We know what your boss is thinking. The idea of using improv for business sounds as outlandish as using capoeira for consulting or fencing for finance. Your company is less like “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and more like “Whose Job is on the Line Anyway?” Besides, he or she is running a company, not a theater, right?
If you clicked on this article in the first place, there’s a good chance that you already have a strong hunch about the positive impact creative methods like improv can have on business. You’ve probably read or heard about all the money that is lost by companies that don’t use or value their “human” capital. Every year, US companies lose up to:
- $190 billion due to stressed out workers[note]“Workplace Stress Responsible for Up To $190B In Annual Healthcare Costs,” Forbes, January 26, 2013.[/note]
- $550 billion due to the 70% of employees who are disengaged[note]“State of the American Workplace 2014,” Gallup, September 22, 2014.[/note]
- $11 billion due to employee turnover[note]“Why Are So Many Employees Disengaged?” Forbes, January 18, 2013.[/note]
You probably also know the research on how humor — which improv is designed to create — can be an antidote to those lost billions. You know that humor and improv can:
- Reduce stress hormone levels and alleviate anxiety[note]“So Funny, It Doesn’t Hurt,” The Atlantic, September 11, 2015; [/note]
- Help managers achieve greater levels of employee engagement and encourage better work performance from others and themselves[note]Rizzo, Brian J. Individual Differences in Managers’ Use of Humor. Communication Research Reports. Vol 16, No. 4, Fall 1999.[/note]
- Make employees feel more satisfied with their jobs and be less likely to quit[note]Rizzo, Brian J. Individual Differences in Managers’ Use of Humor. Communication Research Reports. Vol 16, No. 4, Fall 1999.[/note]
But how do you convince others—namely your old-school, tradition-bound boss—that dedicating time and resources to building an improvisational mindset on the job is worth it? In the immortal words of improv guru Del Close, “Don’t think.” We’ve done all the thinking for you and put together a list of 8 tips for how you can convince your boss to bring improv to work.
1) Focus on the similarities between improv and business
Both improv and business require a certain set of skills — quick-thinking abilities, clear and collaborative communication, resilience in the face of adversity, and adaptability, to name just a few. None of these skills can be taught by webinar or PowerPoint presentation; each can result only from experience and the confidence that comes with that experience.
One of our favorite descriptions of improv is “an intuitive, coordinated, and spontaneous response to a dynamic environment.” Who among us would say that doesn’t accurately describe what we do at work every day? Improv is inherently a team-based activity. And why do we tend to conduct business and organize companies in team-based structures? Because just like with every live improv performance, we are trying to create something bigger than our individual selves, something we could not accomplish on our own. So, pitch improv in the workplace as a creative way to shore up hard-to-teach but essential skills like communicating, listening, and empathy.
2) Stand up for “soft” skills
More than ever before, the business world is in need of workers with well-honed soft skills. As consensus shifts away from the over-emphasis on the value of hard skills, leaders are recognizing that what really matters to the bottom line over the long-term are the competencies we too easily dismiss as “soft” skills: resilience and grit; flexibility and adaptability; humble leadership; grace under pressure; collaboration; and empathic communications. Improvisers constantly train to develop these exact same skills in the service of co-creating comedy onstage out of thin air; it’s a small leap to understand how the same skills could be valuable in any dynamic business setting. It’s the employees with these skills (not always the single-focused technical workers) that foster relationships with clients, treat their colleagues with respect, and know how to take charge without crushing those beneath them. Such employees are inherently teachable so you can train and re-train them as your company evolves, and they can problem-solve interpersonal conflicts and complex business challenges.
If your boss doesn’t yet get the importance of “soft” skills, tell him or her that even scientists — those with the “hardest” of skills — are using improv to boost their effectiveness. Maybe also throw in a reference to a 2010 MIT study[note]“Creativity, idea generation, improvisational humor, and product design.” MIT 2010.[/note] that found the following:
- Improvisational comedians on average produced 20% more product ideas than professional product designers who were well-versed in traditional ideation methods
- Improvisers also produced 25% more creative (read: higher quality) ideas than career product designers
- Putting participants through just one improv comedy workshop increased their idea output on average by 37%
In today’s economy, it seems how you think can often be more important than what you know.
3) Focus on problem-solving
More specifically, focus on solving your boss’s problems. Before you pitch improv as a tool to fix your own workplace problems or grease the wheels on your own creative train, take a walk in your boss’s shoes. In what areas might he or she want to see improvement? Are customer service stats stagnating? Is he or she finding it difficult to recruit the best people? Does the company need a refresh of creative methods that are already being used? Is the company disconnected from the needs of its customers? In addition to improving general skills like creativity and collaboration, improv can also be leveraged to make value-driven improvements to specific areas of operations like these. Let your boss see how you can think out of the box to help him or her sleep better at night.
4) Remind your boss of what (or who) is at the heart of your business
Chances are, you’re not marketing or selling to robots. Your clientele are people, just like you, and just like you they have complex feelings, desires, and emotions. Improv is a powerful tool for developing empathy and allows you tap into those basic human emotions and understand the wants, needs, and desires behind them. Knowing how to interpret and react to customers’ human nature – and how to understand staff motivations in delivering for customers – will allow your company to be on the cutting edge of customer service and solution design.
5) Emphasize process over fun
Yes, improv is extraordinarily fun. Even the most results-oriented workshops we design are a great time. But “Organizational Improv” as we practice it is primarily a process and methodology for learning and behavior change. The goal is not to make you and your colleagues the next Tina Feys — to be blunt, who cares if you are good at improv when it comes to work? The goal is to use improv as an approach for learning the professional skills we already know to be valuable: leadership, customer service, communications, collaboration, innovation, etc…
Emphasize to your boss that improv is the unique delivery system — rather than the outcome — for the same desirable skills and optimal behaviors he or she would like the business to embody. The bonus is that improv as a methodology is more effective and “stickier” than traditional lecture- or webinar-based professional development trainings. Risk-averse leaders tend to love the idea of process and frameworks because these indicate repeatability and predictability. (Spoiler alert: this also means #6 will be successful).
6) Use your boss’s fear in your favor
People who cling to traditions, want to do things the way they’ve always been done, and fear the unknown are — not surprisingly — motivated by fear. Use that to your advantage and tell your boss about all the amazing companies like Google, Apple, Nike, and American Express that are using improv to get an edge in business. Better yet, let your boss know about existing clients and competitors who are using improv at work; chances are fairly good that he or she won’t want to be left in the dust. A large “white-shoe” law firm once hired us on-the-spot when they saw our client list and discovered that several of their big clients had done improv workshops; they wanted to keep pace with their customers and be able to speak the same language.
7) Just do it
There can be a lot of power in just doing something without naming what it is or getting permission. There are plenty of ways you can incorporate improvisational methods in your daily work without anyone knowing. Open up your next weekly meeting with a quick improv game and see how it creates a fun, playful, and productive tone. Start off the next brainstorming session with an activity that screams “Yes, and”-style collaboration and see how many more ideas you get. Do a quick active-listening exercise with your colleague before your next high-stakes client meeting and see how much more you understand about that client’s needs.
After your colleagues and boss learn the value of improv in the workplace first-hand, you’ll have the credibility to reveal that you were using improvisation. Use that credibility to suggest to your boss that he or she support improv at work in a more systematic way to keep reaping the benefits.
8) Promise fewer happy hours
As team building and staff rewards go, an improv workshop is way more valuable than yet another happy hour — or another cheese and cracker plate at the office holiday party!