The Business of Improv: How Leaders Can Make It Safe to Take Risks

Cary Paul
Category : Improvisation July 12, 2012

This article is from Cary Paul, our Chief Improv Officer:

Strong leaders inevitably face the challenge of helping people step outside their comfort zones. Today’s blog sheds light on the two key components of creating an environment that makes it safe for people to try something new.

Getting Comfortable Getting Uncomfortable

People often ask me, “How do you actually convince business professionals to perform improv comedy?” Only they don’t usually ask me out loud. The conversation goes something like this:

Person: “You mentioned you led an improv comedy workshop today. Who was your client?”

Me: “A major branch of the U.S. Federal Government.” (Or, “A global consulting firm.”)

Person: (No words—just a quizzical, disbelieving look.)

Me: “I know, hard to believe. Once they get over their initial trepidation, they love it and get great value from it.”

This dialog has gotten me thinking about what it takes for any leader to invite people to step outside their comfort zones with a successful result. It’s all really about creating the right environment for participants. An environment where they feel safe to try something new. And that comes down to two key components: proper planning and tie to mission.

First, Plan Properly

Putting time into planning is always worth it.

For me and my role as an external facilitator, that’s true whether for an hour-long icebreaker, or a day-long meeting.  It’s especially true for sessions with improv comedy as the cornerstone. The planning lessons I’ve learned are relevant for anyone in a leadership role:

  • Involve as many people as possible early on—make it easy and fun
  • Gradually increase the level of risk-taking required to participate
  • Provide an opportunity for early adopters to shine
  • Invite others to follow the lead of the early adopters

Improv itself relies on quick thinking, communication skills, and a strong leader.  As paradoxical as it sounds, if the improv-based session isn’t planned out in advance—at least from the standpoint of its overall structure—it loses its flow and perceived purpose.

Planning the session is critically important as it pertains to drawing participants in. With improv in a business setting, I always begin with large group exercises, where everyone participates, and the toughest things you need to say aloud are: Zip, Zap, Zop, Blue or Red.  People start having fun, they get creative, the hierarchical lines start to blur—a level of comfort settles in.  Only then does the group move to exercises with two to five people “on stage” at a time. And there’s no need to be pleasantly surprised by the early-adopters who jump right up because it’s in the plan—they’re always ready. Others, then, will naturally follow.

Then, Make it Mission-Relevant

Even with a properly planned session, there is one key ingredient that spells disaster if it isn’t integrated: tying the improv session to the mission (of the company, the team, the meeting).  Most importantly, if I can’t tie the concepts of communication, teamwork, getting off-script, being in the moment, and “yes, and…” to the overall purpose, I haven’t done my job of fulfilling on what I know improv can do beyond providing entertainment.

For organizational leaders, the lessons to be gleaned include:

  • Always answer the question, “Why?” so people can make sense of what they’re being asked to do
  • Keep the mission ever-present

With Risk Comes Reward

Whether it’s a meeting, a project, or an improv comedy program, one that is well-planned and ties directly to mission will accomplish the task of creating the right environment for risk-taking. “Yes, and …” now we have a critical foundation for facilitating real change.  And let’s face it: real change, be it in our personal lives or in our professional organizations, comes when we are ready to take risks. Creating an environment that makes it safe for risk-taking makes that change more inviting and attainable.

Originally published by BossaNova Consulting Group, Inc.
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Cary Paul

Cary Paul

I just might have the best title of anyone on The Get Real Project team: Chief Improv Officer. I have over 20 years of consulting experience, specializing in process improvement, change management, facilitation and leadership development. __ years ago I took my first improvisational comedy class, which sparked my passion for applying the principles and practices of improv to real-life business challenges. My clients tell me that the custom programs I create produce profound results for leaders needing new perspectives, creative solutions, breakthroughs in communication and teamwork, and a more nimble and energized workforce.

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