What Improv Comedy Can Teach Business Leaders

Microphone with lights in the background

Outthinker Networks member, Adam Field, Senior Vice President of Product Management at Tungsten Automation (formerly Kofax), was on stage presenting to a packed audience of technology and business leaders. At the peak of his presentation, he threw his notes on the ground for emphasis. As he leaned over to pick them up, the distinct sound of ripping fabric was heard. Field had split his pants wide open on stage! 

Fortunately, Field was no stranger to onstage surprises. He was able to quickly pivot to save his high-stakes presentation using techniques he knew from performing improv comedy. During a career gap, he had taken classes at a local theatre. What started as an attempt to learn to be funnier taught him valuable lessons that would later apply to his role in corporate strategy. 

Applying the Rules of  Improv to Business Strategy

Early in Field’s career, during the Dot Com boom, he was working for a high-flying consultancy. When the bubble burst, he was laid off. Single and childless in those years, he caught an improv show at a Boston theatre to pass the time.

Improv – short for improvisation – is a form of live theater in which all aspects of the performance (plot, characters, dialogues, stories and scenes) are made up on the spot. There are no scripts, and everything that happens on stage is a live game between the players. 

Field’s friend encouraged him, “You know, I bet you’d be pretty good at improv.” Field decided to sign up for one of the theatre’s courses.

The year-long class covered basic exercises up to putting on a show in front of an audience. What Field learned went far beyond “how to be funny.” Rather, improv would teach him strategies to deal with the unexpected in any situation—insights relevant for today’s strategists as they navigate environments of high uncertainty. 

Outthinker Networks President, Claudio Garcia, interviewed Field, who shared his lessons on how the rules of improv can be applied to strategy in business.

Adam Field Outthinker Strategy Network

Say “Yes, and!”

The primary rule of improv, and the one most people recognize, is “Yes, and…” Onstage, when your teammate says or does something, even if it changes the direction you thought the scene was going, you must accept it as a gift and run with it. 

Field realized the “Yes, and…” principle could help him be more successful and comfortable in other areas of life. For example, when he was speaking to a customer about new techniques for developing software, the developers became confrontational. They feared Field was attempting to replace their jobs. Field acknowledged their worries and assured them he was simply introducing a tool to make their workdays more productive. Instead of negating their concerns, he listened and was able to move the conversation along in a positive way. 

“With improv, no matter what situation you’re in, you learn the tools to adjust and determine a way out of it."

Truth in Comedy... and Strategy

Another tenant of improv is accepting the law of “Truth in Comedy.” Improv is funny because it is grounded in reality. Improv comedians know the real world is funny; they don’t need to lie or make up a scene. It’s the unexpected that creates beauty and humor on stage. 

Successful strategists accept a similar truth: they know change is inevitable. With that in mind, they prepare for the unexpected. When a customer changes their mind or the market shifts, they don’t get flustered. Those who neglect the reality of change soon find themselves stuck in the past. Strategists who prepare to improvise are those who will thrive in the new world.

Listen, and let go of your great idea

Improvisers let go of their plans all the time. A scene starts going in one direction, then a disruption occurs that sets off a new plot line. Players see those disruptions as opportunities, or “gifts.”  

A key to recognizing gifts is listening. If a player is still stuck on their own idea while another player is acting, the scene won’t make sense. Listening is an improviser’s – and a strategist’s – main tool. To respond and build off what your partner is saying, you need to fully listen to what they are saying. This is equally true in organizations when it comes to listening to customers, front line workers, and employees at all levels of the organization.  

Leaders must practice careful listening which will often reveal adjustments to the plan. Learn to see these changes as opportunities. If everything goes according to what you thought was going to happen, your competitors probably expect that, too. To prepare for inevitable disruption, you need a willingness to abandon your plan. 

Final Thoughts

Field was backstage ready for another presentation to 4,000 people at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. His company’s Chief Product Officer introduced him. Field walked out, pressed the button on his demo, and… it didn’t start. He paused, and to fill time while someone ran on stage to fix the problem, he confidently created a distraction by explaining the intricacies of a potted plant prop on stage until the demo was up and running again. 

Whether you’re having a conversation with a peer or you’re onstage presenting to thousands, the unexpected is inevitable. These improvisation techniques will help you plan for when your plan fails and equip you with the tools to succeed. Practice saying, “yes, and…” Accept uncomfortable truths of reality, even if they don’t fit with your current agenda. And really listen, so you can hear when you need to let go of your ideas and adapt.

Great strategists and improvisers know this: sometimes you can plan, and sometimes you just split your pants. 

About Outthinker Networks

Outthinker Networks brings together two executive peer networks – the Outthinker Strategy Network and the Outthinker Innovators Network – to help senior strategy and innovation leaders solve their most pressing challenges and keep their organizations ahead of the pace of disruption. 

Are you a strategy, innovation, or transformation executive interested in joining one of our networks?

Authors

Claudio Garcia
Claudio GarciaPresident - Outthinker Networks
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Cori Dombroski
Cori DombroskiContent Director - Outthinker Networks
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