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Leadership Agility: Using
Improv to Build Critical Skills




                                             By: Kip Kelly
            Director of Marketing & Business Development
                              UNC Executive Development




                                             All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012
             Website: www.execdev.unc.edu |Phone: 1.800.862.3932 |Email: unc_exec@unc.edu
Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills




         Introduction

         L    ook around you; everything is changing. The global economy, medicine,
              technology, the environment, geo-politics…you name it and chances are, it is
         undergoing dramatic change. Of course, this has always been the case – but the rate
         of change is increasing. These changes can have dramatic and unexpected
         consequences for your organization. Just keeping up with the rate of change can be a
         significant challenge, much less anticipating and staying ahead of the curve.
         Companies that want to thrive in this constantly evolving business environment need
         the ability to change quickly – and they need agile business leaders who can learn,
         develop and adapt quickly.

         How can you develop agile business leaders in your organization? While knowledge
         and experience remain critical, it is becoming increasingly important to develop
         leaders with the ability to deal with ambiguity and change, to lead and foster
         innovation and creativity, and to make and implement decisions quickly. Organizations
         require leaders who can adapt, think on their feet and lead with confidence through
         the shifting business landscape —all skills and behaviors that can be a challenge for
         talent managers to develop. Developing these unique capabilities requires a different
         approach, encouraging some talent management professionals to embrace
         unconventional methods. In the following pages, we will explore one of these non-
         traditional methods – using improv to develop more agile business leaders.

         This white paper:

                  Defines what improv is (and isn’t)


                  Outlines the rules of improv and discusses how these rules apply to your
                  organization


                  Examines how improv can be used to develop specific skills and behaviors and
                  build agile business leaders


                  Offers examples of how organizations are using improv to effectively develop
                  talent


                  Provides practical ways you can introduce improv in your organization




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Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills




         What Is Improv?
         I   n essence, improv, short for improvisation, is performing without a script; it is
             spontaneous invention (in the form of acting, singing, playing musical instruments,
         etc.) that is often needed to create something entirely new and unique. Improvisation
         is often thought of as "off the cuff" activity, with little or no preparation or forethought
         – but this can be misleading. Giving an impromptu, extemporaneous speech or
         presentation requires skill and confidence that one can acquire through improv – but
         it’s not improv. Real improv requires preparation, and often practice, to develop the
         ability to act and react in the moment. Some of the basic skills improvisation requires
         are the ability to listen and be aware of the others, to have clarity in communication,
         and to possess the confidence to find choices instinctively and spontaneously.
         Improvisation can take place as a solo performance or in collaboration with other
         performers. It can be dramatic or comedic – and the popularity of improv comedy
         continues to grow. Many people had their first exposure to improv comedy through
         the British (and subsequent American) television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a
         popular improvisational comedy show that featured the short-form style of
         improvisation.

         There is no doubt that improv can be                       About Improv
         funny—think Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell,
         Bill Murray, Wayne Brady, Tina Fey or Amy                  “Some people misunderstand
         Poehler. But being funny is not necessarily                improv….It seems that improv is all
         the goal, according to Greg Hohn, a                        about being funny. But it is not.
         member of Transactors Improv group since                   Improv is about being spontaneous. It
         1989, its executive and artistic director since            is about being imaginative. It is about
         1996, and the teacher for UNC’s Applied                    taking the unexpected and then doing
         Improvisation for Communication course at                  something unexpected with it….The
         UNC Kenan-Flagler. Improv is performing
                                                                    key is to be open to crazy ideas and
         without a script, notes Hohn. It’s about
                                                                    building on them. And funnily
         working off the top of your head, being
                                                                    enough, this is exactly what is needed
         mindful and reacting to what’s around you
                                                                    if we are going to make our
         and being entirely in the moment—not the
         past or the future, but the now. “Improv is
                                                                    enterprises more creative and agile.”
         about realizing that everything you need is                                              – Paul Sloane
         in the moment. If you are aware of it, you                 The Leaders Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills
         can act on it.” explains Hohn.                                            (in Gotts and Cremer, n.d.).




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Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills




         Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business
         Improvisations in                            Improv Company Spotlight:
         Chicago/New York/Los                         Business Improvisations
         Angeles, adds honesty to
         what defines improv.                         Business Improvisations
         “Improv teaches people how                   (www.businessimprov.com)
         to react, adapt and                          offers hands-on, custom
         communicate honestly with                    programs to organizations,
         each other. Honesty is a key                 based on interviews and meetings with clients.
         to improv,” notes Kulhan,                    Executive leadership classes encourage creativity,
         who has worked with the top                  team building, effective communication, conflict
         business schools and                         management, change management, and more.
         companies in the world. “The                 Program length is determined by the client and can
         focus, concentration and                     run anywhere from a half day to a week. Business
         honesty required in improv                   Improvisations, with offices in New York, Chicago and
         readily apply to the                         Los Angeles, has offered customized programs to a
         communication skills                         host of organizations, including Capital One, Ford,
         required in business,” says                  Hewitt and Raytheon.
         Kulhan.


         Improv “Rules”
         I   mprov may imitate life in that it is unpredictable and totally unscripted, but that
             doesn’t mean that it is without “rules”. These rules may vary depending on whom
         you ask, but they serve as guidelines for the performers. While these rules appear
         simple on the surface, following them can be a little more challenging in practice. A
         master of improv, Tina Fey, writer, actor, and alumni of Chicago’s famed Second City
         and Saturday Night Live, discussed her rules for improv in her book, Bossypants (see
         call-out). Her rules apply equally well to the workplace.

         Tina Fey’s rules for improv:

                  Rule #1: Agree and say “yes”.


                  Rule #2: Not only say “yes”, say “yes AND”.


                  Rule #3: Make statements.


                  Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities.



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         These 4 rules can also be applied towards building better leaders in the workplace.

         Rule #1: Agree and say “yes”

         “Yes” is such a simple word, and in improv it is a governing philosophy. “Yes” is the
         acceptance of new ideas and perspectives, and it establishes recognition and respect
         for the person speaking. It ultimately sets the stage for positive communication and
         real dialogue. In today’s struggling workplaces, it is often easy to be negative and
         cynical—attitudes that will quickly erode employee morale, engagement and
         satisfaction. Negativity stifles creativity and innovation. Saying “yes” is about being
         open to new possibilities. It is positive, affirmative, confident and optimistic. Saying
         “yes” is the first step in turning around a negative organizational culture. Saying “yes”
         can spur creativity, innovation, collaboration and teamwork. Creativity and innovation,
         incidentally, are talents that several studies identified as being critical skills business
         leaders will need in the near future (in Theleman, 2011).

         Rule #2: Not only say “yes”, say “yes, AND”

         “Yes” establishes openness and acceptance. “Yes, and” takes that openness and
         acceptance one step further by building on what another person has said. This is the
         heart of teamwork and collaboration – when two or more people are working toward a
         common goal. “Yes, and” is co-creation. As many in the improv industry say, “yes,
         and” means to accept the gift the other person has offered and then add to it. It is the
         social lubricant that keeps creativity flowing and communication open.

         “Yes, and” can be a very powerful tool in the workplace. “Yes, and” allows employees
         to take ideas and build on them to create something altogether new. Information is
         increasingly fragmented throughout an organization - disaggregated into different
         business units and divisions. “Yes, and” encourages everyone to bring their ideas to
         the table in order to collaborate and co-create. “Yes, and” can be a useful framework
         for brainstorming, ideation and innovation, problem solving, and conflict resolutions.
         “Yes, and” can help to foster cooperation among employees because it requires active
         listening, acceptance of different points of view, and contribution; it serves to build
         rather than tear down, which can allow for more honest and effective interactions.

         Rule #3: Make statements

         As Fey writes in Bossypants, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. People
         who constantly ask questions put pressure on others to find solutions or to make
         suggestions. We have all worked with those people. They have the power to slow



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         progress, sometimes causing the organization to grind to a halt. Organizations need
         problem solvers, or people who make statements; they need solutions. There’s no
         shortage of hard questions and challenges to overcome, and while it’s important that
         you ask tough questions, organizations need leaders who can bring solutions to the
         table. Making statements in improv sets a direction that everyone can follow. It
         provides a roadmap, not a final destination but a direction. Making statements in
         improv is leadership – and everyone takes the lead - helping to create a path and
         setting down that road together.

         Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities

         If you follow the other rules of improv, then the possibilities are limitless – and there
         are no mistakes. You listen, react and create something new, and this simple act can
         lead to something novel and unexpected. While there are definitely mistakes to be
         made in business, this fourth and final rule of improv is about accepting and moving
         on. Improv is about moving forward and exploring new, unchartered territory – not
         looking backward or placing blame. Organizations and business leaders can waste a
         lot of time pouring over past mistakes and casting blame, which can lead to an overly
         cautious culture where everyone is afraid to make mistakes and no one takes chances.
         Good leaders take responsibility, learn from mistakes and move on. To be successful
         now and in the future, companies need to be free to try new things, take risks,
         experiment and innovate. The real failure is not learning from past mistakes.

         Popsicles and penicillin, Slinkies and stainless steel, Play-doh and Post-it notes, they
         were all “happy accidents.” The inventors of all these innovations regarded their
         “mistakes” as opportunities and enriched (and in some cases, actually saved) lives.


         How Improv Builds Better Leaders
         T     alent development professionals are tasked with a huge challenge—to create
               business leaders who have the knowledge and experience to be effective, and the
         ability to adapt when that knowledge and experience is insufficient. No amount of
         work experience can fully prepare senior business leaders for the challenges they will
         face in the complex and constantly changing global economy. How do you prepare
         individuals for the unexpected, when the challenges they will face depend less on
         what they know and more on how they think? Talent management professionals must
         find ways to help their leaders transcend knowledge and experience to become more
         dynamic and agile. Business leaders need to be outstanding communicators,
         innovators, decision makers, change agents, critical thinkers, not to mention be



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           Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv

           “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When
           you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your
           partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,”
           and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at
           me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a
           gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we
           have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a
           Christmas gun.

           Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything
           everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your
           partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start
           with a YES and see where that takes you.

           As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life
           whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” "No, that’s not in the budget.”
           “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

           The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are
           supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with
           “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a
           standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say “What did
           you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here” and
           you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe
           it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this
           dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

           To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to
           contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your
           initiations are worthwhile.

           The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying, “Don’t ask
           questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are
           we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you
           to come up with all the answers. (Continued…)



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         Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv (…continued)

         In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit
         around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that
         person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who
         says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt
         menaced when Terry raised her voice.”

         MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of
         apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be
         your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class
         at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements with your actions and your voice.

         Instead of saying “Where are we?” Make a statement like “Here we are in Spain,
         Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a
         scene, but this leads us to the best rule:

         THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is
         very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster
         wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop
         everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe
         I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been on “hamster wheel” duty because
         I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes,
         only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have
         been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.”

                                                                                 Source: Fey, 2011.


         able to handle ambiguity, promote teamwork and collaboration, and to be the best
         coach and mentor they can be. It is a tall order indeed. Developing these leadership
         abilities that are so critical to organizational success will force many leaders outside of
         their comfort zones.

         Talent management professionals should view improv as a powerful resource in the
         development of these skills. In many ways, the tools and techniques of improv are
         uniquely suited to help business leaders develop these critical skills and behaviors.
         According to Sara Finch, director of learning at Second City Communications in
         Chicago, the core elements of improv—support, trust and embracing the ideas of



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         others—align well with these much-needed skills. Improv, she says, can help
         employees better manage uncomfortable conversations (such as conversations about
         work performance, feedback, etc.); improve listening skills; and create a supportive
         and nonjudgmental atmosphere (Hastings, 2009).

         The rapid-fire nature of improv also
         improves the ability to think on one’s              Improv Company
         feet, a skill that applies well in
                                                             Spotlight: FIZ
         leadership and negotiation
         situations (Tutton, 2010). “Improv                  FIZ (www.thefiz.biz)
         allows organizations to be more                     offers leadership
         nimble, flexible and open to change.                development experiences designed for
         It teaches people and organizations                 soft skills such as thinking on one’s feet,
         that they can adapt without making                  creativity and coaching. It puts the principles
         it a huge emotional crisis,” says                   and techniques of improv theater to work in
         Greg Hohn, a seasoned
                                                             non-theatrical venues such as corporations,
         improvisational artist, senior lecturer
                                                             academic institutions, organizations, and
         at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business
                                                             professional groups. FIZ programs are
         School, and program manager for
                                                             experiential and focus on discussion rather
         the soft skills and leadership training
                                                             than lecture. Their length is tailored to the
         company, FIZ. There is also
                                                             client’s needs and can range anywhere from
         evidence, according to Gary Golden,
                                                             30-minute interactive presentations to in-
         associate professor of business at
                                                             depth seminars, retreats, and courses that
         Muskingum University in New
                                                             can last from two hours to two weeks or
         Concord, Ohio, that improv skills can
         remove some rigidity and structure
                                                             even a semester. FIZ clients include Burt’s
         that can impede organizational
                                                             Bees, Manpower, Inc., and Microsoft.
         growth (Golden, 2011).

         Improv techniques can be particularly effective in developing future leaders from the
         “Net Generation”—those recent college graduates and current students poised to
         enter the workplace in the next few years. This generation likes to learn by doing (e.g.,
         learn by inductive discovery), are visual communicators, enjoy social interaction, are
         collaborative, and are emotionally more open than previous generations. These
         characteristics align well with the rules and results of improv (Berk & Trieber, 2009).




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         How Talent Management Professionals
         Can Use Improv
                                                            Improv Company Spotlight: Performance

         U      sing improv for the
                development of business
                                                            of a Lifetime
         leaders is particularly                            Performance of a
         appealing because it can be                        Lifetime
         applied immediately and can                        (www.performanceofalifetime.com) is a global
         be continually reinforced.                         organizational change company headquartered in
         Improv activities and exercises                    New York that develops people and organizations
         are easy to implement, and                         through the art of performance. It designs and
         they provide tools, tricks and                     delivers customized programs to develop
         techniques that individuals can
                                                            leadership, enhance collaboration and
         practice and refine. Applied
                                                            communication, and to drive culture change.
         learning that can be easily
                                                            Performance of a Lifetime clients include American
         reinforced can provide real
                                                            Express, Credit Suisse, TripAdvisor, Marathon
         sustainable change in an
                                                            Petroleum, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and PwC.
         organization.

         Cathy Salit, CEO of organizational change firm Performance of a Lifetime and
         accomplished singer, actress, director and improvisational comic, agrees that real
         organizational change through improv is possible. “We develop people and
         organizations through the art of improvisational performance,” she says. “We use
         improvisation to establish an environment in which we can move executives out of
         their comfort zones and support them in taking risks, embracing their mistakes and
         exercising their creativity. Their abilities, mind-sets and behavioral repertoires expand
         and the process of professional and personal transformation begin.”

         To help sustain that change, Performance of a Lifetime engages executives in improv-
         based “performance coaching groups.” “Executives experience their capacity to make
         different kinds of behavioral choices,” says Salit. “In our language, they begin to see
         and experience themselves and others as performers, as producers of their own
         conversations, and as creators of new, more varied social relationships. The
         performance coaching groups provide a rehearsal environment for real-time direction
         and support for navigating leadership and communication challenges. We support
         executives by encouraging them to continue developing their improv ‘muscles’
         through these performance coaching groups. We feel that it is vital to ongoing
         development—and to change that sticks.”



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         Next Steps: Applying Improv in Your
         Organization
         I   mprov can be a very effective method to develop the critical skills required for
             today’s business leaders in a hands-on, energizing way. Improv is increasingly
         finding its way into leadership development programs. Pepsi, McDonald’s and the
         United Way have all used improv in their corporate training programs (Glazer, 2008).
         U.S. Cellular has used improv to improve diversity awareness in their organization,
         and Nike used improv to help managers design new shoes (Hastings, 2009; Thilmany,
         2007). Alain Rostain, founder of the New York-based consulting firm Creative
         Advantage, has used improv with such clients as Kraft, Starbucks, GE and R.J.
         Reynolds to improve creativity and brainstorming (Golden, 2011).

         Improv can develop a wide range of skills and behaviors, but it does have limitations
         and may not be the best solution for every talent development challenge you face. As
         you consider whether improv would be effective in your organization, you should:

                  Reflect on the qualifications and competencies that your leaders will require.


                  o   How well do they align with the skills you can develop with improv?


                  Consider the individual business leaders and whether they would benefit from
                  this type of experience.


                  o   Are there specific leaders, teams, divisions or business units that would be
                      appropriate or others that might resist this non-traditional approach?


                  Evaluate other leadership development activities that may already be in place
                  to develop these skills and whether they would be more or less effective than
                  improv.

         “Improvisation provides a set of tools for developing authentic leadership skills, and
         just like other leadership techniques, it is not right for every occasion,” says Bob
         Kulhan of Business Improvisations. “How and when you use these tools must depend
         on the leader, the team and the specific situation.”




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         If you think improv may benefit your organization and your leadership development
         efforts, then there are a number of resources available to you. There are a number of
         excellent companies focused exclusively on bringing improv to the workplace for
         leadership development. In addition, if your organization works with an academic
         partner they may have established relationships with reputable improv companies that
         focus on leadership development. In some cases, academic partners may have
         improvisation experts on their faculty. Improvisation courses are part of the
         curriculum in the business schools at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Duke University, UCLA,
         Columbia University, MIT, the University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon, and Babson
         College (Glazer, 2008; Golden, 2011). If you choose to employ improv in your
         organization, it is strongly recommended that you work with a highly trained
         professional, well-versed in improv and how it applies to leadership development.


         Conclusion

         I   mplemented properly, improv can help build trust, increase collaboration and team
             building, improve communication skills, promote innovation and creativity, improve
         tolerance to ambiguity and change, and help leaders feel more self-confident, open,
         and less afraid to take risks. It can help you and your organization develop the skills
         and behaviors that are critical to lead in the modern global economy.




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         About UNC Executive Development
         Our approach to program design and delivery draws upon the power of real-world,
         applicable experiences from our faculty and staff, integrated with the knowledge our
         client partners share about the challenges they face.

         We call this approach The Power of Experience. We combine traditional with
         experiential and unique learning to ensure that all individuals gain relevant new skills
         that they can easily implement within their own organizations. Through action learning
         and business simulation activities, we challenge participants to think, reflect and make
         decisions differently.

         Our Approach: The Partnership

         Our team customizes each leadership program through a highly collaborative process
         that involves our clients, program directors, faculty and program managers. We are
         dedicated to following-up with our clients and individual participants to ensure that
         their learning experiences have been meaningful and impactful. This integrated
         approach consistently drives strong outcomes.

         Our Approach: The Results

         Our executive education programs are designed with results in mind, and we are
         focused on successfully meeting our clients' business and academic expectations.
         Below are a few examples of the results our client partners have achieved:


                  Leadership refocused with new                  Products redefined
                  strategy and cohesive vision                   New markets targeted
                  Strategic plans created for the                Cost-saving measures developed
                  global marketplace                             Silos leveled
                  Supply chains streamlined                      Teams aligned

         Participants leave empowered to bring in new ideas, present different ways to grow
         business and tackle challenges. The result is stronger individuals leading stronger
         teams and organizations.


         Contact Us

         Website: www.execdev.unc.edu | Phone: 1.800.862.3932 | Email: unc_exec@unc.edu




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         Kulhan, R. (2012 March 28). Disney cruises through the rocks. Business Spectator.
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         SB122244981379579337.html.




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         Ramirez, J. (2010 August 31). Famous inventions and advances that came about by
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                               All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012               15 | P a g e

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Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills

  • 1. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills By: Kip Kelly Director of Marketing & Business Development UNC Executive Development All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 Website: www.execdev.unc.edu |Phone: 1.800.862.3932 |Email: unc_exec@unc.edu
  • 2. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Introduction L ook around you; everything is changing. The global economy, medicine, technology, the environment, geo-politics…you name it and chances are, it is undergoing dramatic change. Of course, this has always been the case – but the rate of change is increasing. These changes can have dramatic and unexpected consequences for your organization. Just keeping up with the rate of change can be a significant challenge, much less anticipating and staying ahead of the curve. Companies that want to thrive in this constantly evolving business environment need the ability to change quickly – and they need agile business leaders who can learn, develop and adapt quickly. How can you develop agile business leaders in your organization? While knowledge and experience remain critical, it is becoming increasingly important to develop leaders with the ability to deal with ambiguity and change, to lead and foster innovation and creativity, and to make and implement decisions quickly. Organizations require leaders who can adapt, think on their feet and lead with confidence through the shifting business landscape —all skills and behaviors that can be a challenge for talent managers to develop. Developing these unique capabilities requires a different approach, encouraging some talent management professionals to embrace unconventional methods. In the following pages, we will explore one of these non- traditional methods – using improv to develop more agile business leaders. This white paper: Defines what improv is (and isn’t) Outlines the rules of improv and discusses how these rules apply to your organization Examines how improv can be used to develop specific skills and behaviors and build agile business leaders Offers examples of how organizations are using improv to effectively develop talent Provides practical ways you can introduce improv in your organization All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 2|Pa ge
  • 3. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills What Is Improv? I n essence, improv, short for improvisation, is performing without a script; it is spontaneous invention (in the form of acting, singing, playing musical instruments, etc.) that is often needed to create something entirely new and unique. Improvisation is often thought of as "off the cuff" activity, with little or no preparation or forethought – but this can be misleading. Giving an impromptu, extemporaneous speech or presentation requires skill and confidence that one can acquire through improv – but it’s not improv. Real improv requires preparation, and often practice, to develop the ability to act and react in the moment. Some of the basic skills improvisation requires are the ability to listen and be aware of the others, to have clarity in communication, and to possess the confidence to find choices instinctively and spontaneously. Improvisation can take place as a solo performance or in collaboration with other performers. It can be dramatic or comedic – and the popularity of improv comedy continues to grow. Many people had their first exposure to improv comedy through the British (and subsequent American) television show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a popular improvisational comedy show that featured the short-form style of improvisation. There is no doubt that improv can be About Improv funny—think Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Bill Murray, Wayne Brady, Tina Fey or Amy “Some people misunderstand Poehler. But being funny is not necessarily improv….It seems that improv is all the goal, according to Greg Hohn, a about being funny. But it is not. member of Transactors Improv group since Improv is about being spontaneous. It 1989, its executive and artistic director since is about being imaginative. It is about 1996, and the teacher for UNC’s Applied taking the unexpected and then doing Improvisation for Communication course at something unexpected with it….The UNC Kenan-Flagler. Improv is performing key is to be open to crazy ideas and without a script, notes Hohn. It’s about building on them. And funnily working off the top of your head, being enough, this is exactly what is needed mindful and reacting to what’s around you if we are going to make our and being entirely in the moment—not the past or the future, but the now. “Improv is enterprises more creative and agile.” about realizing that everything you need is – Paul Sloane in the moment. If you are aware of it, you The Leaders Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills can act on it.” explains Hohn. (in Gotts and Cremer, n.d.). All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 3|Pa ge
  • 4. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improvisations in Improv Company Spotlight: Chicago/New York/Los Business Improvisations Angeles, adds honesty to what defines improv. Business Improvisations “Improv teaches people how (www.businessimprov.com) to react, adapt and offers hands-on, custom communicate honestly with programs to organizations, each other. Honesty is a key based on interviews and meetings with clients. to improv,” notes Kulhan, Executive leadership classes encourage creativity, who has worked with the top team building, effective communication, conflict business schools and management, change management, and more. companies in the world. “The Program length is determined by the client and can focus, concentration and run anywhere from a half day to a week. Business honesty required in improv Improvisations, with offices in New York, Chicago and readily apply to the Los Angeles, has offered customized programs to a communication skills host of organizations, including Capital One, Ford, required in business,” says Hewitt and Raytheon. Kulhan. Improv “Rules” I mprov may imitate life in that it is unpredictable and totally unscripted, but that doesn’t mean that it is without “rules”. These rules may vary depending on whom you ask, but they serve as guidelines for the performers. While these rules appear simple on the surface, following them can be a little more challenging in practice. A master of improv, Tina Fey, writer, actor, and alumni of Chicago’s famed Second City and Saturday Night Live, discussed her rules for improv in her book, Bossypants (see call-out). Her rules apply equally well to the workplace. Tina Fey’s rules for improv: Rule #1: Agree and say “yes”. Rule #2: Not only say “yes”, say “yes AND”. Rule #3: Make statements. Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities. All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 4|Pa ge
  • 5. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills These 4 rules can also be applied towards building better leaders in the workplace. Rule #1: Agree and say “yes” “Yes” is such a simple word, and in improv it is a governing philosophy. “Yes” is the acceptance of new ideas and perspectives, and it establishes recognition and respect for the person speaking. It ultimately sets the stage for positive communication and real dialogue. In today’s struggling workplaces, it is often easy to be negative and cynical—attitudes that will quickly erode employee morale, engagement and satisfaction. Negativity stifles creativity and innovation. Saying “yes” is about being open to new possibilities. It is positive, affirmative, confident and optimistic. Saying “yes” is the first step in turning around a negative organizational culture. Saying “yes” can spur creativity, innovation, collaboration and teamwork. Creativity and innovation, incidentally, are talents that several studies identified as being critical skills business leaders will need in the near future (in Theleman, 2011). Rule #2: Not only say “yes”, say “yes, AND” “Yes” establishes openness and acceptance. “Yes, and” takes that openness and acceptance one step further by building on what another person has said. This is the heart of teamwork and collaboration – when two or more people are working toward a common goal. “Yes, and” is co-creation. As many in the improv industry say, “yes, and” means to accept the gift the other person has offered and then add to it. It is the social lubricant that keeps creativity flowing and communication open. “Yes, and” can be a very powerful tool in the workplace. “Yes, and” allows employees to take ideas and build on them to create something altogether new. Information is increasingly fragmented throughout an organization - disaggregated into different business units and divisions. “Yes, and” encourages everyone to bring their ideas to the table in order to collaborate and co-create. “Yes, and” can be a useful framework for brainstorming, ideation and innovation, problem solving, and conflict resolutions. “Yes, and” can help to foster cooperation among employees because it requires active listening, acceptance of different points of view, and contribution; it serves to build rather than tear down, which can allow for more honest and effective interactions. Rule #3: Make statements As Fey writes in Bossypants, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. People who constantly ask questions put pressure on others to find solutions or to make suggestions. We have all worked with those people. They have the power to slow All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 5|Pa ge
  • 6. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills progress, sometimes causing the organization to grind to a halt. Organizations need problem solvers, or people who make statements; they need solutions. There’s no shortage of hard questions and challenges to overcome, and while it’s important that you ask tough questions, organizations need leaders who can bring solutions to the table. Making statements in improv sets a direction that everyone can follow. It provides a roadmap, not a final destination but a direction. Making statements in improv is leadership – and everyone takes the lead - helping to create a path and setting down that road together. Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities If you follow the other rules of improv, then the possibilities are limitless – and there are no mistakes. You listen, react and create something new, and this simple act can lead to something novel and unexpected. While there are definitely mistakes to be made in business, this fourth and final rule of improv is about accepting and moving on. Improv is about moving forward and exploring new, unchartered territory – not looking backward or placing blame. Organizations and business leaders can waste a lot of time pouring over past mistakes and casting blame, which can lead to an overly cautious culture where everyone is afraid to make mistakes and no one takes chances. Good leaders take responsibility, learn from mistakes and move on. To be successful now and in the future, companies need to be free to try new things, take risks, experiment and innovate. The real failure is not learning from past mistakes. Popsicles and penicillin, Slinkies and stainless steel, Play-doh and Post-it notes, they were all “happy accidents.” The inventors of all these innovations regarded their “mistakes” as opportunities and enriched (and in some cases, actually saved) lives. How Improv Builds Better Leaders T alent development professionals are tasked with a huge challenge—to create business leaders who have the knowledge and experience to be effective, and the ability to adapt when that knowledge and experience is insufficient. No amount of work experience can fully prepare senior business leaders for the challenges they will face in the complex and constantly changing global economy. How do you prepare individuals for the unexpected, when the challenges they will face depend less on what they know and more on how they think? Talent management professionals must find ways to help their leaders transcend knowledge and experience to become more dynamic and agile. Business leaders need to be outstanding communicators, innovators, decision makers, change agents, critical thinkers, not to mention be All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 6|Pa ge
  • 7. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun. Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you. As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” "No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live? The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere. To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile. The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying, “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. (Continued…) All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 7|Pa ge
  • 8. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Tina Fey’s Rules for Improv (…continued) In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.” MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements with your actions and your voice. Instead of saying “Where are we?” Make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule: THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.” Source: Fey, 2011. able to handle ambiguity, promote teamwork and collaboration, and to be the best coach and mentor they can be. It is a tall order indeed. Developing these leadership abilities that are so critical to organizational success will force many leaders outside of their comfort zones. Talent management professionals should view improv as a powerful resource in the development of these skills. In many ways, the tools and techniques of improv are uniquely suited to help business leaders develop these critical skills and behaviors. According to Sara Finch, director of learning at Second City Communications in Chicago, the core elements of improv—support, trust and embracing the ideas of All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 8|Pa ge
  • 9. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills others—align well with these much-needed skills. Improv, she says, can help employees better manage uncomfortable conversations (such as conversations about work performance, feedback, etc.); improve listening skills; and create a supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere (Hastings, 2009). The rapid-fire nature of improv also improves the ability to think on one’s Improv Company feet, a skill that applies well in Spotlight: FIZ leadership and negotiation situations (Tutton, 2010). “Improv FIZ (www.thefiz.biz) allows organizations to be more offers leadership nimble, flexible and open to change. development experiences designed for It teaches people and organizations soft skills such as thinking on one’s feet, that they can adapt without making creativity and coaching. It puts the principles it a huge emotional crisis,” says and techniques of improv theater to work in Greg Hohn, a seasoned non-theatrical venues such as corporations, improvisational artist, senior lecturer academic institutions, organizations, and at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business professional groups. FIZ programs are School, and program manager for experiential and focus on discussion rather the soft skills and leadership training than lecture. Their length is tailored to the company, FIZ. There is also client’s needs and can range anywhere from evidence, according to Gary Golden, 30-minute interactive presentations to in- associate professor of business at depth seminars, retreats, and courses that Muskingum University in New can last from two hours to two weeks or Concord, Ohio, that improv skills can remove some rigidity and structure even a semester. FIZ clients include Burt’s that can impede organizational Bees, Manpower, Inc., and Microsoft. growth (Golden, 2011). Improv techniques can be particularly effective in developing future leaders from the “Net Generation”—those recent college graduates and current students poised to enter the workplace in the next few years. This generation likes to learn by doing (e.g., learn by inductive discovery), are visual communicators, enjoy social interaction, are collaborative, and are emotionally more open than previous generations. These characteristics align well with the rules and results of improv (Berk & Trieber, 2009). All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 9|Pa ge
  • 10. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills How Talent Management Professionals Can Use Improv Improv Company Spotlight: Performance U sing improv for the development of business of a Lifetime leaders is particularly Performance of a appealing because it can be Lifetime applied immediately and can (www.performanceofalifetime.com) is a global be continually reinforced. organizational change company headquartered in Improv activities and exercises New York that develops people and organizations are easy to implement, and through the art of performance. It designs and they provide tools, tricks and delivers customized programs to develop techniques that individuals can leadership, enhance collaboration and practice and refine. Applied communication, and to drive culture change. learning that can be easily Performance of a Lifetime clients include American reinforced can provide real Express, Credit Suisse, TripAdvisor, Marathon sustainable change in an Petroleum, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and PwC. organization. Cathy Salit, CEO of organizational change firm Performance of a Lifetime and accomplished singer, actress, director and improvisational comic, agrees that real organizational change through improv is possible. “We develop people and organizations through the art of improvisational performance,” she says. “We use improvisation to establish an environment in which we can move executives out of their comfort zones and support them in taking risks, embracing their mistakes and exercising their creativity. Their abilities, mind-sets and behavioral repertoires expand and the process of professional and personal transformation begin.” To help sustain that change, Performance of a Lifetime engages executives in improv- based “performance coaching groups.” “Executives experience their capacity to make different kinds of behavioral choices,” says Salit. “In our language, they begin to see and experience themselves and others as performers, as producers of their own conversations, and as creators of new, more varied social relationships. The performance coaching groups provide a rehearsal environment for real-time direction and support for navigating leadership and communication challenges. We support executives by encouraging them to continue developing their improv ‘muscles’ through these performance coaching groups. We feel that it is vital to ongoing development—and to change that sticks.” All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 10 | P a g e
  • 11. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Next Steps: Applying Improv in Your Organization I mprov can be a very effective method to develop the critical skills required for today’s business leaders in a hands-on, energizing way. Improv is increasingly finding its way into leadership development programs. Pepsi, McDonald’s and the United Way have all used improv in their corporate training programs (Glazer, 2008). U.S. Cellular has used improv to improve diversity awareness in their organization, and Nike used improv to help managers design new shoes (Hastings, 2009; Thilmany, 2007). Alain Rostain, founder of the New York-based consulting firm Creative Advantage, has used improv with such clients as Kraft, Starbucks, GE and R.J. Reynolds to improve creativity and brainstorming (Golden, 2011). Improv can develop a wide range of skills and behaviors, but it does have limitations and may not be the best solution for every talent development challenge you face. As you consider whether improv would be effective in your organization, you should: Reflect on the qualifications and competencies that your leaders will require. o How well do they align with the skills you can develop with improv? Consider the individual business leaders and whether they would benefit from this type of experience. o Are there specific leaders, teams, divisions or business units that would be appropriate or others that might resist this non-traditional approach? Evaluate other leadership development activities that may already be in place to develop these skills and whether they would be more or less effective than improv. “Improvisation provides a set of tools for developing authentic leadership skills, and just like other leadership techniques, it is not right for every occasion,” says Bob Kulhan of Business Improvisations. “How and when you use these tools must depend on the leader, the team and the specific situation.” All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 11 | P a g e
  • 12. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills If you think improv may benefit your organization and your leadership development efforts, then there are a number of resources available to you. There are a number of excellent companies focused exclusively on bringing improv to the workplace for leadership development. In addition, if your organization works with an academic partner they may have established relationships with reputable improv companies that focus on leadership development. In some cases, academic partners may have improvisation experts on their faculty. Improvisation courses are part of the curriculum in the business schools at UNC Kenan-Flagler, Duke University, UCLA, Columbia University, MIT, the University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon, and Babson College (Glazer, 2008; Golden, 2011). If you choose to employ improv in your organization, it is strongly recommended that you work with a highly trained professional, well-versed in improv and how it applies to leadership development. Conclusion I mplemented properly, improv can help build trust, increase collaboration and team building, improve communication skills, promote innovation and creativity, improve tolerance to ambiguity and change, and help leaders feel more self-confident, open, and less afraid to take risks. It can help you and your organization develop the skills and behaviors that are critical to lead in the modern global economy. All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 12 | P a g e
  • 13. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills About UNC Executive Development Our approach to program design and delivery draws upon the power of real-world, applicable experiences from our faculty and staff, integrated with the knowledge our client partners share about the challenges they face. We call this approach The Power of Experience. We combine traditional with experiential and unique learning to ensure that all individuals gain relevant new skills that they can easily implement within their own organizations. Through action learning and business simulation activities, we challenge participants to think, reflect and make decisions differently. Our Approach: The Partnership Our team customizes each leadership program through a highly collaborative process that involves our clients, program directors, faculty and program managers. We are dedicated to following-up with our clients and individual participants to ensure that their learning experiences have been meaningful and impactful. This integrated approach consistently drives strong outcomes. Our Approach: The Results Our executive education programs are designed with results in mind, and we are focused on successfully meeting our clients' business and academic expectations. Below are a few examples of the results our client partners have achieved: Leadership refocused with new Products redefined strategy and cohesive vision New markets targeted Strategic plans created for the Cost-saving measures developed global marketplace Silos leveled Supply chains streamlined Teams aligned Participants leave empowered to bring in new ideas, present different ways to grow business and tackle challenges. The result is stronger individuals leading stronger teams and organizations. Contact Us Website: www.execdev.unc.edu | Phone: 1.800.862.3932 | Email: unc_exec@unc.edu All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 13 | P a g e
  • 14. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Sources Berk, R. & Trieber, R. (2009). Whose classroom is it anyway? Improvisation as a teaching tool. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 20(3), 29-60. Bschool.com staff (2011 February 1). 25 improve tricks that will make you a better business person. Bschool.com. Retrieved from http://www.bschool.com/blog/2011/25-improv-tricks- that-will-make-you-a-better-business-person/. Christiansen, B. (2011 December 14). Tina Fey’s rules for improve…and the workplace. Balanced Worklife. Retrieved from http://www.balancedworklife.com/blog/tina-feys-rules- for-improv-and-the-workplace/. Creative Engineering staff (n.d.). History of improv. Creative Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.creative-engineering.com/history.html. Fey, T. (2011). Bossypants. New York: Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books. Glazer, E. (2008 September 30). And now, something completely different. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122244981379579337.html. Golden, G. (2011 February). Creating improvisation-enhanced marketing coursework. ASBBS, 18,1. Retrieved from http://asbbs.org/files/2011/asbbsv1/pdf/goldeng.pdf. Gotts, I. & Cremer, J. (2012 February). Using improv in business. Smarter Ideas. Retrieved from http://iangotts.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/using-improv-in-business-e2-v1.pdf. Hastings, R. (2009 October 5). Organizations add drama to diversity and inclusion training. SHRM Online. Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/hrdisciplines/diversity/articles/ pages/organizationsadddrama.aspx. Interview with Greg Hohn (n.d.). Building trust through improv. Faith & Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.faithandleadership.com/multimedia/building-trust-through- improv. Kulhan, R. (2012 March 28). Disney cruises through the rocks. Business Spectator. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122244981379579337.html. Lorenz, M. (2010 February 4). Employers who say “yes, and…” to improv comedy gain serious benefits. The Hiring Site. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/ SB122244981379579337.html. All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 14 | P a g e
  • 15. Leadership Agility: Using Improv to Build Critical Skills Ramirez, J. (2010 August 31). Famous inventions and advances that came about by accident. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/ galleries/2010/08/31/famous-accidental-discoveries.html. Smith, N.D. (2011 March 28). Using improv for business. Slice of MIT. Retrieved from http://alum.mit.edu/pages/sliceofmit/2011/03/28/using-improv-for-business/. Spencer, S. (2011 November 10). Improvisation—a different way of solving business problems yields big rewards. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in- progress/2011/11/10/improv-different-way-of-solving-business-problems-yields-big- rewards/. Theleman,, B. (2011). Closing the gaps in leadership development. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Retrieved from http://www.kenan-flagler.unc.edu/executive- development/custom-programs/~/media/D38ECCA30B1341A18E65F85D150E1104.ashx. Thilmany, J. (2007 January 1). Acting out. HR Magazine, 52, 1. Retrieved from http://www.shrm.org/publications/hrmagazine/editorialcontent/pages/0107agenda_training. aspx. Tutton, M. (2010 February 18). Why using improvisation to teach business skills is no joke. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/BUSINESS/02/18/improvisation.business _skills.html/ Watson, K. (2011 September 16). Using rules of improv comedy to build a better business. Biznik. Retrieved from http://biznik.com/articles/using-rules-of-improv-comedy-to-build-a- betterbusiness. Wu, L. (n.d.). Economic “natural selection” improvisation is imperative to business survival. Xavier Leadership Center. Retrieved from http://www.xavierleadershipcenter.com/ economic-natural-selection-improvisation-is-imperative-to-business-survival/. All Content © UNC Executive Development 2012 15 | P a g e