How improvisation techniques can help with business

By Duke Chang

Author, professor and actor Bob Kulhan recently visited Fidelity Investments to lead an improvisation workshop as part of the Fidelity Labs Design Thinking Seminar Series. Bob is the founder, CEO and president of Business Improv, a corporate training and development company that helps cultivate leadership and communication skills through techniques used in improvisational acting.

Bob has written a new book, “Getting to ‘Yes And’ The Art of Business Improv,” and I had the pleasure to sit down with him to talk more about what “yes and” means and how it can be applied to business.

Bob, thanks so much for talking with me today. When most people hear “improv,” they have images come to their mind of sketch comedy or that TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or perhaps even jazz music. What does that have anything to do with the business world?

Bob Kulhan: When you look at what it takes to do any of those things successfully, you’ll start to notice the tenets of improvisation have a lot to do with the business world. For example, the three core competencies that define improvisation are reacting, adapting and communicating, and those have everything to do with business whether you’re working in teams, remotely or in person, and whether you’re dealing with sales and clients, relationship building, or conflict management.

One of the things that you talk a lot about in the book is how you take some of those exercises from improv and some of those theater games and bring them into your teachings. That sounds like it could make the average corporate executive pretty uncomfortable. How do you get them to participate?

BK: We’ve developed a number of different techniques to get those skeptics onboard and at least curious so that they can participate, including basing everything that we do on experiential learning, behavioral sciences, organizational theory, decision making, and of course a lot of real world experience. On top of that, most of our programs are done en masse, meaning everyone is going through every exercise at the same time, so we’re never isolating people—we’re never putting you up on stage. In doing so, we create conformity pressure. The fact that everyone else is doing it makes the people who are little resistant to doing it want to do it because they just want to fit in on that team.

Because improvisation is so popular, there is that natural curiosity, and people wonder why are great businesses like Fidelity Investments bringing in improvisers to work with us, and that’s usually enough to get them up on their feet and really embracing this as experiential learning.

The book is called “Getting to Yes And.” That phrase “yes and” is a core tenet to everything that you’re describing in the book. Can you give a little background on what “yes and” means?

BK: “Yes and” is the cornerstone of improvisation around the world. “Yes” is unconditional acceptance. You give me this gift, this offer, this opportunity, and you accept it at face value. “And” is the bridge to how you accept it. “And” is the bridge to your intelligence, your background, your education, your experience, and your passion. Put another way, “yes” is thoughtfulness; “and” is the bridge to how you’re thoughtful.

Because improvisation is a communication-based art form, and “yes and” is its cornerstone, “yes and” is the root of great communication. “Yes and” can be used as a conflict management tool, and it can be used as a postponement of judgment tool, not a way to abandon judgment, but a way to push off those critical thinking skills to another time so that there’s an exploration of ideas and a free exchange of information. Improvisation by nature, including the use of “yes and,” really thrives inside adaptive problem solving and in the unknown and dealing with the unexpected.

The rise in popularity and interest of improv in the business world also intersects with two other hot topics: Design Thinking and mindfulness. Tell us how you see business improv, Design Thinking and mindfulness working together.

BK: When you enter into an exploratory phase, there is a big difference between discovery and invention. While you might need a solution to a problem you still need to allow yourself the opportunity to discover along the way, and that’s a skillset that needs to be worked out over and over again. The tenets of improvisation definitely lend themselves toward that, just like they overlap directly with mindfulness. In talking with mindfulness experts, so much of it is about being present; it’s about an awareness of who you are, and for many people mindfulness is really centered on self.

Improvisation develops the skillset of slowing the brain down. It teaches you to be present, and to understand that words are gold. The most common technique for mindfulness is to meditate, but you can also use improvisation techniques that force you to be in the moment and force you to simply react in order to adapt in order to communicate.

I’d love to give our readers something actionable to try. Is there a basic exercise or game that you could teach us?

BK: Absolutely. The exercise is really going to highlight the difference between “yes and” and “yes but.” What I’m hearing over and over is that “but” is a condescending “no” because “but” eliminates everything said before, either through restrictions, contradictions, or denials. And if it doesn’t negate it, at least it feels like it does. To test this out, I would encourage everyone to have a “yes but” conversation, then switch it over to a “yes and” conversation and see what the difference is. In a simple conversation, it’s the difference between the feeling of disagreement versus the feeling of agreement.

For more information about Bob and his company visit www.businessimprov.com