Thriving in Uncertainty – The Promise of Improv

Posted on 08 August 2012

Life and business are unpredictable – no matter how much we plan, we never know what’s going to happen next, do we? Kind of like improv.

On July 12-13, 2012, I participated in a fabulous two-day conference in Melbourne, Australia, titled “Thriving in Uncertainty”. It was about the concept of “applied improvisation”, which means using the skills, tools and principles of improv in corporate training to help people, companies and organisations to develop their skills in leadership, teamwork, communication, creativity, risk-taking, spontaneity, dealing with change and complexity and uncertainty… (see here for more information about applied improvisation).

That topic is especially interesting to me because as well as being a marketing consultant, I’m also a member of an English-language improvisation troupe here in Hong Kong, People’s Liberation Improv. I’m also a bodyworker/healer, so I’m fascinated by the stories that our bodies tell, and the stories that we tell about our bodies.

Participants at the conference included experienced improv and Playback Theatre performers, and also people with no improv experience at all – they were academics and managers in the field of leadership, and trainers and facilitators in non-profit community groups, drug & alcohol rehab, international peace-keeping… The purpose of the conference was not to teach people how to be improv performers; rather, it was about how to apply the principles of improv in life, business and community development.

Kay Ross (right) with Viv McWaters, the organiser of the “Thriving in Uncertainty” conference

So what ARE the principles of improv?

They include:

  • Yes, and… – accept the offer (i.e., whatever’s happening right now) and build on it.
  • Trust – trust that your team-mates will support you; trust your first impulse or idea; trust that together, you will find a solution.
  • Teamwork – make your team-mates look good, and trust that they’ll make YOU look good (improv is not about hogging the limelight and trying to be funny).
  • Creative thinking – see the unexpected, serendipitous, illogical, unpredictable connections between seemingly unconnected things.
  • Celebrate failure – be willing to take risks, look silly and make mistakes (because in improv there are no mistakes and no-one dies!).
  • Spontaneity – just BE, in the moment; listen to your partners and be affected by what they say/do; think on your feet, with no editing/self-censorship/judgement; let go of your assumptions about what will happen next.
  • Confidence – make bold choices (we call them “offers”) and commit to them.

All useful skills in life and business, right?

At the conference, I attended three workshops:

  • Andrew McMasters, founder and Artistic Director of Jet City Improv and Wing-It Productions in Seattle, Washington, USA, led a workshop titled “The Presence of Leadership”, about being more aware of how your body communicates leadership. We played lots of improv games, and especially explored the issue of status.
  • Ian David of Melbourne Playback Theatre Company led a session titled “Re-Imagining Story”. Using improvisation games, we experimented with different ways to tell stories.
  • Glenn Hall, Creative Director of Just Improvise, an improv troupe and corporate training company in Perth, Australia, led a practical session about the basic principles of improv.

On the second morning of the conference, we had no fixed agenda; it was an “Open Space” opportunity for people to request or propose sessions on topics of interest to them. I suggested a session about marketing, i.e., how applied improv facilitators sell the idea of applied improv to prospective clients. It was a popular topic – about 12 people joined me in a free-flowing conversation about effective marketing strategies, and how we translate the language of improv into the language of business.

On both evenings of the conference, we all enjoyed performances by local improv troupes and Melbourne Playback Theatre Company.

After the conference, Andrew McMasters and I flew to Wellington, New Zealand, to co-teach a one-day improvisation workshop for acting and directing students at the country’s national drama school, Toi Whakaari. Wow, what an honour and a blessing to be invited to do that! (And that night, to make the trip even more fun, I performed stand-up comedy at the open mic night at a bar in Wellington.)

Participants in the improv workshop at Toi Whakaari, Wellington, New Zealand, July 16, 2012. My co-teacher, Andrew McMasters, is kneeling in the front row.

OK, so what does applied improv have to do with YOUR organisation and your marketing?

Everything! It’s about storytelling – what stories does your company or organisation tell about its past, present and future? It’s about creativity – how do you come up with innovative, share-worthy ideas for products, services, alliances, marketing campaigns and marketing messages? It’s about teamwork and communication– how do your people communicate and co-operate with each other and your clients? And it’s about leadership – how do you inspire people to join your team, follow you, support your cause…?

So if you’d like your company or organisation to thrive in an environment full of change, complexity and uncertainty, I invite you to talk to me about devising and facilitating a just-jump-in-and-do-it training workshop, applying the principles of improv, that will give your team the skills they need. Oh, and it’ll be fun, too!

P.S. on August 9: I need to add my special thanks to Anne and Brenda of pattillo, a talented team of New Zealand-based consultants and facilitators, for inviting me to Wellington.


8 responses to Thriving in Uncertainty – The Promise of Improv

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  • MaryAnn says:

    Hi Kay,
    I would also be interested in an inprov workshop. From what you write about the skills needed, they are definitely applicable to corporations and organizations.
    Keep me posted 🙂

  • Peter Nixon says:

    Kay, I would love to see you do an Improv workshop in Hong Kong. Improv is a great test of PRESENCE which is an essential skill for dialogue leaders.

    • kay says:

      Thanks Peter! Yes, improv certainly requires presence – being in the here and now rather than making assumptions about what will happen next. I was very impressed at the “Thriving in Uncertainty” conference to see how the performers and the various workshop facilitators nurtured the dialogue. I’ll definitely let you know when I have a workshop planned.

  • Hi! It was a great conference and a privilege to see you in action Kay at the NZ drama school. I have tried a couple of the exercises with groups and they went very well. Helped make people make connections with their work and be. More creative with their planning.

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