Our Annual Report in the Style of Tennessee Williams…

Michael Scott from NBC's "The Office"

Michael Scott and the power of improv in business

Improv has suddenly become a very hot topic for business.  Sometimes improv is mentioned directly (like in Fast Company Magazine, or in Chris Brogan’s bestseller “Trust Agents”).  Others like Gary Vaynerchuk and Seth Godin, have focused on some principles of improv as new paradigms of business (without mentioning improv by name).

I recently attended a presentation by David Sibbet (founder of the Grove Consultants and author of the best selling “Visual Meetings”) at the monthly meeting of the San Francisco chapter of the Intentional Association of Business Communicators (IABC).  David posted a couple of large templates with various lists (Agenda, Roles, Outcomes and Rules) on the wall.  One of the rules David listed was “yes, and” – the core principle of improv.  David asked the room if there were any additions to what was listed. When given some suggestions David immediately wrote them on the list using almost the exact words spoken by the suggesting person. David later pointed out that adding the suggesting-person’s words and adding them completely was important – it makes people feel validated and valued when their suggestion is used without judgment or revision.

This is exactly the same process an improvisor uses on stage when getting a suggestion from an audience member – take the suggestion as is, in their words, use it immediately and make it a strong element of the scene (not something incidental that doesn’t affect the scene), and you’ll make the audience happy.

I’ll go into these principles in more detail over the next few weeks, but here’s a quick overview and some quotes from their proponents:

  1. Improv Principle: Make you partner look good
    Business Reframe: Your customers and associates are real people, not statistics or cogs – treat them as living, breathing, feeling individuals.

    “Listen to your users, absolutely!  Giving a shit about your users is way better….You need to care about everything”
    Gary Vaynerchuk – New York Times Bestselling Author of “Crush It” and “The Thank You Economy”

  2. Improv Principle: Discover the joy of co-creation
    Business Reframe: Your business is built creating a dialogue WITH others, not by doing a monologue

    “Self sufficiency appears to be a worthy goal, but it’s now impossible if you want to actually get anything done. All our productivity, leverage and insight comes from being part of a community, not apart from it.  The goal, I think, is to figure out how to become more dependent, not less.”
    Seth Godin – Best Selling author of Linchpin, Tribes, Purple Cow, Poke the Box and many other

  3. Improv Principle: Play it real – have more depth than an ashtray
    Business Principle: You’re not a robot either – share a little of your non-business self and it will go a long way 


    “If you’re looking to use a social network to build business relationships, there must be a blend of personal and professional. No one (NO ONE) wants to read about your job all day. They want to know you. They want the “behind the scenes” of your communication. They want the “liner notes.” If you have to talk official all day, then brand it and stick a logo on it, and people will or won’t talk to it.

    The humans, however, want to talk to humans.

    And, they want YOU to talk about other people and not just your job. They want you to talk about them. They want you to wish them well on their spelling test.
    Chris Brogan – Bestselling Author of “Trust Agents”

  4. Improv Principle: Yes, and…
    Business Reframe: Take in what your customer \ associate says, and add a little something of your own.

    “Creative teams, the participants are told, now need to behave more like improv actors – story building’ instead of storytelling – so they can respond in real time to an unpredictable audience. “
    Fast Company Magazine – November 2010

  5. Improv Principle: Have Fun
    Business Reframe: If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, do it differently or do something else – your enjoyment or lack thereof will speak volumes your customer

    “What captured everyone’s attention more than Hsieh’s financial scorecard was his dedication to that quirky company culture that has brought Zappos so far. Company mandates include regular office parades, never reading from a script, shouting when tours come through and following the 10 core values, which include “create fun and a little weirdness” and “deliver wow through customer service.” All of these concepts, and many others, come together to unite employees and create a friends-and-family atmosphere.”
    Success Magazine on Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos and 2009 Achiever of the Year

What about you – any ways you’ve used improv in business?  Any principles I’ve left off?  Let me know in the comments, and we’ll look at them too (yes…..and).


P.S. – if you’ve watched NBC’s great version of “The Office”, you’ve probably seen Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) dabble in improv.  Like most things Michael does, he’s not even close to doing it right.  But what if  it’s that improv training that kept his branch afloat when the others folded?