For business strategists to be flexible and responsive, they must work like the best of improv performers.
A few months ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to take our children to an improvisational comedy workshop. In the midst of getting to watch my better half pantomime milking a cow in front of 50 people, I was reminded of one of the more interesting leadership realities.
The best leaders, like the best improv performers, are constant in their ability to give and take. The best improv performers can charm the hardest of audiences, and the best leaders can lead in the most challenging of circumstances.
But. Rather than go into leadership as improv—a well-trodden trail at this point (just Google it)—I thought it interesting to explore another very current application: business strategy as improv.
The Core of Improvisational Anything
In any sort of improvisational performance, be it music, comedy, dance, or otherwise, a core tenet is called “Yes…and.” Yes…and is the shorthand for how performers improvise together. They take something someone else has said or played, interpret it, and then take off on their own with it before teeing it up for the next performer.
It goes something like this:
Performer 1: “Today, I tried to walk the cat.”
Performer 2: “Yes…and you probably found that the cat walked you…”
Except with a wittier writer, you might have laughed out loud. It’s important to note that Yes…and is an idea in practice, so you don’t hear performers actually saying “yes…and” out loud during an improv performance (well, not often).
At its core, improv requires a few things.
It requires perception; the performer must be constantly focused on what others are doing, not on what they will do. Being self-focused is a surefire way to failure as an improv performer. So, you listen, and watch, and look for insights.
It requires agreement and acceptance. Improv starts with “yes” no matter what is said. Your counterpart flubs it, and you say yes; you start with yes and shape the conversation from there. Sure, you interpret action and revise approach, but you do it while moving forward.
It requires interpretation. The joy of improvisational comedy is that it often results in comedic insights through unique interpretations of a stated fact.
It requires action. The wheels of an improv performance don’t—can’t—stop. You never see an effective improv act that taps the brakes in the middle to “get things right” or “study further.” Improvisers take the “and” part of “Yes…and” seriously. It’s where they deliver.
Applying Improv to Strategy
There is a great, growing insight in the world of management strategy that strategic planning approaches are mistimed to the real world. Some companies do 3- or 5-year strategic plans as deep studies and then go to “execute,” when meanwhile, the world is working at a much faster pace. The strategy that’s written today is out of date in a month if not a week; it’s a script in a world that requires improv.
Strategy is becoming constant motion and revision. It’s becoming improvisation within a framework vs. scripting and perfecting all actions and plans. So, we seek agility. We seek to plan and execute as a perpetual thought process versus a periodic one.
Yes…and that is where improv comes in.
As strategic leaders, we must establish the framework of our strategy. Study hard, know what you know (and don’t), and ensure alignment on core values and mission areas for the organization. And then, encourage and lead your organization through constant (or at least much more frequently periodic) perception, acceptance, interpretation, and action.
Effective strategists perceive by listening to their people, customers, markets, and macro trends and seeking insights.
They accept by ensuring that the facts they perceive, whatever they might be, are the facts. They avoid spin, confront reality, and say “YES!”
They interpret what they have perceived and accepted by formulating and reformulating their strategies in microcycles and being explicit about the microcycles.
And they act by ensuring that their initiatives, messages, and personal actions have integrity.
The strategist as improvisational artist is a new animal. For too long, we have thought of strategists as long-range thinkers devoid of any action orientation. But now, it’s time to embrace “Yes…and” in our strategies.
I welcome your comments.