Improvisational theatre is a special form of theatre where the actors have no storybook and therefore have no idea what will happen at the stage. The story is created spontaneously by the actors. There are no requisites. Every item that is needed for the story has to be imagined. When I first heard about it many years ago, this idea was so scary for me that I actually had to try it out. The lessons I have learned from it were mind-blowing. They not only shaped my character but also helped me to become a much better professional leader.
The 3 Principles of Improvisational Theatre
If nobody at the stage of an improvisational theatre offers any words or action, the whole theatre doesn’t work. And it’s the same for every organization. Employees have to express their ideas in order to improve a company. They have to be encouraged to take decisions. They have to be allowed to take risks and also to fail. What is more valuable, an employee who takes bold actions and earns $1 million for the company but also looses $500k or another one who doesn’t take any risk and makes only $100k without loosing anything? As a leader you have to speak up, make decisions, and act. If you lead by example and encourage your employees to do the same, great things will happen!
Improvisational theatre can only work if all actors accept the ideas of each other. If one actor starts talking about a blue elephant and another actor refuses this idea, it won’t work. If, however, the other actor accepts the blue elephant and even adds his own ideas then the story will become even more exciting. All the actors have a positive and open mindset. Whereas most people in our Western culture tend to say “Yes, but…” (which basically means “No.”) actors in improvisational theatre always try to react with a “Yes, and…” attitude. Banning the phrase “Yes, but…” has not only helped me in improvisational theatre. It also fundamentally shaped my leadership style. When I was younger I used to say those two words at least a million times each day (no, this is not an exaggeration)! It let to endless discussions and a lot of frustration. As soon as I started replacing “Yes, but…” with “Yes, and” something magical happened. Ideas started to grow. People started to ask me for my opinion. The solutions we found were always better than my initial ideas and everyone involved was happy about the outcome and motivated about implementing it. I wrote about a little exercise to understand the power of “Yes, and…” in this article.
Make Others Look Good
The third reason why improvisational theatre works is that every actor tries to make the other actors look good. If someone has no idea what to say next, somebody else will chime in. Nobody would say anything that makes someone else look bad. Unfortunately, in the real world, we often have a different picture. People want to look good and keep others small, especially in management. While this might work for some quick wins, it is usually not sustainable for individuals and definitely not for their companies. But if you as a leader make the people around you look good then you will harvest the fruits later. People will remember. You will find allies instead of enemies. If you are a manager, your employees will enjoy working for you. They will more likely give their best to make you proud and also to make you look good. It happens automatically. Maybe not instantly but in the long run you will be much more successful if you always try to make others look good.
Try It Out Yourself and Become a Better Leader
If you have never tried improvisational theatre I encourage you to do it. You can find playing groups in many cities all over the world. Apply the 3 principles and you will become a better leader!