For Business Success, Try Improv

The following is an excerpt from comedienne Tina Fey's memoir, Bossypants. For those who might not know of her, Fey is most recognized for her popular TV show 30 Rock, as well as for playing numerous roles on Saturday Night Live. Fey’s background is in improvisation, and in her book, she listed some of the most important guidelines for succeeding in this comedic style. Not only are they hilarious, but I also think they’re extremely insightful. I believe that by applying these rules to our own situations, many of us could reduce the problem of having too many predictable and managed conversations, all while improving engagement. Predictable and overly managed conversations can take a major toll on creativity, and make it difficult to get outside our own box. Once that Groundhog Day effect gets going with meetings, it can be difficult to end the cycle.  I was struck by Tina’s perspective taken from the world of “improv” and how much I think it offers to productive business conversations.

"…The first rule of Improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you're improvising this means you are required to always agree with whatever your partner has created.  So if we're improvising and I say 'Freeze, I have a gun,' and you say, 'That's not a gun. It's your finger. You're pointing your finger at me,' our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, 'Freeze, I have a gun,' and you say, 'The gun I gave you for Christmas! You ****!' then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

"Now obviously in real life you're not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to 'respect what your partner has created' and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

"The second rule of improvisation not only to say yes but YES AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with 'I can't believe it's so hot in here' and you just say, 'Yeah…' we're kind of at a standstill. But if I say, 'I can't believe it's so hot in here,' and you say, 'What did you expect? We're in hell.' Or if I say, 'I can't believe it's so hot in here,' and you say, 'Yes, this can't be good for the wax figures.' Or, if I say 'I can't believe it's so hot in here,' and you say, 'I told you we shouldn't have crawled in this dog's mouth,' now we're getting somewhere…. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion…"

I tried this approach out recently with a client who found themselves setting out on a project that would lead them into entirely new territory. Sitting in on a meeting, I quickly realized that even though they were facing a whole set of new challenges, they were talking about these issues in the same way they discussed old problems. But when companies are trying to enter a new market or make an innovative strategy successful, they can’t just rely on the same tactics they were using before – once the challenges evolve, the approaches have to change, too.

I decided to read the client this excerpt from Bossypants, and along with a few good laughs, something clicked. With the rules of improv in mind, they realized that they were “at a standstill” because they simply weren’t giving new ideas – especially the risky ones – enough of a chance. The concept of changing “no” into “yes, and” blew the whole thing wide open: We took the idea that had previously aroused the most doubt and approached with a “yes.” From there, the group started to improvise and build a plan for how they could make that improbable idea work. Just three weeks after that improvisation, they entered into a deal that they never could’ve imagined at the beginning of the process.

Try it out. I think you’ll be surprised and pleased at the results as well as the sense of enjoyment that comes from being willing to “improv” in some of your conversations.  Hopefully, the results will make you interested in finding out about the two other rules…but next time.

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