A New Path to Professional Improv’ment

Learnig key on a keyboardSeeking to improve skills in the corporate environment often involves training or studying the latest books and articles with methods and approaches for leadership, communication, innovation or problem solving. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, it looks like I’m in good company with top tier business schools in thinking there could be more right with it.

Building improvisation skills to positively impact communication, leadership, creativity, problem solving and teamwork isn’t just for the stage. If you need more convincing, try this: in the quiet of your own home or office reflect on a couple of things:

  • When was the last time you consciously worked on your listening skills?
  • How do you create an emotional connection in an instant and know you are attuned to another person beyond “how was your weekend”?
  • When was the last time you spontaneously voiced your very first thought at a meeting without first running it past your “internal critic”?
  • In recent memory, have you, without judgment, accepted someone’s idea or suggestion and allowed the possibility to build before using the words no or but?

These are core skills we rely on every day and yet we often consider them to be “a given”. Consequently we don’t focus on them and we risk developing bad habits: multi-tasking while someone is speaking, ignoring ideas because you are focused on waiting for your chance to speak, and shutting down suggestions quickly because we are busy or because they don’t fit with ‘the plan’, using the same old problem solving techniques and taking the team for granted are just some examples.

Working on these skills can not only be fun but can produce new and innovative results.  Improv teaches one to stay in the moment, to connect and work together and to creatively deal with constraints. Let me share an example:

I was locked in a windowless board room in an all day planning session. The kind where everyone is focused on self-preservation, competing for resources and jockeying for position. It doesn’t take long before everyone is cranky and feeling irritated with each other. When the day finally wrapped up after a solid 10 hours of, I was tired, hungry and facing a mountain of more after hours work – a disastrous combination. Then, as I’m packing up to leave, a colleague approaches and says “I have an idea for something you should do…”

There’s no sugar coating it, my highly evolved self was no where in sight at this point in the day. I’ll admit that my first reaction was to tell him where to shove his idea of what I could do. A clear fight reaction (see Fight, Flight or Improvise ). However, I had partially switched gears and was thinking about my improv class that night and I made a decision to use this conversation as a ‘warm up’. Rather than retorting with a list of colourful suggestions of what he could do with his idea – I said “yes and tell me more” then I proceeded to put my training into practice. It turned out that not only did he have a good idea, the way we communicated in this interaction got him so excited about implementing it that he agreed to take all of the work to make it happen. If I hadn’t taken a deep breath and deployed my training to say yes in the moment, the business benefits of the conversation would never have been realized.

This is my favourite part of improvisation in the workplace and the concept of self improv’ment. It’s an everyday application of time tested communication and awareness approaches to develop more collaborative, engaged teams, enhance and build leadership capacity and support innovation and creativity.

Try This: Chose one conversation in your day and observe how many times you say no, but and yes. Note your reaction and that of the other person to each response.