Improvisation and organisational change: How to lead with flexibility and possibility in response to rapid change

"Improvisation has a bad reputation and I’m on a mission to change that. One mention of the word in workshops and people start to shuffle towards the door, fearing that I’m going to force them…"

Improvisation has a bad reputation and I’m on a mission to change that. One mention of the word in workshops and people start to shuffle towards the door, fearing that I’m going to force them onto the ‘stage’ to do something embarrassing. Which is incredibly interesting considering that we are all improvising, all of the time. According to Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” So, we are a part of the performance of ‘life’ whether we like it or not. And we don’t have a script, stage directions or a director telling us what to do. In fact, we don’t even get a rehearsal. We are live on stage all of the time, making it up as we go along. 

But we’re not on stage alone. We’re part of many improv teams. And in the workplace, these vary from small divisions within departments, right up to the whole organisation, which in itself is always working with a wider improv team: partners, clients, the market and… the world! The question is what kind of improviser do you want to be? The worst improvisers ‘block’ the scenes, (those people who criticise and focus on the mistakes or problems). Those who are ‘ok’ will passively but agreeably ‘play’ (not really adding or creating anything new). Good improvisers ‘build’ on what you offer. But the great ones know how to build AND make great offers. And of course, the very best improvisers not only fully ‘play in’ but also have their eye on the longer arc of where we can take the story together. Exceptional improvisers don’t just play in when things are going well, they are also willing to jump into a scene that is crumbling to ashes – and are happy to either save you or fail with you! And then there are the rare few who don’t only jump in to help their own team…they cross boundaries and borders to jump into other teams with the sole purpose of creating the best shared experience possible.

…And that’s exactly what we need to call forth from ourselves in leadership. So that we can be fully present and fearless players and collaborators who are building and responding to rapid change, whilst also having an eye on that longer-term arc of possibility.

Improv for Business

Learning the skills of business improvisation and employing them in the market place can help you, as leaders and team members, to navigate through the unexpected and achieve results in uncertain markets.

Business Improvisation is poised to be the next ‘killer app’ for organisational growth and performance. Investing in the performance of the moment, during crisis and when under pressure, is quickly becoming the next frontier for maximising ROI. It is a highly valuable tool designed to enhance the skills and productivity of an organisation’s most valuable asset: its people. Learning the skills of business improvisation and employing them in the market place can help you, as leaders and team members, to navigate through the unexpected and achieve results in uncertain markets.

Working with Teams

The old adage “There’s no I in Team” suggests that being in a team is no place to feel, think and behave like an individual. This is patently untrue as history and experience has shown that successful teams in every field are nearly always made up of talented individuals that have agreed to work together for a common goal. In fact, according to research from Stanford University team performance improves when the people in a team acknowledge and utilise the members’ individual personalities and creativity. And research conducted around teams of mechanical engineers also suggests that “teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it may take longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve good cooperation. They must first cultivate an openness to opposing opinions and recognise the value of exploring a problem from various angles.” Therefore, while there may be no I in team, there is a ME. At the heart of a successful team is each member’s ability to recognise and understand their own unique creativity and spontaneity as well as communicate effectively, efficiently and with ENERGY on a regular basis. Because global solutions start with individual solutions. In our everyday interactions, in our everyday relationships, in the choices that we make, in the way that we are and in the manner we treat each other… in every single moment. We might have different approaches when it comes to the unpredictable world of business, innovation & leadership but when those different styles come together and we are ‘Ready for Anything’ then almost anything is possible.

Bringing the improviser mindset to work helps us to adapt to change in a fast and fluid way. When we live from this place we practice non-attachment, not only to the self (and with that our pride and ‘needing to be right’) but also to our individual ideas. Because improvisers know that if they have an idea they can make an offer, but if something else comes up and changes the direction, then they can just as easily drop that offer. Something else will arise because it’s a co-creative effort. It’s not just you on your own. The power of improvisation in teams comes from trusting in the team; trusting that the team is inherently creative, collaborative and willing to work as one. This is one of key differences between stand-up comedy and improvisation, which so often get lumped together in the same box. Stand-up comedy is a solo game and is usually tightly scripted. Whereas improv is a team game. Someone’s always got your back. And there’s no script…

Missed opportunity

Think of an offer in your career that you might have missed had you not been open to unexpected opportunity. Perhaps you stumbled across a business opportunity at the bar after work or received a surprise job offer that you decided to pursue. A friend recently received a fairly routine recruiter email and instead of deleting it like usual, he decided to reply “out of curiosity”. 1-month on and he’s working in a completely different industry and doing work that really excites him. His whole working life has changed because of one simple click. Which is why it’s important to remember that you are only ever one decision away from a completely different life. That’s not to say that you necessarily need to make any radical changes: it’s simply about staying open and present to the possibilities that each and every offer brings.

One of the most famous examples of an offer that could have so easily been missed is Viagra. Viagra started out as Sildenafil, a new treatment for angina (a heart condition that constricts the vessels that supply the heart with blood). However, there was an ‘unexpected’ side effect that almost caused the company to completely right off the drug. At the time, the company was going through a lot of organisational change (geographically and internally) which meant that very different departments were sharing the same space. Out of this mix of ranks and roles came Viagra, which was literally discovered because of a ‘water cooler moment’: somebody from a different department was being told in the kitchen about the male patients’ surprisingly ’positive’ effects and they started a conversation. Which turned into an innovation. It was a sudden offer. But it wasn’t an expected offer and in many ways it was an unwanted offer because it didn’t help the clinical trial that was happening at that time. Yet, it actually turned out to be rather lucrative opportunity!

Curious about Change

If we try to predict the future we will invariably be disappointed because our perception of ourselves, our relationships, our life experiences, our careers and our networks are not like pre-written plays. They are more like improvised scenes: there are no lines or stage directions and so we must learn to work with all offers – whatever is arising. So, by replacing control with curiosity we can start to see life’s curve balls as creative challenges.

One of the best ways of leading with curiosity is by being present and open to the bigger picture. Present awareness is key because it’s all too easy to slip into auto-pilot prediction mode. The brain is brilliant at conserving energy and if it believes it’s seen a situation before, it switches off and stops looking for any originality in the scene. Unfortunately, this energy saving tactic stops us from staying present to the changes and complexities of the current world and as leaders it’s vital that we stay awake or else miss great offers simply because of an assumption about how we thought a meeting or presentation was going to play out. The skill of improvisation is an essential tool needed for conscious relationships, great leadership, and global solutions. It’s about re-imagining our intellectual capacity, re-programming our emotional responses, re-booting our physical behaviours and re-wiring our intentional purpose, so that we can consciously create the impact we choose, in all 4 dimensions: physically, emotionally, intellectually and intentionally.

By replacing control with curiosity we can start to see life’s curve balls as creative challenges.

So, the next time you get a strong sense of “been here, done that…” try to stay awake to the differences- however subtle- so that you can respond to offers and play in when needed. Maybe you notice a drop-in morale and decide to organise a team social. It might be a seemingly small and simple offer but with that offer comes a sense of your support and attention, as you were really seeing the team in the present moment. We are not human-doings, we are human beings. And when you live life like an improviser you are operating from this being state. You stay present with where you are, who you are with and how you- and the people around you- are feeling. Instead of planning the future, play in the present moment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to step into the spotlight. Perhaps you’re not needed on some occasions, which is fine too. Because simply knowing that you’re paying attention will be of huge value your team as you are present to the long-arc of possibility. Your ‘playing in’ power comes from your presence and perspective. You notice when help is needed but you also have the selflessness to step away, allowing others to thrive and shine, centre stage.

Seeing the system

Let’s start seeing and embracing change: living in it, learning from it and leading through it.

As I’m sure many of you have experienced, it’s all too easy to get lost in the ‘scene’ playing out in your office or department and lose sight of the bigger picture. As Frederick Laloux asks in his book ‘Reinventing organisations: “Could we invent a more powerful, more soulful, more meaningful way to work together, if only we change our belief system?” I believe the improviser mindset is key because great improvisers are not only able to be present with the scene presenting itself in front of them but they also are aware of the wider story. And the wider system. Therefore, leading like an improviser is akin to integral thinking and systems work because it enables you to embrace all of the different thinking styles, strengths and talents in your team, department and organisation. You are both a mirror and a mover: reflecting the present, responding in real time and remaining flexible to change. As opposed to fighting it or forcing it through!

As leaders we must meet our teams where they are at, by seeing them as they are, in the present day. From here we can co-create, collaborate and ‘play’ together in the present moment. And who knows, something seemingly disastrous might just turn out to be the best business decision you’ve ever made. When you lead your team from where they are at, instead of running ahead, predicting and planning what you think- or hope- is going to come next, you offer yourself and others a wealth of possibility. Yes, let’s be bold and dream big. But let’s embrace the fact that life is forever changing around us. Nothing is completely secure or certain and when we grasp to the impossible ideal of certainty, we get stuck as we are, paralysed by a fear of change. Yet, even if we aren’t paying attention to it. Even if we are pretending it’s all staying the same. It’s still changing in small and subtle ways. Perhaps you discover that an incredibly quiet and shy member of you team is also a budding stand-up comedian. Can you be flexible and open to this ever changing and- slightly unexpected- identity shift? So that you can encourage and utilise their full, unbounded potential? Leading with an improviser’s mindset is about being mindful of each and every interaction, so that you can offer your colleagues, team and organisation, the gift of fluidity: don’t fix them, free them through flexible and adaptable leadership. Let’s start seeing and embracing change: living in it, learning from it and leading through it.

Yes and…

We don’t know what’s around the corner but we can choose to stay curious and open.

When you switch your mindset from micromanager to improviser you’ll discover endless possibility, unexpected opportunity and the freedom to live a life without limits. The skills needed to improvise can be mapped onto the mastery of living, the art of relationships and the aptitude of leadership. And what’s amazing is that you can do it too. You don’t need to be a professional performer to access the fun, flexible and fearless power of improv in the everyday. I know that many people find the idea of improvisation intimidating, but it’s simply listening to your inner intuition. You are already standing on the stage, so why not let your improvisational instinct drive the show!

I recently had the incredible opportunity of speaking at Tedx Glasgow about the The Improvising Mindset: How each interaction shapes your reality. A huge thank you to Tedx Glasgow and all the volunteers, inspirational speakers, incredible sponsors and the wonderful audience. A truly game-changing global platform… where we can share and connect through our deepest stories. To watch my talk and many others please click here.