Improvisation and Strategy Breakthrough

September 8, 2008

Participants agreed, the results more than met their expectations. At the end of the two and a half day retreat, the 75 members of the senior leadership team created 6 new strategies that they’d not otherwise have considered. Six simple but rather transformational actions that could be taken to dramatically enhance the customer’s loyalty. More surprisingly still, they attributed these breakthroughs to the very exercise of which they were initially so wary: improvisational comedy.

It had been far from an easy sell, as Cathy Sunshine and WOW’s CEO Colleen Abdoulah attempted to create buy-in for this unusual approach to strategy development. Says Cathy:

“Most initially considered “improv” a waste of time for a business retreat. Foolish, even corny, in their minds, it took some convincing. But because WOW’s leadership is such a strong, cohesive team, in the end they were willing to give it a go. And were astounded at what they had achieved.”

In addition, because WOW! has an active “Service Structure”© in place, we can assume these strategies will be quickly assimilated into the day to day activities of the business.

Improv in the workplace is attracting much interest among practitioners and researchers alike. It has been cited for its usefulness in team building; assisting in the negotiation process; improving communication skills; and enhancing creativity.

Sunshine’s approach sees the benefits as even greater than has been researched. With the right corporate environment and when a business is prepared, improv can immediately stretch skills and bolster energy, and so stimulate new business growth and customer loyalty.

“The improv element was what prepared the group as a whole not only to “understand”, but to “feel” the customer experience. Not “thinking” about what the customer wanted, but actually “being” the customer. It teaches the skills of empathy. Participants experienced the power of real listening.”

Feeling, and being—as opposed to “thinking like” and “acting like”—is at the core of improv. Michael Abdoulah, who directed the improv intervention for WOW, has taught acting and improv for over ten years. He makes clear the difference between acting and improv:

“Acting is thinking: you think about being sad, or happy, or angry. And then you try to express that. With improv,you’re in the moment. If you’re really listening to the other participants, you shouldn’t need to think about how to act sad or happy. If I’m listening properly, and reacting like the character is supposed to, I should feel happy, or sad, or angry. And not need to think about what it means.”

“And the value of that applies to any environment. If you’re busy thinking you can’t perform well; if you’ve got preconceived notions, and you’re thinking about those preconceived notions, it’ll be very difficult to be successful in anything. Improv forces you to go into every situation open minded and clear minded and react in a suitable manner that makes sense.”

Any company can benefit from improv. But the Sunshine group is convinced that certain clients are at the stage where the returns can be exponential. Cathy explains why this was the perfect time for WOW! In addition to the already strong skills of their leadership and a profitable business model, their Service Structure? could allow the ideas to be immediately institutionalized.

“It’s like building blocks: creating a retreat that works requires we add essential and powerful new elements to an existing reality.”

“Effective leadership experiences must create a bridge from the current reality of a business to its future state, giving it lift and propelling it forward to the next level. Of course, each company is different. WOW! Was ready for improv.”

The Role and Rules of Improv

In today’s world there is general consensus that leaders need to be able to:

• Trust their instinct
• Think on their feet
• Be attuned to what’s going around them by listening acutely and through the noise;
• Break through mental and emotional bottlenecks;
• Respond with confidence and spontaneity to the unexpected and the unplanned.

Yet while it may seem obvious that such capabilities will become even more important in times of turbulent change, how to actually acquire and hone them is far more problematic. One can read about them in a book. Or go to a seminar. But even the most engaging of authors or speakers will be unable to spark the insights acquired through “experience .” And that’s where improv comes in.

In elaborating on the rules and skills necessary for a successful improv skit, Michael explains:

“People think there are no rules to improv. But there are. You are given a scene. You’re told you’ll work with one or more partners. And you are assigned a role to play. So in the end, the three rules are: show up; listen; talk. Anyone should be able to follow those.”

“And even though there is no script to memorize, you do need some skills. And unless you’re prepared with them, it just won’t happen. These skills include:

• Listening to what’s going on. Not simply “hearing”: listening, and responding.
• Being flexible
• Expanding upon others’ ideas, not knocking them down.
• Thinking on your feet
• Responding with confidence

One of the most difficult aspects of improv for many businesspeople is the lack of planning involved. You’re given a situation, you’re given a role—and you’re on. The word “improvise”, after all, stems from the Latin “improvisus”, literally: unforeseen, and from the Italian “improvisso”: sudden. Michael explains why it is precisely these elements which make the exercise so valuable:

“As far as planning goes, businesses can plan all they want. Thing is, hitches happen. How do you respond to the hitches, to those speedbumps, once we’ve put the plan into place and the unexpected happens? Let’s say it’s a group of 6 people. Something happens that messes with their plan. How do those 6 people work together to deal with the hitch? Well, with improv training those six people can deal with it better, because they’ve learned—unconsciously—to listen better, to be flexible, to build on each other’s ideas. One of the cardinal rules in improv is that you can’t say: “ yes, but…”—which is what we hear so much of in business meetings. You have to say: “Yes, and…” That’s the only way to build on each other’s ideas, and let the creative, as opposed to destructive sparks fly.”

In successful improv, the way Michael conducts his sessions, the creative process is all about pushing against each other and taking the lead from the others. And that leads to unpredictable, unplanned, and breakthrough results. But it requires being continuously attentive to the other person, rather than planning on what you want to do or say. It’s a constant interplay.

Successfully Integrating the Improv Elements into Strategy

The overriding aim of the WOW! retreat was to ensure that whatever was experienced could be easily applied to develop WOW!’s strategies. Accordingly Cathy structured the retreat into three stages:

Stage 1: Level Setting. We provided up to the minute information regarding WOW!’s business state, competitive environment and customer feedback. This was designed to ensure each participant was armed with the same information at the same time. They would be clear about the “current reality” of the business: the financial reality, the market reality and the organizational state of the state.

Stage 2: Improv. Moving past their initial anxiety, participants experienced themselves spontaneously in odd and unusual settings. They learned how to respond in the moment in the most unexpected ways. They survived their fear and had fun! They acted brilliantly! As often occurs, though, after the improv exercises, they were ready to call it a day and go home. “That was cool! We get how that improv stuff works!” Yet, that was only the beginning. Now the real creative work started.

Ensuring that the segue from just doing an improv skit to realizing what actually happened, and using that newly tapped energy to set new strategy, was the challenge. And Cathy is convinced that it can’t be met unless the leadership retreat begins, and ends, with business. Stage 3 thus becomes pivotal.

Stage 3: Business Strategy. We then applied the improv experience to thinking in terms of business strategy In small groups, leaders were challenged to create new strategy in the shoes of the customer. To do this, they needed to feel as the customer feels. Utilizing the customer feedback in Stage 1, they “became” the customer.

They were reminded to hear and feel from the standpoint of the customer. To empathize and to let loose with crazy yet compelling ideas. They were to push out of their usual operational mindset to create breakthroughs.

Criteria were set to prioritize the ideas and set boundaries. They toggled between chaos and order. Between the creative and the strategic. Between the collaborative and the linear.

The result? Creative, unexpected, new, brilliant ideas started popping. And the company and its leadership team were off and running.

Concluding Points

Regardless of the context, anyone who has participated in an improv session is forever changed. As Michael has observed from over ten years of leading these sessions,

“Improv is the kind of thing most people say they’d never have the opportunity to do. But to do something scary, and live through it, is a great great thing. I’ve seen over and over again what it can do for people. People saying: “Wow, I can’t believe that I just did that!”

Participants had learned to become more flexible in their outlooks and assumptions, better able to handle the unexpected, more willing to experiment and take risk, and to listen actively and positively. And because of the design of the program, these learnings were grounded in the strategic imperative: how to “wow” customers in unexpected ways so that “positive surprise” becomes the defining characteristic of the customer’s experience with WOW!.

While Cathy believes any organization can benefit from improve, she remains biased. As she sees it, WOW! will benefit from the improv far more than another company.

“Without the Throughput Service Structure©, companies which participate in an improv experience would get some idea of the value, and also some take-aways. The difficulty would be in rolling out the new ideas, the new insights, the new strategies, quickly, with lightning speed, and for those ideas to take hold and grow. It’s a bit like adding a new plant to fertilized soil, as opposed to planting in fallow soil. The service structure creates the fertile soil for new ideas to take root and thrive. They take off! And it creates the structure to populate the idea and put it into action quickly. Nothing else does it as quickly, or as substantially.”

1 For some examples of the recent literature on improv in the workplace, see: Harvard Management Communication Letter, “Improv in the Workplace”, 2001; Sol Hurwitz, “Can You Learn on Your Feet?”, Across the Board, March/April 2006; Susan Parker, “Stand Up and Throw Away the Script”, Harvard Management Communication Letter, 2003