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The other day, while driving in my car, I was listening to an NPR interview with Mike Birbiglia, who was promoting his new film, “Don’t Think Twice” While I was listening to him talk about it, the interviewer asked him how the rules of improv had affected his career. His answer struck me.

He explained that he believed that three major rules of improv are so profound because they can apply to almost any kind of collaboration. They are:

  1. Say yes.
  2. It’s all about the group
  3. Don’t think

These principles don’t just work for improv – they can be applied to any collaborative business setting, too.

The first basic principle, ‘Say  Yes’ is the number one protocol of improv. It allows for anything to happen on stage to happen, meaning that no matter what your fellow actors present to you, you must accept the scenario, regardless of where you wanted it to go. Then you are required to respond back with something that your fellow actors can build off of. It’s a philosophy of total creativity. ‘ Yes and’ means that any idea offered must be accepted.

In business, it doesn’t always go this way. ‘Yes’ usually gets turned into ’yes but…’ While you’re saying, ‘yes,’ the ‘but’ indicates that you’re not considering the idea to be valid. ‘Yes, but’ usually changes the conversation. A’ Yes, and’ allows for a more open and positive approach to a disagreement or conflict because while hearing other perspectives and listening more than you talk, opens up the way for new approaches. People respond positively when you listen and give their opinions credit. Saying ‘yes’ creates, while simply saying ‘no’ stops the flow.

With the second principle of Improv, ‘it’s all about the group’, your role on stage is to make everyone else look good, to work together and know that you cannot go at it alone. In business this translates to being part of a team. You must be able to master the ability to co-create in an ensemble, to be collaborative, to share and most importantly, to think about how can you best serve this situation. As a leader this could also mean that you have a better sense of when to jump in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to provide it, and most importantly how to best support your fellow employees.

 In terms of the third principle ‘don’t think, just keep moving’, on stage no matter what you are presented with, no matter what happens, you must accept it and keep the energy going. When a mistake or something unexpected happens, you are coached to use it and move on, to just let it go. When someone forgets something important – justify it and move on. If you are lost or confused on stage, you just make something up. You have to trust the process and just keep moving. Mistakes on stage are embraced as they break patterns and allow new ones to emerge. Not so in business – we tend to stop, analyze, criticize or negate.

 It is no wonder that these days some top-tier business schools are offering more than just finance and marketing. Duke, UCLA, MIT and Stanford are all teaching improv. Professors say these techniques help students increase collaboration, creativity and risk taking.

Improv requires excellent listening skills and offers valuable lessons about the wisdom of shrugging off setbacks, as well as, the recognition that even the best-laid plans sometimes are abandoned in the moment. As an improviser, you have to know how to rebound and how to embrace failure to continue forward. This kind of thinking can help you become inspired with new ideas and put on a great performance.

 I invite you to share your experiences or thoughts, or comments. You can contact me for more information on soft skills/interpersonal skills workshops that can transform employees.