From the theatre to the Office | What is Applied Improvisation and why is it the answer to VUCA?

What is Applied Improvisation and why is it the answer to VUCA?
What is Applied Improvisation and why is it the answer to VUCA?

By Theodore Klein, Managing Partner, Boston Strategy Group

VUCA is a business concept encompassing four pressing challenges: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It results from an unrelenting case of "too much change in too short a time," as Alvin Toffler presciently wrote in Future Shock. In this new normal where traditional methods for solving challenges no longer apply, the unpredictability of modern crises means that planning for all of them is impossible.

HR professionals now also face these four unique challenges daily. Market volatility requires a flexible talent strategy to establish new skills to remain competitive. Then, there's the uncertainty of constant organizational changes, which makes professional staff feel adrift and erodes the trust crucial to productivity and innovation. The rise of hybrid work, growing generational divides, stringent regulatory changes, and talent scarcity are just a few recent examples. Add in troubling HR and workplace trends like "Act Your Wage" and "Bare Minimum Monday," and it's clear that the ongoing corporate struggle with staff isn't going anywhere.

How are today's leaders expected to face unforeseen and highly complicated challenges in such an irregular business environment? The answer is to prepare for uncertainty itself. For that, we must turn to a novel approach, and Applied Improvisation (AIM) is quickly gaining traction with businesses looking to deal with VUCA environments and improve organizational performance.

What is Applied Improvisation?

Whether you've been to an improv comedy club or watched one of the many unscripted TV series, such as the UK's "Whose Line is it Anyway" or the US series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," you're undoubtedly familiar with the concept of improvising. After all, life doesn't follow a script, and this theatrical technique comes directly from everyday life. In fact, we improvise without realizing it every day. Humanity's rich history of embracing improv dates back thousands of years, but it was in the late 20th century that its connections to a variety of other fields, and especially business, were established.

The parallels between a successful group of improv actors and a high-functioning business team are so clear that it's almost surprising the connection wasn't made before. During a theatrical improv performance, actors are tasked with being present and carefully listening to their team members. Without a script, a scene can only progress when new information is presented, so actors must accept and make "offers" or creative suggestions to keep things moving. By incorporating all ideas presented without expressing negativity, they positively adapt to the situation they find themselves in rather than one they may have desired.

These actions are undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has ever been in a business meeting or brainstorming session. The experiential learning process of AIM was born by linking the core tenets of improv theatre – collaboration, listening, and teamwork – to essential business and leadership functions. The lighthearted comedy of improv theatre was dropped and replaced with a scientifically-based learning approach backed by significant academic research by, among others, Harvard and Stanford.

It's thus unsurprising that significant companies, healthcare facilities, and universities across all industries have been intrigued by its potential. Companies and firms like Google, Meta, VISA, PepsiCo, AstraZeneca, Accenture, Ernst & Young, Kearney, and McKinsey have all been actively exploring it.

Francesca Gino, a professor at the Harvard Business School, states: "In my academic research, I've looked at many different types of teams at a wide variety of organizations all over the world. The group that communicated best, with everyone contributing and learning, wasn't in a corporate office park; it was in an improv comedy class."

What does an AIM Program look like?

AIM's interactive programs, led by an experienced facilitator, can be taught in-office, at team-building events, or at corporate retreats. It can even be done online, but the best benefits are in person.

While value and comprehension are increased with regularly scheduled sessions as opposed to a single event, participants can begin reaping benefits in as little as a few hours. While the goal of each program is customized to an organization's needs—enhancing networking skills, learning how to enhance collaboration in remote settings, or strengthening situational communications, to name just a few—the general structure remains consistent.

The facilitator introduces the program, identifies the objectives, leads participants through a series of interactive activities, and, most importantly, holds in-depth debriefs to clarify learning objectives, discuss group responses and potential improvements, and review the results.

HR professionals and executives are taking notice of the encouraging results. "I was excited when I began reading about Applied Improvisation,” explains Marilyn T. Smith, Former Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at George Mason University. “Leadership, coaching, and training from Human Resources emphasizing collaboration and creativity are more important than ever to motivate and energize employees—and increase innovation and productivity.”

A practical and inclusive AIM program incorporates the nine principles of improvisation – awareness, connections, presence, initiations, agreement, vulnerability, simplicity, value, and creation – and teaches participants how to incorporate them into their interpersonal style and into daily business functions. The activities are where participants first become aware of these principles in action, but it is the debriefs that are vital to making AIM a powerful learning tool. In asking participants to reflect on their actions, AIM avoids the trap of merely proposing the value of abstract management concepts. When treated with the seriousness that it deserves, this new paradigm for management behavior leads to tangible results within organizations. Researchers at the University of Helsinki have found this to be true, stating that “Improvisation training cultivates a specific skill set of tolerating mistakes, listening skills, spontaneity, presence, performance confidence, and collaboration skills.”

How does AIM help organizations deal with VUCA?

The experiential learning process at the core of AIM leverages the principles mentioned above to develop people's capacity to adapt, move without a script, collaborate, and be effective in the unknown. During the in-person activities and educational debriefs, participants learn how to effectively brainstorm to propel innovation, build mutual trust to strengthen team development, and develop skills for speaking in the moment and solving problems in real-time.

Furthermore, they learn about the power of nonverbal communication to improve interactions with coworkers and clients, as well as techniques for enhanced collaboration in both office and remote settings. Above all, AIM programs offer a judgment-free zone for reflecting on leadership and management competencies, allowing everyone involved to leverage their strengths and work on their weaknesses.

For organizations struggling to remain grounded amid unprecedented rates of change, AIM effectively prepares professional staff, management, and executives to work more efficiently under pressure. The result is stronger teams that can address the challenges of VUCA environments without the need for a rigorous plan of action.

What makes AIM effective?

As a form of experiential learning, AIM gains power by teaching social skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity through active learning. Its hands-on activities starkly contrast with passive learning like lectures, reading, and audio-visual mediums, which involve receiving information without actively engaging with it.

The efficacy of active learning is at the core of the learning pyramid developed by the NTL Institute, which suggests that active learning leads to far greater knowledge retention than passive learning. According to the model, lectures lead to just a 5% retention rate, while teaching others boasts a 90% retention rate.

Modern workers are, by and large, woefully unprepared for VUCA environments. Higher education has historically put far too much emphasis on passive learning. It has also long been plagued by an insistence on teaching technological and analytical skills versus social skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity.

In Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Joseph E. Aoun, the president of Northeastern University, recognizes the urgent need to teach skills that artificial intelligence cannot replicate:

"The goal of experiential learning is to remove boundaries between the classroom and real life, creating a constant, multidimensional learning ecosystem. This steeps learners in randomness, the serendipity and weirdness of life that diverts the brain down unmapped channels. It allows them to improvise in contexts they have never encountered, interacting, inventing, and thinking on their feet. When human learners are immersed in an incalculable variety of experiences, they escape the strictures of predetermined input—which computers cannot do. They break free of their programming, and they upgrade their minds."

Preparing professional staff for today's and tomorrow's challenges requires robot-proofing them or strengthening the human skills that make them indispensable. AIM's memorable and engaging learning process holds significant promise for HR departments looking to champion and hone human skills. Modern success hinges on being one step ahead of competitors by anticipating problems and finding solutions. AIM might very well be the step, if not the leap, organizations need to stay competitive.

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