For Leaders, Improv Training Is No Laughing Matter

Improvisation, or “improv,” isn’t just for laughs. As is turns out, hidden beneath the sketches seen on popular shows like Saturday Night Live or Chicago’s famous Second City are skills leaders and business executives could use, especially in today’s frenetic business environment.

That’s why business schools at esteemed institutions such as Duke, MIT and UCLA have all made investments in improv training. It’s not that executives these days need to be funny or able to act — although some might argue it couldn’t hurt — but the skills used in improv are rooted in communication, influence, engagement, listening, relationship building and awareness.

To Bob Kulhan, CEO of improv consultancy Business Improvisations, the root of improv isn’t comedy but the ability to react and be present in the moment — and both are skills he said business executives must have.

“[Improv] is adapting — you’re reacting and adapting,” said Kulhan, who is also an adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia University in New York.

When it comes to developing so-called soft skills in leadership development, Kulhan said improv is essentially a forum for practice. He said learning leaders could bring some elements of improv training to bolster soft skill development, an area where many would argue rising leaders could use the most improvement.

Kulhan said the improv training he offers is all custom, meaning the training should fit to an organization’s needs. Some may use it for team building or as a fun, social activity. But the real benefit is when improv is used to drive improved leadership behaviors.

Kulhan offered an example exercise he called the one-word story.

With a group of as little as two people and as many as 10, a story is told one word at a time, with each person pausing between words and adding to the story. The act of completing each sentence, Kulhan said, does not belong to one person; it belongs to the group.

“When the group is acting authentically, the story moves actively and is still complementary,” Kulhan said. Even in a two-person team, the skills it would take to do it effectively are focus, concentration [and] not being married to your own thoughts.”

The idea, Kulhan said, is to slow down leaders’ brains so they are more aware of what the other person is saying and less attached to their own thoughts or opinions.

In essence, it’s an exercise that builds leaders’ ability to be better listeners and influencers — soft skills that Kulhan said leaders benefit from in the current collaboration-driven organizational cultures.

There are other improv exercises, but all are bound by a similar principle of examining behaviors at a micro level. The spontaneity acts as a sort of buffer, revealing the true colors of how a leader might act in any given management situation.

Such an exercise is a perfect study in human behavior, said Daena Giardella, a leadership consultant, improvisation performer and instructor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Using an improv setting moves leaders away from the stogy practice of role-play and forces participants to field unexpected curveballs — much like what is expected in real life.

“Improvisation I like to think of as an MRI for our emotional and communication patterns,” Giardella said. “It gives people a look at how they’re built.” In other words, it’s a mechanism for self-reflection.

And although both Giardella and Kulhan agreed that comedy is not central to effective improv leadership training, it does play a small, ancillary role by loosening participants up. A small dose of levity allows participants to open up and think more quickly, Kulhan said.

Both Kulhan and Giardella have led sessions that lasted more than a day, some as long as a week or more. The key to sustainability is to follow up. This happens a few different ways.

Kulhan said improv leaders could use follow-up phone calls with participants as a means to reinforce the lessons learned. He also suggested setting up what he called “confederates” in the organization — small teams of participants who vow to continue to practice and hold each other accountable.

Giardella said she’s done some remote coaching post-training as a sustainability vehicle. But she also said she recommends that participants practice improv lessons on their own.

In the end, Giardella said the most important commitment leaders must make during an improv session is to be comfortable with failures. Not every exercise or “skit” is going to go smoothly; in fact, a few bumps in the road are recommended. Such failures, however small they may be, are what make the practice effective.

“You’ve got to be really good at rebounding,” Giardella said.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.