What Social Businesses Can Learn from Improvisation

Improvisation Comic Relief

Many years ago I was privileged to learn improvisation skills at a week-long business retreat. My teacher, Neil Mullarkey of The Comedy Store, has remained a good friend to me over the years and the concepts he taught me have stayed fresh in my mind. The recent emergence of more social businesses—where staff can openly share ideas and opinions through online platforms—has made me revisit these improvisation principles and ask how they could be applied in the digital workplace.

Improvisation, where actors play out a scene without a script or rehearsal, relies on a few core skills that we often forget in the midst of a busy workplace. But their usefulness within a social business seems to me beyond doubt. After all, in the modern business world we are simply the actors, and the workplace our stage.

So, here are some of my preliminary thoughts on how improvisation skills may help you become a better social player within your organisation:

EarActive Listening: The improviser who fails to listen to those around him will soon come unstuck. Every actor on the stage is there to ‘offer’ something to the others to help the scene develop. By always listening carefully to what’s being said we can make more informed, spontaneous contributions that build on the topic and take it in a positive direction. The same applies online; don’t spend all your time talking, it’s far more valuable to listen intently and only speak up when you have something useful to add.

Don't-Be-CleverNot Being Clever: In order to be natural and ‘in the moment’, improvisers are taught the importance of not trying to be clever. In fact, the last thing you want to do is to try to be clever as it both makes things difficult for the other actors and can destroy the authenticity and naturalness of what you say. Following this advice online too makes a lot of sense. There are no prizes for being a know-it-all and most of us can contribute more value by building on the ideas of others rather than seeking to kill off discussions with our genius.

relax-keyRelax and Have Fun: In improvisation, the most entertaining and memorable scenes happen when the actors are “in the zone”, loving the experience. They’re looking to slip into a mental state which psychologists call ‘flow’ where they are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus to the task at hand. The same should apply in our work lives. When we truly focused on something that we feel is worthwhile we feel energized and able to actively engage our whole brains. If we can find this same state when using a social intranet or following an online discussion between colleagues, we should be better placed to make a full, valued contribution.

Judgement GavelDon’t Judge Others: Suspending our natural tendency to pass judgement on others is essential in improvisation. Of course, we should try to understand others and empathise with them, but judging their contributions is an unnecessary distraction and energy drain. Likewise, we can help the social workplace run smoothly by allowing people to express themselves freely without fear of being judged or criticised. By creating a trusted environment, we are each more likely to bring our best ideas to the fore so others can build on them.

Yes ButtonYes and…: One of the easiest exercises that Neil taught me is to build on what has been said before. We’re trained from an early age at school and college to spot flaws in others’ arguments and we can help unpick this habit by simply starting every response with “Yes, and…” This modest phrase helps force us into a collaborative mindset where we build on what has gone before rather than shooting it down with the usual “No, but…” response. The next time you see a comment on the social intranet that you disagree with, try looking for the positives in the idea and building constructively with a “Yes , and…” reply.

UnknownThrive In the Ambiguity: By its very definition, improvisation requires actors to enter a world where they are completely out of control of the situation. If you try to drive the agenda, another person can snatch it away and drag you in an unexpected direction. Life in a social workplace is very much like this too, with discussions and comments ebbing and flowing to the tune of the crowd’s sentiment. Learning to welcome and indeed thrive in this uncertainty is an essential skill for today’s employees.

In a world now shaped by distributed voices and opinions, we’re all learning new skills to help us survive the modern workplace. But perhaps we can learn most from some of the oldest tricks in the book, as used by actors for generations to create, innovate and entertain.

How could this approach help you? All comments to begin “Yes, and…” please.