I experimented with Improv last quarter to get me out of my comfort zone and a potential gateway drug to standup (and frankly, better communication). I’ve become a big fan of the form, had a blast, and surprised at how it’s spilled over usefully into business and real life.
What the hell is Improv, anyway?
Usually the first question I get from people when I tell them I’m doing improv is some variation on this. Most people have heard the name, associate it with Saturday Night Live, Second City, Whose Line Is It Anyway? or some form of comedy but actually don’t know what it actually is.
So far, the best way I’ve been able to explain it’s as shared storytelling without a script.
Two (or more) partners create a scene between themselves using words, actions, and emotions to try to tell a story together. The results of this, since you’re both trying to communicate things to your partner and riff off what they have communicated, are usually hilarious, but not always.
Why is this useful IRL? A couple reasons:
You are trying to understand what another person is trying to communicate at a deep level to build off of it.
You are trying to convey the crazy ideas in your head cleanly and succinctly to someone so they can understand what it is you’re trying to get to.
You’re trying to build something together.
If getting better at that seems like it might make you a better colleague, partner, or friend… maybe it’s for you.
For example, a big revelation for me, despite people telling me for years I needed to listen better, was that it was improv that finally made me realize what people were talking about in practical terms. How so? I found myself in scenes thinking about what I wanted to say next and my delivery, rather than carefully listening to my partner’s words so I could riff off the full context of what they said (and more seriously, missing some better joke opportunities if I’d listened better.). I’m not going to say I’m cured, but like to think that admitting (and recognizing) you have a problem is the first step to fixing it (I also imagine a lot of people that drive business outcomes and meetings may have this same problem, since I don’t think my pattern of behaviour is that abnormal form observation. I might just have the extreme form of the illness.)
How Does Improv Work? The 3 Rules…
Improv has three core rules to make building scenes with your partner as easy as possible, and creating a psychologically safe space.
Weirdly extensible to most collaborative endeavours, they’re a great default when starting something new. It takes practice getting used to them if you’re used to zero-sum or political work environments, but they promote a great dynamic where magic can happen. And who doesn’t want that?
Rule 1: Yes, and…
Everyone has had those meeting where someone seemingly listens to you, pauses, and then goes, “I agree with what you said, but… “. Basically, everything before the “but” doesn’t matter and what follows is what they actually believe.
Even if it’s a “Yes, but…” rather than a “No, but… " the phrasing ends up killing any forward momentum for building something. Buts are lethal.
In Improv, the idea is to always build on what the other person says. What they said becomes true (in business, it often is for the other person anyway… 😝).
Despite how bizarre it might sound at first, it’s a bit like brainstorming, where the craziest of ideas open up new spaces to explore avenues, and where you ultimately get stronger ideas coming out of meetings. The unworkable simply gets left behind at some point as the momentum fleshes out converging on something better than what you started with.
It just leads to more interesting outcomes, and exercisng it in even global (Zoom!) pow-wows has been effective at getting better, more workable ideas into play (and cutting through silly organizational politics or resistance.).
Rule 2. Make Your Partner Look Good
Surprisingly, probably the hardest one to get good at in practice.
The idea is making your partner(s) look good and being authentic and sincere about it (not blowing smoke). I actually had to actively work at this in work after decades of roles where conflicting direction or objectives often made things adversarial between teams and self-promoting my groups an organizational survival tactic.
Which, of course, is the opposite of what you want if you’re a collaborator and just makes working together and future relations difficult.
I’m not saying it’ll solve all your problems. Psychopaths and economic disincentives abound in some work environments (oh, I have some stories), but quite often misalignments can be a lot easier to work out by simply focusing on trying to make your partner look good rather than yourself.
Often hard if you feel your partner is somehow committing errors or messing up, but that brings us to number three…
Rule 3. Embrace Failure
Probably my favourite rule. Everything that happens in improv scenes is true. And you kinda go with it. Someone plops a dinosaur into a middle of a kindergarten scene, you roll with it and find a way to have it there, and go with it or edge the scene around the grenade.
So, extending this to teams, much like in Retrospectives in Agile development, you roll with what happens. Believe that people did the best they could, based on the info, time, and conflicts they had, and did what they were capable of. Have people’s backs when stuff go South.
The important thing is to riff off them and keep moving forward, and continue working with what you have.
Why do I like this one? Shit happens. All. The. Time.
In complex environments, forget just an improv scene, you need to recognize that sometimes stuff spirals out of control, empathize, and figure out how to help move to a better outcome than where you were.
Also, being cool with fails makes everyone feel much more psychologically safe (which is one of the main contributors to high performing teams according to Google.). I also think feeling this way helps people raise serious issues before they become mega-fails.
Communicating Better - CROW
Alright, so you’ve got a rough idea of ground rules now, but what other useful, practical takeaways can you extract out of this post?
One of the sort of unspoken rules of improv is that because you are building a scene from literally nothing, just what is in two people’s heads, you have to communicate as clearly as possible (in scenes, often without saying the exact thing). So, clarity of communication and giving context is key.
Especially with setting up a scene, you’re taught to establish CROW as quickly as possible:
- Characters (who are these people?).
- Relationship (what do they mean to each other?).
- Objective (what are they trying to accomplish?)
- World (where are they and what’s the environment?)
If you can set up a scene with these things in a first line, you are doing very well. It requires practice though. You need to quickly establish these aspects for your partner and your audience in order for the scene to have clear meaning and progress.
While it may be more difficult to see the connection here to real world communications, if you establish at the start what you are trying to do when whomever you are talking with knows absolutely zero to start (especially in large orgs with lots of Zoom meetings now), you can pretty much make sure comms go much more smoothly (my big problem is often repeating CROW to people if I feel they are drifting off point in business meetings.) But, do take care to craft that every time and I feel things will go much more smoothly.
These are the most applicable learnings I’ve been able to apply from improv, though in general, besides making me just feel more confident and funnier, I’m just really enjoying it. If either of these two takeaways sound at all interesting, or the idea of being able to roll better with crazy things coming at you all the time is something you need or want to get better at, I honestly encourage you to try an improv class. I have to admit I’m very glad I finally got round to it, and battling through the pandemic apocalypse to finally make a class.
If you do, good luck. I hope it goes amazing for you.
Let me know what you think about the post @awws or firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear feedback about what else has worked for you or if you feel I’ve missed something (or am totally off base) with and (reasoned) opinions on why I might be wrong and what make this post better.