Enhance Your Work with Improv!


What is Improv and what does it have to do with our work as advisors to family enterprises?

These were questions I had as I began to notice that it was popping up in places such as the MIT Sloan School of Management, the negotiation program at Harvard Business School, and in groups as varied as the NY Yankees and the local middle school. My curiosity was piqued. Having lived in the ‘left brain world’ so much, I decided I’d inch into the ‘right brain world’ just a bit. So, I checked out ImprovBoston and enrolled in the Improv 101 course. (I just graduated and am moving on to 201). I am now convinced Improv can enhance our capabilities as advisors to those complex systems of family enterprises and let me make the case.

First, let’s define Improv:

It is a series of ‘scenes’ with a few simple rules that the improvisers know and commit to. Within the frame of these ‘rules’ the individuals perform without preparation or planning. The basic rules include:

  • “Yes, and …”
  • “Make your scene partner look good by building on what is offered.”
  • “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”

The dialogue then takes off from a single, specific idea that usually comes from the audience. For example, two improvisers on stage are given the direction from the audience that this is a doctor and a patient in the doctor’s office. Then, the fun begins. (Doesn’t this begin to sound like meetings we have with our clients? We come with an agenda and they show up with another pressing issue.)

Now, let’s look at what Improv isn’t:

It isn’t about trying to be funny or the best in the scene or going to the great response you thought of last night. It is about:

  • Really listening to what you are offered by your partner
  • Staying focused in the present
  • Paying attention to your emotions and your body
  • Taking what you are offered (no matter how crazy or dumb) and building on it to make your partner (and the team) look great.

When working, this allows for wonderfully creative discoveries. (Just what we look for when working with our clients—new discoveries, creative solutions to old problems, all of us, client and consultant, looking great.)

In preparing for this article, I interviewed my teacher, Mike Descoteaux, Artistic Director of ImprovBoston. Here’s our conversation:

JHD: In our first class, you said that Improv was a “philosophy of life.” Will you expand on that?

MD: It has a simple set of principles that encourages teamwork and inspires the participants to support each other, embrace each others’ creativity, and to work together collaboratively.

JHD: That sounds very much like our work with family enterprises. We often have to help family business members find new solutions to old problems and manage conflict within a certain set of rules—the best practices principles. Tell us more about the rules and how they work.

MD: Well, one of the first things we learn to do is how to agree, following the ‘Yes, and’ rule. We don’t have to like what a scene partner has said or ‘offered’ to us but we have to agree to work together, to listen actively and carefully to what the other has said, say “Yes, and”, and to build on that. It’s about not judging but really listening. As we build on what has been given to us, we are now invested in the idea and the discussion we’re creating together. With this teamwork, the partners create new endings and rework old scripts. We say ‘YES’ to a partner’s idea, adding our own contributions with the ‘AND’. For example, “YES, you’re right that patient does look a bit pale. AND, I suggest we check to make sure he’s breathing, after our lunch break.” Together we build unscripted scenes limited only by our own creativity and collaboration.

JHD: That is often what we strive for when we have family members in conflict or in an impasse. And by saying yes, we’re not just agreeing mindlessly or passively, but with courage, optimism, and commitment. Now, let’s talk again about the Improv rules. You have throughout our course emphasized the importance of them. Why are they important?

MD: They are fundamental to good improvisation. The first is the ‘Yes, and’ that helps us communicate effectively and join with the other in the conversation. It requires really listening and remembering what is being said, staying in the moment, which is the second rule–to listen carefully and actively—looking beyond the mere words. This involves paying attention not only to the words but also to the actions, the non-verbals—expressions, body postures. Listening actively is also about empathy and that’s what we stress when we teach Improv in middle schools. It helps the kids learn to “walk in the others’ shoes” and resolve conflicts by trying to understand what the other is communicating.

Getting back to conflict, my experience is that conflict often comes from not listening, and I mean really listening. By using the “Yes, and” we are then both invested and share ownership of the conversation and only through really listening can we be creative together. For the fortune 500 CEO, it’s no different; the work is the same. With those on the front line, as in customer service, it’s about developing ‘strong listening’ skills and understanding the likely outcomes from the way you communicate, getting either a positive or negative response.

JHD: The cooperation principle not only speaks to our work helping clients with new solutions but also to our work in multi-disciplinary teams. We need to support each other as we work together with our clients. And, when we really listen, we may be able to let go of assumptions and preconceived ideas that keep us from solutions. Now let’s look at what you’ve taught about paying attention to our bodies and emotions. Why is that, ‘physical intelligence’, important in improvisation?

MD: It’s no accident the newer, hipper, successful companies, like Google for example, have Ping-Pong tables in their offices and encourage their employees to get up and move around. Simply changing positions gives you new information about the scene and your experience in it. It can also stimulate new thoughts. It’s so important to pay attention to what you body is telling you. We teach ‘object work’ to help the students listen to what their bodies are telling them and to practice creating a ‘feel’ of something—whether it’s throwing an imaginary ball, drinking out of an imaginary mug or driving an imaginary car.

JHD: What are some other thoughts on how Improv applies to working with groups?

MD: When we work with groups, we get them to work and have fun together. We ‘crowd-source’ creativity. If people can laugh together, just for a while, you can slip the truth in and that can have lasting effects. We know that social media has had a negative effect on basic human interactions. In this plugged-in world, Improv helps people interact, collaborate, create and have fun together, and be open to others’ ideas.

In the exercise ‘take that back’ we explore ideas that surely won’t work and then can brainstorm ideas that will. (In ‘take that back’ exercise, the MC or teacher rings a bell after something an improviser says, and the improviser must say something different from what was just said.) This allows a safe and fun place to for exploration. It sometimes means taking the dumbest idea someone has offered you and building on it. This can force you to come up with ideas that no one else has, be creative, and to take risks. The best part is that the ideas that we thought at the start would ‘surely not work’ are often the ones that prove the most creative, fun, and ultimately successful—but only through the commitment and relentless support of the team on stage.

JHD: Certainly the business families we work with need some fun times together, a time to laugh together, to enjoy each other. As we come to the end of our discussion, tell me what are some of the pitfalls that beginners experience?

MD: Well, I think the one is beginners saying “yes, and” without actually meaning it—it means compromising on stage and that does waste time. If the agreement is weak, it is difficult to build on, hard to set the basic scene, and the idea collapses. I think the other is that beginners are nervous and do a lot of self-editing which takes them away from the real experience and audiences know that. Scenes can fall flat when they don’t come from the creative, unedited, authentic self. And the other is trying to be funny and not following the basic rules that allow for humor to develop on its own.

JHD: Thank you so much for your time and your great class!

So what does Improv have to do with our work? In summary, it teaches team building, collaboration, innovation and how to transform challenging moments into positive experiences. That ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is certainly evident in a good improvisation scene as it is in an effective consultation. The results in both instances can be brilliant.

As advisors to the complexities of family enterprises, we need to be able to think fast on our feet and move from the absurd to the constructive. This is what good improvisers do. The few simple rules encourage mindfulness, being in the moment, so important in this fast-paced, plugged-in world. And, if that’s not enough, it’s even good for the brain. We get smarter as we improvise by developing new neural connections (‘if it fires, it wires’). If you want to learn more, here are some suggestions. And there will be an improvisation workshop in Washington in October at the annual global conference!

For further exploration:

  • Whose Line is It Any Way? (Watch them on YouTube.com)
  • ImprovBoston.com
  • Besser, Roberts, and Walsh. (2013) Comedy Improvisational Manual
  • Johnstone, K. (1992) Impro: improvisation and the theater
  • Solin, V. (1999) Improvisation for the Theater (Third edition)

About the contributors:

Jane_Hilburt-DavisJane Hilburt-Davis, ACFBA, is president of Key Resources, LLC, a Boston-based consulting firm. She is an FFI Fellow and president emeritus of FFI and has received the prestigious FFI Richard Beckhard Practice Award. Jane is senior author of the widely acclaimed book, Consulting to Family Businesses and co-author of Family Enterprise: Understanding families in business and families of wealth. Jane can be reached [email protected].




Mike_DescoteauxMike Descoteaux is the artistic director of ImprovBoston and founder of the celebrated music program at The Second City Training Center in Chicago.