“Fake it till you make it” is not practical business advice. “I’m just going to wing it” is not what you want to hear from a project manager. Mass data and modern analytics show us what we already know, that results are driven by good planning. The hallmark of a responsible business person will always be the ability to accurately plan for the future and clearly communicate those plans. However, my experience in improvisational comedy gave me insights that I take into every marketing project. At first glance, improvising a story in front of an audience is the farthest thing from a marketing plan, but in my own work, many Improv lessons cross over. Drawing on Improv experience creates business solutions. I have learned how to transform a weakness into a strength and listen with purpose. These two skills found in Improv have changed how I work.
Anyone can Improv. Improv is simply reacting to a situation and listening to teammates for a common goal. It can be so rewarding when you are on stage in front of a live audience and have an idea to reach your goal. More often than not, however, that feeling is short lived. Suddenly, your teammate unknowingly sabotages that idea with a contribution of his or her own. Now the entire direction of the scene is changed, and you are left with no ideas. However easy Improv might be in theory, in practice it is another story.
One minute everything is going according to plan, the next disaster strikes. This can be an all too familiar feeling when managing a project. However, just like Improv, this perceived weakness can become a strength when you take the time to listen for an opportunity. A good Improv artist does not hesitate to build off his or her partner’s contribution. Once, during a show, one my scene partners called me “Jeff” and established my character. After a few minutes into the game, my other scene partner forgot my name and called me “Spencer.” A simple mistake like that can confuse an audience and leave a team scrambling to get back on track. I couldn’t go back to the Jeff character and throw my teammate under the bus, so I made a new character and included my teammates’ ideas. At the end of the scene, it was revealed that Spencer was an undercover cop whose real name was Jeff. The audience’s confusion was explained, and we found a face-saving solution for my team. Listening for an opportunity and paying attention to the detail allowed us to turn a weakness into a strength.
Whether it is business or pleasure, worrying about things that can’t be changed will not help anyone reach his or her goal. When unanticipated roadblocks halt a project be the first to respond. Don’t look back. Accept what you can’t change and listen for an opportunity to make a face-saving solution. Improv has taught me that great plans set a solid foundation of clear communication and common goals. However, the real value is found when those qualities can be used in high-pressure situations. When that foundation is built a team can listen for opportunities and transform weakness into strength.