As my improv group gets ready for our first big show, my consulting work has taken me back into an office setting on a pretty regular basis. This intersection of events has gotten me thinking about a subject that much has been written about before: the lessons improvisational comedy has for the businessperson. In particular, I want to talk about what I'm starting to think are the most important facets of being successful in either arena: listening and committing.
We'd all like to think that we're smart, capable, funny and talented. And the fact is that many of us are: some of us can be downright brilliant and the rest of us are capable of great things given the right approach and a little hard work. But the truth is that very few of us (and I'm not one of them!) are capable of being consistently clever/inspired/brilliant/effective all of the time. Unfortunately, too many of us think that we are, and there's nothing worse than someone who's convinced that they can do no wrong.
The great benefit of working with other people to accomplish a goal -- be it to close a business deal or put on a comedy show -- is that you don't have to depend solely on your own (inevitably inconsistent and fleeting) brilliance. When you work effectively in a group, either as a leader or an equal participant, you benefit tremendously by fostering an atmosphere of openness and collaboration and by being willing to genuinely, deeply and honestly listen to what others have to say.
The other day at improv, we were playing a scene and asked for a suggestion of "something people might be getting ready for" and got the response of "a party." I immediately thought of doing a scene involving an awkward office party, including ideas about the plot, characters and even a few one liners. Before I could even begin, one of my scene partners jumped right in and established a scene about a group of nerdy frat brothers getting ready for a kegger. He went in and established the environment and several good strong characters: better than anything I could come up with. So guess what: when I entered the scene I was no longer an insecure accountant with a crush on his coworker: I was a clumsy Computer Science major carrying a case of Budweiser.
When I started managing large numbers of people at my old job, I had a lot to learn. About twice a day, someone would walk into my office with complaints and concerns that I thought were ridiculous, misinformed or distorted. Initially, I would decide right away that this stuff was nonsense and dismiss it out of hand. Eventually, I figured out that if someone felt strongly enough to take the time out of their day to come into my office and pour their heart out, then buried within all the things they were saying that I didn't agree with, there was probably something real and important there that if I just listened I could draw out and learn from.
One of the other things I learned (yes... the hard way) was that indecision kills. One of my former bosses was fond of saying "The second best decision quickly made is better than the best decision never made," and I think there's a lot to that. The human brain needs direction and goals. It doesn't matter if it's your brain or the brains of a group of people you're leading, they need to be working towards something specific, attainable and concrete to function optimally.
On stage, even very good improvisers make a bunch of bad choices: they take the plot in a direction that limits what can happen next; they make a decision that fails to build upon something their scene partner offered. I'll often play a scene and look back on it and say, "Boy... if I had just done this instead of that, the scene really would have been great!" But some of the best improvs I've ever scene began with a mediocre premise or choice and ended up being hysterical because the players accepted it and threw themselves behind it 100%. So someone just set up a scene about buying a loaf of bread at the supermarket (scenes where you purchase something are always death) -- get behind it: make the cashier and the customer turn out to be a recently-divorced couple and let the sparks fly. The really terrible improv scenes (the ones that aren't funny and don't go anywhere) are the ones where the players fail to throw themselves behind a strong choice.
Similarly, in the world of business, you have to trust yourself. You and I may not be capable of being brilliant all the time, but we're not stupid either. Chances are that if you make the best decision you can and follow it through to its reasonable point of conclusion, you'll probably end up somewhere in the vicinity of success. And if you're honest enough to take a good, hard look at where you're at when you get there, you'll probably learn something useful for next time.