What do Richard Branson & Tina Fey have in common?

I believe that she is is funny for the same reason that he is rich: An astute ability to improvise. I am a teacher of improvisation for business and the author of GameChangers – Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, which comes out at the end of December. Last week I read a post here on Success Hacks, which got me thinking about how transferable such “hacks” really are. I commented:

The difficulty with learning from ‘success hacks’ is that so many of them are idiosyncratic to the hackers who performed them in the first place. It does not automatically follow that others will find them equally useful…Saying “No” a lot may work for Ev Williams, but many successful entrepreneurs get where they are by saying “Yes”… Saying “No” is necessary in certain situations, but as any kind of organizational dogma, it’s a dead end…[and] If you look at any successful businessperson, you can see that they are almost always excellent improvisers.

Carleen asked me if I’d be willing to elaborate on what I meant by this. So, I’m going to share with you some of the reasons why I believe that improvisation is more important to business success today than it has ever been.

First, I was a fan. Those Second City people – how did they do it? And the Upright Citizens Brigade? Magic. Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman? Pure unfathomable genius.

Then, almost by accident, I became an evangelist. Five years ago, while working on creative and brand strategy with ignition, inc, an Atlanta-based experiential marketing company, I got one of their employees, a very smart business development person with a reputation for being difficult — which he truly was, he was a chore — enrolled in improv classes at a theater in Atlanta called Dad’s Garage. Within six weeks, the exec was much more open and collaborative, which meant his knowledge of the business was more accessible to his fellow players, and got put to better use. Best of all, he became more self-aware. He had learned what his unproductive tendencies were. The path to improvement became clear.

Not long after that, I became a student myself, at the I. O. West Theater in Los Angeles, even did some performing. Got some laughs. But the important thing that happened was how I began making heavy-duty connections between the techniques used by improv performers, and those of successful business people.

Great businesspeople, it so happens, are excellent improvisers. This is why Richard Branson is rich for the same reasons Tina Fey is funny (and getting rich herself). The beauty of it for people in business who are looking to make it big like Branson is that these techniques can be learned. (Editor’s Note: For what it’s worth, Branson’s staff refers to him as ‘Dr. Yes’)

4 Ways Improv Can Be A Valuable Tool In Your Business Success:

1) SPEED. In the Industrial Age, wealth moved in sync with men and machines. However fast you could make stuff and get it to market, that was how fast your money could move. In the Networked World, the movement of wealth has become unhinged in time from the physical movement of goods and services. Today, money has the potential to move nearly at the speed of thought – recklessly fast, it turns out. As a business discipline designed to operate at the speed of thought, improvisation enables players to operate in sync with the datastream and the money that moves through it.

2) DECISION-MAKING. All it takes is one bad move like a sub-prime hedge fund and your company loses $8,000,000,000. In one quarter. The flip side is that you can make a truck full of dough in that same amount of time. With improvisation, not only do decisions get made faster, players and teams gain the skills to make instinctive moves that align with positive themes and productive games.

3) THEMES. Who reads instruction manuals? Like, uh, no one? The gamer generation learns the game by playing it. By working with themes and conceptual ideas instead of literal behaviors, improvisational companies get richer and more authentic contributions from their employees, and employee satisfaction improves, too. It’s win/win that way. Flex time and social networking are two areas where a shared understanding of a concept or theme is far more useful than any set of literal guidelines could be.

4) FOCUS. Out-sourcing and virtual collaboration are two of the many challenges to communication for a company operating in the Networked World. Skilled improvisers know how to create the focus that is essential to a successful performance – whether it’s taking place at the I. O. West’s Andy Dick Theater (seriously), or in Microsoft video conference rooms around the world.

Mike Bonifer is the co-founder, with Dr. Virginia Kuhn, of GameChangers, LLC, the author of GameChangers – Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. He worked on TRON.


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