Training procedures. Employee behavior policies. Customer service scripts. Secret shoppers ensuring employees follow the scripts. Elevator pitches. Sales presentation templates.
All important ingredients for a successful business, right?
Not so fast. Sure, for some functions in business, such as running an assembly line or filling out compliance documents, consistency and policy are critical. But for many functions in business (selling, providing customer service, collaborating with colleagues, collaborating with customers, finding innovative solutions as you work with colleagues and customers, managing people) pre-programming job tasks can be dangerous. For these functions, improvisation leads to success.
Improvisation? Isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t that unnatural for many people?
Not really. In fact, improvisation is one of the most natural things we do. I just finished a fantastic book, Our Inner Ape,by noted primatologist Frans de Waal. The book focuses on humanity’s two closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, with all three species sharing nearly 99% of their DNA. The book has many themes (I highly recommend it for all humans!), but I want to share a passage that describes how chimps, bonobos and humans navigate the myriad situations they encounter every day:
“The problem with the term ‘instinct’ is that it downplays the role of learning and experience…The human brain is compared to a Swiss Army Knife to which evolution has one by one added modules for everything from face-recognition and tool-use to child care and friendship… It is undeniable that we have inborn predispositions, yet I don’t see us as blind actors carrying out nature’s genetic programs. I see us rather as improvisers who flexibly adjust to other improvisers on the scene with our genes offering hints and suggestions.
Chimps, bonobos and humans all spend years growing up in their communities, learning how the world works, learning how to interact with other members of their community, learning how to thrive… in essence, learning to improvise. Our lives are not pre-programmed, and our actions are not hard-wired. We encounter brand new situations every day, and our success depends on our ability to improvise.
This passage came to me on the heels of an energizing lunch I had Saturday with Joe Basic, my friend and client from Croatia, Joe’s college friend Steve Johnston, president of Second City Communications and my associate Caroline Ceisel, who has been studying improvisation at The Second City for three years, and will be in a show there for six weeks starting in April.
The Second City has been around for 50 years, producing alumni the likes of Tina Fey, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Jim and John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Martin Short, to name only a few. Steve’s group, Second City Communications, takes The Second City’s principles into corporations, for training, events and internal communications. Steve explained that the DNA of the Second City brand is improvisation and humor, and that his team uses these core ideas to help their clients. It didn’t take long, after we sat down at Cafe Ba Ba Reba in Chicago, for the sparks to start flying as we shared our passion for using tools of improvisation in business. (It didn’t hurt that it was a relaxed Saturday afternoon; we were all in jeans, and we were sharing tapas.)
If you’ve had a chance to read my book We: The Ideal Customer Relationship, you read about these kinds of ideas: Using the idea of “Yes, and…” (a core staple of Second City’s improvisational approach and something I learned from creativity consultantPamela Meyer), starting conversations in the middle, my abhorrence for scripting service employees, and the entire concept of the relationship-building encounter, which I write about in Chapter 2.
Steve Johnston and Second City Communications, of course, take this to a very high level, as evidenced by their ticket sales and the number of Saturday Night Live cast members who began their careers at The Second City. Steve and his team teach businesses how to approach situations in a way that is fluid and fresh, drawing on The Second City’s improvisation techniques. Steve explains it this way: “‘The less you plan, the more you’ll discover’… is an axiom here that really speaks to the importance of creating less rigid, open conversations.”
But these principles, and those described by Frans de Waal, are essentially the same: Your business life is filled, each day, with novel situations, and you will not be able to deal with those situations unless you are able to see each situation as the unique, one-of-a-kind situation that it is, and act in a unique, one-of-a-kind way.
Improvisation seems tough, and many people don’t think they are quick enough to come up with ideas on the spot. But great improvisers don’t just pull ideas out of mid-air. Every time you hear a creative idea that appears spontaneously, know that the person generating the idea was working from some sort of inner framework. This is how our most highly-developed form of musical improvisation, jazz, works. I could meet five jazz musicians today, for the first time, and we could start improvising together immediately. How? Because we share an underlying knowledge of the genre and its idioms, we know the basic harmonic and melodic structure of the songs, and we have common references from this history of jazz to draw on. This allows us to play off each other, saying “Yes, and…” as we respond to the musical cues thrown out to each other.
As you interact with people this week, note when people seem like they’re working from a script, and when people seem like they are quick on their feet, effectively improvising their way through a situation. Which is more compelling? Which seems more genuine? Which is more likely to persuade you?
How do you compare?
Now, consider yourself and the colleagues you work with. On an improvisation scale, are you closer to Coltrane or to a kid playing chopsticks? When are you best at improvising? When are you not?
The next time you are trying to persuade someone, ditch the pitch. Read through my free ebook, Encounters, and use the principles I write about to create a fresh, fluid, relationship-building encounter. Call on millions of years of human evolution, and do what is natural: improvise.