Perfection is boring. The good stuff comes from taking (measured) risks.

Lessons from improv, part four

There’s an improv exercise that has routinely popped-up at Stanford. In JSK orientation. On the first day, and multiple times thereafter, in improv and acting classes. In multiple courses. In Graduate School of Business courses.

The exercise involves going back and forth with a partner, alternately saying “one,” “two” and “three,” then substituting various sounds, snaps, claps and/or gestures for the numbers. When someone makes a mistake, both partners celebrate the failure with a “woo-hoo” and raised arms (or similar sound and gesture).

It’s a great exercise for getting a group moving and vocalizing, getting strangers to be more comfortable around each other and (the key point) making failure less stigmatizing, at least for a bit.

“Celebrate failure” is a cliché, especially around here. This year, I’ve learned a good bit about the nuances — the value and misleading aspects — of that bromide and its cousins like “fail fast”.

Perfection is boring.

A key lesson improv drove home is how counter-productive our drive for self-protection and perfection can be in many situations.

The point of the counting exercise — and many others we performed in improv class — is not perfection. Perfection is easy. Just go slow.

It’s also deadly boring and adds zero value. Taking risks is where the fun and the value lie.

That’s true in these artificial games. It’s true in comedy and drama. But its truth is more widely applicable. It’s true in personal development, relationships and business.

Failure bonds.

Risking failure (sufficiently to actually fail on occasion) bonds. Instructor Dan Klein told the class, “Shared success bonds. Shared failure bonds more strongly.” This is true in improv, but also for the many business teams he’s consulted.

Context and degree of failure matter, of course. But when I think back to the workplaces and teams in my life that have been the closest, they feature multiple moments of heightened obstacles, struggle, failure and learning.

In a recent episode of Wharton professor Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, he examines how astronauts and other successful groups build trust. The key: stressful, difficult situations, where risk is inherent and failure looms as a constant presence.

Grant says these are the situations where the strongest bonds are formed. Not only do we learn from the situations, what works and what doesn’t. We learn about our teammates. We get to see their skills and weaknesses in action.

In The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle studied a variety of highly successful group cultures, from elite athletes to leading businesses. Many leaders of these groups, he says, are “mildly suspicious of success. They presumed that there were other, better ways of doing things, and they were unafraid of change.”

Moreover, he says that successful cultures are forged in crises, but only when those crises crystallize purpose. Building that purpose is “a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning.”


The key to redeeming failure is the learning, as I wrote about in part two. Doing, observing and learning allow you adjust and do better. As basketball coach John Wooden has famously said, “the team that makes the most mistakes usually wins.”

Move on.

However, that’s not the full quote. The full quote is, “the team that makes the most mistakes usually wins, because doers make mistakes.”

The focus in on the doing, taking action. Sometimes, you need to forget the learning and just move on.

As Patricia Ryan Madson advises in Improv Wisdom, “When you make a mistake, turn your attention to what comes next. Focus on doing that well, with full mind and heart. Look ahead, not back.”

Too often, conscious attempts to learn, to analyze, take you out of the present moment. And sometimes there’s not much to learn (as with the counting exercise). You just need to move on.

Either way — whether you’re focused on learning or need to tell yourself to move on — the key is to stay observant and stay in the moment. What does the current situation need? As Madson writes, “Keep adjusting to how it is rather than how you’d like it to be.”

Keep risks small.

On the first day of improv class, Klein said that they key to making “celebrate failure” into something that actually works is to iterate and keep risks small.

Because, of course, the exhortation to celebrate failure is context dependent. I don’t want my airline pilot or surgeon celebrating failure in the midst of flying or operating. I don’t want those manning our nuclear silos celebrating failure in preventing accidental launches.

Even in those situations, however, celebrating failure may be appropriate in certain contexts, such as learning in a simulation or performing appropriate tiny experiments to find new solutions.

To the degree that risks are small and you have the opportunity to iterate, then celebrating failure is a great way to encourage appropriate risk-taking and learning and to encourage action over inaction.

Find and build supportive environments

Part of what helps keep risks small is a supportive environment.

Most of my time in improv class was spent doing exercises that help improvisers let go of their reticence and trust each other. Even at the end of the course, when we were “performing” for each other and doing Theatresports-like formats, we started class with exercises to keep us loose and trusting.

In discussing the turnaround of Walt Disney Animation, Pixar and Disney Animation President Edwin Catmull saw changing the culture and building trust among team members as key, and that required taking risks in an environment of safety.

As Catmull told Coyle, “You have to go through some failures and some screw-ups, and survive them, and support each other through them. And then after that happens, you really begin to trust one another.”

Notice that this process requires both failure and support. Without the former, little learning takes place and little new is created. Without the latter, people shut down for fear of punishment or isolation.

So supportive, you can clash

In improv class, we avoided doing much individual performance and anything that seemed like competition for much of the class. By the end of class, we reveled in each others’ performances and enjoyed fake competitions.

It took building that low-pressure supportive environment to get to the performative stage.

But it’s also not enough to just have a Kumbaya atmosphere if you want to do great work. You want to get the point where you feel safe pushing each other.

In that “How Astronauts Build Trust” episode of Adam Grant’s podcast, former Space Shuttle Commander Jeff Ashby said, “You have to get to the point where you disagree, and disagree at an emotional level.”

In another podcast episode, Grant examines group creativity, using the Daily Show as a case study. He talks about the need for mutual respect and psychological safety as core requirements.

But they aren’t sufficient. There should be so much psychological safety that people can be critical.

Grant pushes back on the rule in brainstorming that “there’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

“…actually, that’s a bad idea,” he says. “It turns out that people are more creative in groups where criticism is welcomed. It raises the bar. Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everything is all warm and fuzzy.”

He references an experiment where participants had to come up with different uses for a paper clip. Those randomly assigned to share an embarrassing story about themselves were more creative. Discomfort has value (something he ties to diversity later in the episode).

We need work groups so supportive we can disagree, so supportive we can fail and the group and our sense of safety within it survive.

As Coyle writes, “… building creative purpose isn’t really about creativity. It’s about building ownership, providing support, and aligning group energy toward the arduous, error-filled, ultimately fulfilling journey of making something new.”

Lessons from Improv

Part One: Be present, available and obvious
Part Two: Ready, fire, aim. Repeat.
Part Three: Focus on giving
Part Four: Perfection is boring. The good stuff comes from taking (measured) risks.