Improvise Your Success!

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.

Take Notice

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?

Try This

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.



  • Andy Thorp
    Mar 09, 2010 - 16:53 pm

    Hi Steve
    Sorry I’ve been away for a while – sometimes you just can’t keep up with things! But a posting about improv sure got my attention – it’s one of my favourite subjects. I’m a big fan of Whose Line (both the US and UK version) and last year I took an improv class with a view to maybe using it in some of the training/speaking work I do. For a start, it’s great for developing listening skills, keeping you fully engaged and discouraging the preparation of a response. Improv is not about trying to be funny, it’s about spontaneity and responding honestly and instinctively to what you hear/see/feel. It’s great for sales for in improv you’re always looking for ‘offers’, threads you can pick up on and develop. Again, rolls-royce standard listening skills required. And it kills negativity because of the ‘yes and’ principle. You always take a thread that’s given to you and ADD to it. You don’t cut it off. There’s very little in the way of judgment in improv, although you will get pulled up if you try to be funny or forget the ‘yes and’ rule. Apart from all that it’s terrific fun, taking you out of your comfort zone and exploring your capabilities.

  • Clemens Rettich
    Mar 09, 2010 - 17:56 pm

    Thank you Steve, great article!

    I taught improvisation to high students and in workshops for many years. My work with students was heavily influenced by Keith Johnstone’s 1979 book ‘Impro’ and the Theatresports movement that arose out of it (and is the roots of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”).

    I always told my students that the skills they learned in improvisational theatre (listening, teamwork, confidence, speaking skills, etc.) they would not learn in any other class in school. I found that many of the values and approaches that Theatresports use were also useful in working with groups of managers and professionals (the one you site: ‘Yes, and…’ is a particularly powerful example).

    Your summary is excellent and you broaden and deepen it by connecting it to the ideas of presence, responsiveness, etc. I will be sharing this article as widely as I can.

    By the way, my ‘4 Rules of Improv’ in the classroom?
    1. Always say Yes
    2. Always make your partner look good
    3. Keep it simple
    4. Keep things active

    Keep on writing!

  • Steve Yastrow
    Mar 09, 2010 - 22:26 pm

    Thanks Andy and Clemens … I appreciate the comments! I love what you both said … let’s keep trading ideas on creating fun, fluid, fresh encounters in our business lives!

  • Jay Rhoderick
    Mar 10, 2010 - 08:15 am

    Hi Steve,
    Terrific article. My own improv training comes via the general Chicago/Del Close/Compass school of free-flowing long-form that explores themes along with the laughs. I really connected with the evolutionary dots you connected in the post.
    My long-time NYC group, Centralia, named itself after a town of the same name in Pennsylvania that has had a coal fire burning under it for the past half-century. They can’t extinguish it! As strange and awful as this is, the story also fascinated us on a deep level. It felt like a legend or an archetype from the collective unconscious. In our shows, we draw on lots of shared references and a “inner framework” such as the one you describe.
    I know this may sound grim and heavy. We actually do love to make people laugh in our shows! But beneath the surface, my 14-year co-players and I have discovered that our best shows happen when we draw on those “caveman” or even “bonobo” parts of our brains and memories. The scenes are really about something, have deep drives and stakes, and the characters draw on the collective unconscious to generate laughs at the sweet, foolish, or selfish Everyman onstage who’s inside us all.
    When I work with corporate clients, they sometimes worry at first that I will make them roll around on the floor, but as you say, the most powerful exploration they can do is to relax, open up, listen to each other and trust that we as humans, are wired to improvise! Then we begin working on relationships and business issues while sharing our deep references and instincts as members of the same primate species!
    Thanks for your words!
    Any thoughts on mine?

  • Steve Yastrow
    Mar 12, 2010 - 09:50 am

    Jay, great thoughts. Laughter isn’t the only response you want to get from your audience, clearly … your improv can connect with them on so many levels, which is probably how you can connect it to other business issues so easily. Keep us posted!

  • Caroline Ceisel
    Mar 12, 2010 - 10:27 am

    I have been taking class at Second City for three years and find it applies to business in so many useful ways. Improv is really just a better way to work!

  • Christine Angulo
    Jul 09, 2010 - 22:52 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I don’t like pitches much, it does bother me when I hear someone that sounds like they are a machine because it is like you are dealing with a robot with no feelings on the subject at all.

    I always have something on paper just while I am getting the hang of things because I don’t want to get lost but I do try to improvise because not everyone is the same. Like with this project, some people want straight to the point, some people want a lot of information. Also,some people like small talk and for it not only to be about business, some people like to see that you enjoy your job and that you are happy to discuss different concerns that may come up. People like it when you remember them and they also ejoy being able to place you even if you don’t remember them, they are happy to know that they have met you before.

    I guess in some way I have always known this but not always known exactly how to do it, after reading this it is fresher in my mind and I will focus more on “improving my improve”.


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