Why improv skills are so valuable in the workplace, according to an expert

Why improv skills are so valuable in the workplace, according to an expert
This article has been sponsored by Monash Business School.

Change is the only constant. Reality is ever-shifting, and those who can adapt will ride the wave of success, while those who fail to recognise where the current is flowing and alter their strategies accordingly, will be cast by the wayside. The COVID-19 pandemic, amongst other things, was a brilliant illustration of this fact. Some companies thrived under the great restructuring, while others didn’t fare so well.

The world is still in a phase of transition. Almost two years into COVID-19, we’re far enough along to have adapted to a new COVID-normal; working from home, zoom meetings, baking sourdough — and yet still not far enough along to have fully made the leap to a new way of operating. It all feels very temporary, as if we’re all in a state of purgatory.

What the future holds is anyone’s guess, with some much more well placed than others to make those prognostications. One thing is for certain — change. Nothing ever stays the same, and if you’re skilled at adapting, then the world of tomorrow will be your oyster, whatever it may look like.

Dr Davide Orazi, senior lecturer in Marketing at Monash Business School, has been studying the phenomena of improvisation, and how understanding and improving on that skill can lead to success in professional settings. If you’re skilled at improvising, then you’ll be well-placed to deal with the challenges that come from the ever-shifting societal landscape we operate in.

Orazi, alongside Pier Vittorio Mannucci (London Business School), and Kristine de Valck (HEC Paris) set out to understand how people develop varying types of improvisation skills over time. Over two years, they observed and documented improvisational actions in three different Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) groups across the world to create a comprehensive process of how players developed and enacted improvisational skills. We asked Dr Orazi to shed more light on his findings.

Hi Davide, why is improv important in the workplace? In what ways does being skilled at improv help workers navigate this new “COVID normal” as well as the potential challenges of a post-COVID world?

We live in turbulent times. Change is continuous and unexpected, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world you cannot just plan ahead. You have to make-do as the world changes, and be comfortable with the notion that not everything is under our control. Improvisation is a great skill to have in the workplace when time pressure requires planning and execution to happen at the same time. But it can also become an organizational value, and help firms thrive.

The Italian start-up Issinova produced snorkelling masks as their core value proposition. In March 2020, when hospitals were in desperate demand for respirators and manufacturers could not provide them quickly enough, they pivoted into 3D-printing respirator valves. And London-based real estate company Fast Forward Ventures improvised the start-up, Go Fog It, to make business spaces safer, winning the UK’s Recovery & Rebuilding the Region Design Challenge last month.

How does one improve their improv skills?

Improvisation is quite elastic. You need to keep your improv senses sharp, or you gradually lose the ability to react to others’ cues or generate improvisational cues of your own. Many forms of creative expression, such as theatrical play and music, offer the option of going completely free-flow and are great examples of how to train our improvisation muscles. But if you want an easy, accessible way to teach a group how to improvise, lock them in a cabin in the woods for one week and make them play Dungeons & Dragons. Role-playing games are based on creativity and improvisation, which is why we used them as the context of our research. 

Could you explain the differences between the three types of improv?

‘Imitative improvisation’ consists of observing what more experienced people are doing and matching their responses with minimal variation. It is a simple yet effective starting point that allows newcomers to learn the ropes of improvisation. 

‘Reactive improvisation’ is the most common type of improvisation, and consists of using inputs from other players and the environment to develop original responses. This type of improvisation requires players to build on their existing experience to extrapolate new, original courses of action.

‘Generative improvisation’ is a new addition to the improvisation literature and requires probing into the future and proactively trying new things in an attempt to anticipate and even catalyse (rather than react to) what could happen. It is a risky, explorative form of improvisation that requires great initiative — but it’s the most effective for developing truly unique, innovative ideas.

If we return to the opening example, Issinova pivoting from snorkel masks into respirator valves in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a form of reactive improvisation. If the company started pivoting and branching into respirator valves before the pandemic, in anticipation of changing levels of pollution and a higher risk for respiratory diseases, then we would have classified it as generative improvisation.

Is it ever too late to start learning improv, and conversely, is it ever too early? Could improv be a valuable tool used in the classroom for high school and even primary school-aged students?

It is never too early, and improvisation is a natural instinct that kids have. When we are children and we play ‘make-believe’, we are effectively improvising. We tend to gradually lose that skill with age for various reasons, from a traditional stigmatization of play as a non-serious activity to the eroding face-to-face interaction time that the digital world has caused. As improvisation requires creativity and often to go outside our comfort zone, however, it becomes progressively harder with age as we become more cognitively resistant to change.

Some countries have long understood the value of Improvisational education. In many Scandinavian countries, for instance, educational live-action role-playing or ‘Edularps’ are quite popular. They are involving, group activities in which learning outcomes are embedded into the activity. You learn by doing in simulated or alternative environments, with proven effects on interest, motivation, and engagement.