Improv as a Crisis Management Tool: Tackling Uncharted Territory
Improv is not only about laughs. It’s about facing uncharted territory with curiosity, enthusiasm, and fearlessness.
I started taking improv classes during a challenging time. I accepted an interim leadership position at an organization that was undergoing a difficult transition, and I wanted to meet the disruption head on by disrupting myself in new ways. The notion of having a parallel setting outside of the workplace to test ideas, problem solve with others, take risks, and even have a few laughs seemed like a good strategy, even if it meant adding another obligation to an already packed schedule. It was and continues to be time well spent.
Here’s the thing about improv, it’s not just about getting a laugh. Yeah, a good laugh is one possible outcome, but improv is about perspective and listening and support and building and, most notable to me, co-creating something that did not exist before, has no roadmap, and may in fact seem untenable. It’s a make-something-meaningful-out-of-nothing exercise. Going into a crisis situation, I knew that there would be a lot of uncharted territory and that is exactly what improv is all about: creating and dealing effectively with uncharted territory.
I jumped in to the improv experience with an open mind and ready to rely on my quick wit and sense of humor, skills I honed in an Italian-American family that, over the generations, has perfected the art of teasing to master-level proportions. But I learned immediately — level 1 class 1 — that wit and even a willingness to look foolish are not enough.
Improv is very difficult to do in large part because it means undoing the rules most of us have learned about how to attain success, be strategic, and to be viewed as a star player, especially in the workplace.
Here’s how it helped me lead not only during the initial crisis that led me to the class in the first place, but since, as I have continued to serve in a leadership capacity in the non-profit sector:
- Help people build out their ideas even if you don’t agree with or understand them
I’m sure you’ve been in meetings where a coworker expresses an idea and the first thing that drops is a series of questions (AKA judgments): Why would you do it that way? Or a set of alternatives: Yeah, that’s good, but I have a better idea (i.e., I’m better than you at your idea). Or the always show-stopping, Let’s take a step back and look at this more strategically (i.e., I’m strategic and you’re not.)
I have become more keenly aware of these behaviors in myself and in others since taking improv. I have also learned the value of letting ideas live and even thrive before falling into the temptation of critique. In this respect, improv serves as good partner training for those familiar with and interested in design thinking.
Improv helps to undue all of these go-to approaches. Questions in improv are a no-no as are negations and scene-stealing. Wherever you or your scene partner wants to go — you go and add to — you don’t ask why, you don’t try to redirect, and you definitely do not try to upstage. Here’s a great example from Tina Fey about how to fail big at improv.
2. Learn how to make good decisions on a shoestring
When you are doing a practice scene you and another person are typically given one word (e.g., recently, I was given the word aquarium) or maybe an emotion (e.g., jealousy). And that’s it. I was the designated lead in the aquarium scene and I drew on the emotion of jealousy since we had used it in a warm-up exercise earlier in the class.
My scene partner and I built an entire bit around me cleaning out an aquarium. As he fed me details about the person who caused my jealousy (She’s beautiful. She’s brilliant. She’s funny.), the pace of my cleaning became increasingly obsessive. He didn’t try to appease my jealousy or argue about it. He found a way to add to it, and as a result, his prodding and my intense scrubbing led to more and more laughter. Mind you, I was doing this while scrubbing an invisible aquarium (called “object work” in improv), but I assure you, the audience — my classmates — were fully bought in to there being a real object and real emotions and an actual storyline. We accomplished a lot with very little to go on and no direction.
Here’s what I can tell you about a crisis: you have to make decisions with little to go on. There are often short timespans and the gift of being fully informed is more the exception than the rule. You have to do the best you can with what you know in any given moment. You have to listen to your close advisors and let them help you build, quickly, toward workable solutions. You have to be ready to tap into creative pathways you didn’t even know you had (the idea for a jealous woman cleaning an aquarium was nothing I could have prepared for in advance), and you have to be willing to take risks with people you trust.
3. Fearlessness, bravery and getting comfortable with mistakes
I found it interesting that many people had a similar reaction when I started taking improv as they did when I jumped in as an interim executive director: “That’s brave and scary and something I could never do.” So there I was, amid two experiences that others found brave and scary. I knew that neither crisis management nor improv would be easy, and I knew that I would not be perfect at either. What I wanted to practice, was how to cope with and bounce back from the unpredictable. I wanted to be fully prepared for how best to recover, and quickly, from whatever swipes came along.
Improv provides countless opportunities to practice quick, savvy rebounding. Especially as a new student, mistakes outweigh successes, but the mistakes and how you recover are celebrated, not in an “everybody gets a trophy” way, but in a way that earns you praise for either making good out of a bad situation for yourself, or even better, doing so for your scene partner. Here’s a good overview of the connection between mistake making, improv, and leadership skills from a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
I’ve made it to Level 3 (of six) at my improv classes in Boston. Some weeks are better than others scene-wise, but I always leave having learned something about myself, my leadership style, leadership habits, and how to get out of my own way. Improv is risky business filled with perfectionists and imperfections, and I’ve been fortunate to witness an incredible array of brilliant performances emerge from a lot of wrongdoing and mayhem.