders of the most creative and dynamic Silicon Valley companies – think Google, Pixar, Twitter – grow up with improv shows and classes as standard in their cultural and educational landscape.
So, how does improvisation help one be a better, more accomplished and innovative leader?
We’ve seen improvisational comedy on stage or on TV, yes… Well, the same tools these performers use to make up scenes on the spot are helping individuals and teams to deal with change and complexity. By increasing people’s capacity to be spontaneous and work together generously, they enable leaders to be more effective in terms of presence, agility and communication skills, often in difficult situations.
Leaders, like improvisation performers, often need to respond in an instant, collaborate imaginatively, with no script, in real time in front of a demanding audience.
The fact is, people and teams in organisations improvise a great deal of the time – but they don’t always realise that’s what they’re doing.
From leaders in particular, what’s needed is awareness, a sense of relationships, an instinct for making useful moves, and a willingness to change direction when required. The leader takes complexity into account, understands the interplay of variables and sees the task as one of eliciting creative responses to new situations.
We’ve traditionally thought of leaders as planners; perhaps it’s time to think of them as improvisers. Improvisers make the best use of the resources available to them, they adapt as circumstances change and they are expert co-creators. Leaders generate and articulate visions and inspire people to work with them towards those visions. So improvisational leaders know where they want to go; and they work strategically, tactically and co-operatively towards it.
In a TEDx talk, I spoke of the power of “Yes…and”, describing how this improvisational skill yields positive results in making the world a better place in business, politics and society.
This key concept of ‘Yes.. and’ is at the heart of improvisation, and it represents the performers’ willingness to listen carefully, to accept what is offered (to a scene) and then to build on it in an appropriate way. The performers who do that certainly make the stage a better place. Now the practice of Applied Improvisation puts that same spontaneity and adaptability to work in non-theatrical settings, offering an approach that enables all of us to achieve more with less.
These non-theatrical settings start with personal life – to build confidence and creativity, for example. Then they apply at team level – to increase good collaboration, better team-work. And in organisations or communities as tools for innovation and positive change.
Improvisation helps us to change the ways we describe and think about our organisations – from a framework that positions them as rigid, mechanistic and predictable, to a landscape of complexity, adaptation and possibility. And of course we need the principles and skills of improvisation to equip ourselves for success and progress in this new environment.
Instead of detailed plans, we propose more emergent ways of working – knowing what you are aiming for and knowing what small steps to take in that direction. Then you look again – each time with fresh knowledge of what has happened most recently – and respond in the light of that new information. Are those the terms on which you can lead?
Paul Z Jackson is a workshop leader, coach and trainer of trainers and facilitators. Co-founder and President of the Applied Improvisation Network, he draws on his experiences in journalism, comedy production and the BBC.
Together with The Comedy Store Players, Paul has founded the Improvisation Academy which aims to develop and promote improvisation in the UK and beyond. The skills and principles of improvisation build life skills,such as confidence and creativity, enhance teamwork and innovation and foster communications in organisations and communities. A graduate of Oxford University, he is co-author of the ground-breaking book, The Solutions Focus – Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE, rated as one of the Top 30 business books of the year in the USA and the new study guide Positively Speaking – the art of constructive conversations with a solutions focus. His other books include Impro Learning, 58½ Ways To Improvise In Training and The Inspirational Trainer.