The great philosopher, Tina Fey, once wrote ‘life is improvisation’.
If you know what improvisation is, it’s hard not to agree with her.
Also referred to as improv for shorthand, Wikipedia uses descriptions such as ‘on the spot’, ‘off the cuff’, or ‘spontaneous moment of sudden inventiveness’ to describe it. In improvisational theatre, it means no script and no preparation. You get up in front of a room of people without knowing who you’re meant to be and what you’re going to do or say. It’s a scary notion – imagine not being in control, not knowing what you’re going to do or say, and with people observing. The words you’re looking for are ‘paralysing fear’. I signed up for an improv course because I wanted to work on my active listening skills, develop the ability to think on my feet, and react on the spot.
It wasn’t until I started the course that I realised how much more I was getting out of it than I initially thought. There are many crossovers between improv theatre and Business Analyst/consultant/project life. So, here are the three things I’ve learnt from improv that I didn’t think I would.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind re-living my high school drama glory. My worry was whether or not I have any comic timing; am I funny enough to make people feel as though they’re watching an episode of ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ However, in long-form improv, the team’s objective is to play out the story and complete the scene; it’s not just about me, and it’s not for individual team members to outfunny each other. If you walk into the scene insisting that you must get the loudest laugh and be the star, you jeopardise your teammates by ignoring what they’ve set up, and blocking the progression of everyone’s characters. You may get laughs, sure – but you’ve just hurt the team’s ability to play out the story they’ve already set and complete the scene.
You have to pay attention to what’s being said and done by others on the stage, so you can contribute effectively and help the team progress. In this day and age, no person is an island, and no achievement is a truly solo effort. One person ignoring their project team (or worse, going behind their back) will hurt the team’s ability to deliver. We’ve all had that experience – that teammate who insists that everything play out their way; who steps on everyone else’s toes to make sure they stand out; who make themselves the hero, rather than propping everyone else. (If you’re thinking “I’ve never come across this kind of person before”, it’s probably you. Just sayin’.) Improv for me is great for the emphasis and focus on team effort and teamwork. To be effective in a team, you have to be alert to each other and be on the same page.
In improv, you’re working and riffing off each other’s offers to create a story. For this to happen, the team on the stage has to be on the same page, get along, feel supported, and trust each other. The basic principle that establishes this is ‘Yes, and’.
When you offer ideas knowing full well that they will always be received with enthusiasm and positivity, the immediate impact is feeling accepted and included. It’s everyone’s incremental offerings and acceptance that lets the team move the scene forward. You’re not going to offer others anything if you think they might say ‘No’, and if you don’t trust them. On my course, we were also actively encouraged to spend time getting to know our fellow improv course mates, to build that trust, connection, and openness.
As BAs and consultants who come in and out of client sites for any duration of engagement, you rely (especially initially) on people to provide you with information for your deliverables; and you then rely on other project team members to develop and implement it. Objectives are achieved more quickly, smoothly, and positively when someone feels comfortable and safe with sharing their information. Imagine being asked questions about your work by people who are saying, literally or metaphorically, ‘no’, and putting up blockers. When interviewing people for processes, requirements, scope, or anything else, don’t underestimate the importance of making your stakeholders feel comfortable and at ease. Creating a ‘safe space’ is not setting aside a specially feng shui room – it’s sharing understanding, empathy, and vulnerability to build trust. When your project manager suggests something, try a metaphorical ‘yes, and’.
It’s a hard one, yes, and is still a learning process. In improv, you jump in not knowing what’s going to happen, and hope and trust that it will play out well. You don’t plan where everyone will be, what’s going to happen or when, and you never know how it will be received. You might start miming Elvis Presley, only to have your partner interpret it as an officer directing traffic. What do you do?
You straighten your posture like an officer and direct the traffic. Take the offer they gave you. In the BA world things are planned out, but as we all know, things can and will change. The risk to us is loss of control and slippage in delivery. Being flexible and adapting to changing environments doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll lose control, though. In fact, to stay ahead of the situation, we might need to change our deliverables or approach so we can progress and continue to get stakeholder buy-in. I’m not suggesting that we flow with any change that comes our way – even in improv, once we’ve established with the audience that I’m the traffic officer, you can’t then try to change my character into a synchronised swimmer. Well… you can try, but the audience will find that change hard to accept, and will probably stop enjoying it. There are limits, but it doesn’t detract from the principle.
This last lesson, especially, has affected me the most. Learning to embrace the fact that I don’t know what will happen; that I don’t need to know; and accept that things are out of my control. I trust that I will find a prompt to work with, and that I can roll with directional changes thrown my way. Once I have this, it becomes easier to keep saying ‘yes, and’; and it all works towards becoming less fearful.
To go from this:
Can you facilitate this strategy meeting?
And arrive at this:
Would you like to write an article on looking at improv as inspiration?
‘Yes, that would be awesome!’
But be true to yourself:
Now, do 10 full body press-ups.
‘You don’t understand, I have chicken arms and mild iron deficiency.’
(Personal training isn’t included in ‘yes, and’. Sorry, Shay.)
The truth is, with every single facet of a new assignment, I don’t know exactly how anything might turn out – I only know the skills I have in certain situations, and I can build incrementally from there with the help of others. Philosopher Fey had a mantra,
‘say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards’
It takes time and practice, but shedding the fear of failure and the shame of appearing silly will be the ultimate result. When you mime a flight attendant demonstrating the exits and everyone else thinks you’re swatting away flies, the only way is up.
Yoong Ru Heng is an energetic, sociable, and collaborative Business Analyst, so it’s no surprise that she has taken to the fun and challenging world of improv. Outside of Redvespa, Yoong is a big fan of Asian pop culture.