Why improv isn’t just for comedy clubs

Learn how this communication tool can boost business performance

Improvisation, or the art form called improv, may call to mind comedy shows but it also is a serious business tool. Organizations are using it to foster teamwork, collaboration, positive engagement and mindfulness, says Bob Kulhan, founder and chief executive officer of Business Improv, who also is a part-time comedian and an adjunct professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and Columbia Business School in New York. Kulhan describes his strategies in his new book, “Getting to ‘Yes And’: The Art of Business Improvisation,” which he co-authored with Chuck Crisafulli.

For those unfamiliar with the basic tenets of improvisation, “yes and” means performers accept whatever their scene partners say and then build on it with their own contributions. It requires listening, openness and flexibility.

microphone standup improv Why improv isn’t just for comedy clubs

Kulhan recently discussed these tools on the [email protected] show, part of Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: You got into looking at this for what reason?

Bob Kulhan: I’m a Chicago-trained improviser and spent just shy of 16 years in the trenches in Chicago studying the art of improvisation, literally from the people who created this art form before they passed away. … My formal degree is in business, and so the art of improvisation was a perfect match for me in showing people that this specific set of tools and techniques links directly to business through the behavioral psychologies and sciences, and (through) business schools.

Improvisation is a communication-based art form that is based in some core principles of business. It’s been used in business for 25 to 30 years.

[email protected]Do people in a business setting often think in one way and don’t necessarily think on their feet?

Kulhan: Absolutely. There are all sorts of biases that keep us from just communicating with people and keeping an open mind. What we look for in improvisation is a postponement in judgment so that we can take in and absorb the offers and opportunities that are being presented to us. (We can then) put ourselves in a better position to make smart decisions based on a number of variables rather than what we think is right or wrong or in the way that we look at things through our specific lens.

[email protected]: The concept behind the book is about a building process where you’re able to do certain things. But you also want to improve what you can do, strengthen your skills and be able to move up the chain.

Kulhan: The “Yes And” in the book’s title is the cornerstone of all improvisation around the world, and so that’s what we’re trying to get people to understand. Our journey in getting to “yes and,” starts with personal development—what can you use for yourself? Then in interpersonal development—how can you help the one or two people around you? Then in team development—how can you help that larger group of people?

Finally, how do you implement these improvisation tools and techniques inside a culture so that the culture itself and the people inside of it can be more adaptable, nimble and flexible; be ready to take on change; and embrace creativity and innovation? At a leadership level, you work on things like influence, crafting culture and helping foster talent. For example, (in the case of) millennials, it is about creating an environment in which ideas are shared openly, and there’s a greater sense of purpose than a paycheck or individual self-worth.

[email protected]: Team building is becoming a very important ability to have.

Kulhan: When great minds and intelligent people are sharing thoughts with each other, the collective consciousness of the group will outweigh that of any individual. The team will be smarter than any one person who is operating in a bubble.

[email protected]: What is the general reaction you get from people involved in business school programs when you talk about improvisation? I would think there probably have been cases where you get a cross-eyed look about why improv is important.

Kulhan: You’re hitting it on the head. About 17 or 18 years ago that cross-eyed look also was paired with a scowl and pursed lips. Improvisation has a connotation of comedy and comedy alone. However, what’s happened over the last decade and a half is an evolution in the way that we perceive improvisation and the need to be better at it. Great businesses understand that adaptability and comfort with change, ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty and complexity are core elements of a company in this current day and era.

[email protected]: How important is the “and” part of the getting to “yes and”?

Kulhan: It’s immensely important, because “yes” on its own is a definitive end. “And” is the bridge to what you do with this information. “Yes” is unconditional acceptance, focus and openness to understanding what the idea is. “And” is a bridge to how you are focused, and it’s the bridge to your thoughts and your intelligence. “And” is the bridge to how you react to the “yes” that you’ve just said.

[email protected]: You also write about how it takes away a little bit of a layer of fear that some people may have in a situation.

Kulhan: Absolutely. The act of executing “yes and” on a regular basis eliminates that fear. (That includes) fear of being judged, fear of repercussions of what you are going to say, fear of the unknown and fear of chaos. It removes much of that because the emphasis really is on communication and on collaboration, so it has that team element. You’re saying that this is a collective and an opportunity for all of us to get together and share ideas, and let the group intelligence come and bring the best they can to any situation.

[email protected]: If there are mistakes made along the way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a mistake is a be-all and end-all; it’s just a transition point.

Kulhan: Absolutely. If you’re not making mistakes, are you really pushing the envelope? Are you really innovating? There has to be a place in time in which risk taking and mistake making are not only accepted, but are encouraged. That’s in that “let’s-make-a-mess” divergent side, brainstorming and creativity process. You clean it up more in the innovation and convergent-thinking side where you’re driving all of this mess and cleaning it up to a productive outcome.

We shouldn’t be judged at every single at-bat. There will be some strikeouts, some foul balls, some hit by pitches, but, ultimately, it’s what you do over the course of that entire season that makes that batting average. That’s also where it should be in any business in relation to collaboration or creativity. It’s (about) what you do that represents your brand over a longer period.

[email protected]: You also bring up the term “thinking outside the box,” which has been a catchphrase in the business community. What’s your reaction to that phrase and how can it be linked to what you’re talking about in this book?

Kulhan: It’s a good phrase on its own. The problem is, without knowing how to actually think outside of the box, it’s just a phrase—it’s just a set of buzzwords. It’s how you not only think outside of the box, but (also) how to just get the box out of the way. Creativity is subjective, and if all of us are just trying to say the smartest thing—the most creative thing—the opportunity for us to discover something truly innovative or a true disruptor is challenged because we’re all thinking inside the box while we’re trying to think outside the box. So just kick the box out of the way and let’s communicate with each other on an equal-status level like we are trying to achieve something greater than what any one person can.

[email protected]: Having the ability to be able to improv at times can enhance the other skills that you have in the workplace.

Kulhan: Sure. The ability to improvise is based on several core elements, no matter what the context. If it’s improvisation on a comedy stage or as an elite chef, first responder, special forces team or radio host, it’s about being present and focused in the moment in real time, and then simply reacting to what’s being given to you, adapting to how the people around you are reacting to how you are reacting and communicating across the board. Those concepts of being present, reacting, adapting and communicating can fit in so many arenas.

[email protected]: That enhances the person’s business resume, how their stature is viewed in a particular company, whether they are a true leader, whether they would move up the corporate chain or whether they potentially will be picked by another company to come work for them.

Kulhan: Presence alone, and the tenets that I just described, link directly to mindfulness, which is a topic du jour for leadership. It, of course, then links to emotional intelligence. Using the tenets of improvisation on a regular basis helps you achieve mindfulness and increases your emotional intelligence, which would help anybody’s resume.

[email protected]: What’s your view on mindfulness in general?

Kulhan: Mindfulness overall is a great concept that almost everybody can use. For most people to get to mindfulness, it’s based in meditation. Although that is an effective way to get to mindfulness, I don’t think that’s the only way to do it.

There’s more than one way to hit a piñata, and exercising the tenets of improvisation on a regular basis will help you get to that state of being present and focused and concentrating and aware, and at the same time not (being) blind to the situation around you. You have these soft eyes and you can observe and audit and take in with a high level of awareness the environment and people in the environment, and do the best you can at that time.

[email protected]Is being able to use improvisation a skill that is transferable to other people within your company? I would think that there are people who have the ability to see that quality and then use that in their own performance. But I would think there probably are other people for whom it would be hard to make that transition.

Kulhan: There always will be hard nuts to crack, no matter what. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We lead by example, so our lip service does mean something to a lot of people, and the framing of our language should affect and support how we behave. Ultimately, it’s our behavior that’s going to influence the people around us.

When you align the framing of language with your behavior, and you’re consistent and explicit even in how you are doing this and why you are doing this, you definitely can influence people to behave in a certain way.

My challenge for anybody listening would be, if you don’t think “yes and” is an effective communication tool, go to a bar or next time you’re on an airplane sitting next to somebody, do nothing but say “yes but” to that person for five solid minutes, and see what happens. If you still can hold that conversation, start “yes and-ing” them for five solid minutes and watch how they behave. Watch how they are influenced by the framing of your language, even if you are trying to be positive with your “yes buts.”

This aligns with a mental framing, if you will, where instead of looking for reasons to shoot things down or reasons why things won’t work, you frame it into once again a “yes and” philosophy, where you’re looking for opportunities, possibilities and potential as opposed to the negative aspect. When you look for the positive that doesn’t mean you dismiss the negative; it just means that if you have to operate within confines, budget, structure, deadlines, etc., you find ways to succeed within those confines, as opposed to using those confines for reasons why you didn’t succeed.

[email protected]: Is this something you see growing more at the lower levels of companies and maybe into middle management than at the C-suite?

Kulhan: With my company, Business Improv, we specialize in C-level down. We’re working a lot in creating culture and environments in which people want to work. It’s about instilling intrinsic motivation in the people who are employed so that the turnover rate isn’t high, for example.

With the current focus on millennials wherein there is a need to communicate between age differences and generations, there is a strong need to use improvisation techniques.

It should be a top-down approach. If you want change to happen, everyone is going to watch the leadership to see what it is doing. So, if you have people who are change resistors or less apt to use this, then that’s where the younger people and midlevel management will start focusing. If you allow people to use their time and energy to build into an environment, they’re going to be intrinsically motivated to buy into the culture of the company, the people and the leadership.

[email protected]: It probably gives people the ability to feel like they can handle projects on their own at times.

Kulhan: Absolutely. If you’re going to have a strong team, you have to have some trust blocks put into place. If trust and communication are cornerstones of your team, you can allow people to do their job and you don’t have to micromanage them or sit over their shoulders. They’ll come to you with challenges, questions and opportunities that perhaps you didn’t even see, and from there you can grow faster.

Republished with permission from [email protected] (Knowledge.Wharton.Upenn.edu), the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia.

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