Improvisation and adaptation

This issue’s provocateur is Neil Mullarkey. He formed the Comedy Store Players at the Comedy Store in central London with Mike Myers in 1985. Since then, he has run corporate workshops, using improv techniques to develop people and communication.

Improv comedy teaches us to make the best of what we are given and to find new opportunities in the unexpected. Last month, Mullarkey’s long-running show returned to the West End in-person for the first time. The format has now been running for 36 years, regularly starring comedians such as Paul Merton, and it inspired the 1990s TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?

In the preceding 15 months, Mullarkey has done the same thing that most knowledge workers have had to do: adapt. From small businesses owners to leaders of large corporations, Mullarkey’s workshops focus on teamwork, agility and adaptability in rapidly changing environments. His work reaches far beyond people skills; it teaches a different mindset in how we approach problems, breaking down often uncomfortable barriers around public speaking and the sharing of ideas, which are often erected by processes, rules and conformity.

Here, he walks us through how the rules of improv can help navigate everyone through a hybrid work environment; making the best of what we are given through the act of being flexible enough to entertain and cultivate new ideas.

The basics of improv teach us about active listening, suspending judgement and spotting emerging opportunities.
We are taught to look at what we do and what we don’t have. You’re not looking for the perfect scene, you’re devising collaborative tales. What materialises may not be what you thought would happen, but instead you run with it and seek out possible opportunities to move the story forward. We need curiosity, agility and trust if we are to succeed in improv – it’s the same in today’s workplace. We have to be nimble enough to keep connected and find ways to create new ideas and innovate remotely, which can be a challenge on Zoom. But there are practices which can maximise what we have available to us. We need to suspend our judgement while we allow new technologies and ideas to mature.

Improv says: let’s try something new.
Let’s see how it goes and keep checking in on the story. We don’t mind losing an element in an improv scene that happened initially; you have to be open to change and nimble enough to change at the right time. Improv has so many parallels: in rapid prototyping, such as agile software development. We have a plan, but it is held very lightly to allow iterations and improvements. Many people in the military, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, have claimed that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. Once you come to need your plan, the very nature of such situations is so volatile and unexpected that it is unlikely to happen the way you are planning it to.

In improv, we talk of attention vs intention.
If you are attentive and have intention, you are working with an idea and you are attending to how it progresses – how the data evolves and the idea progresses. But there are times when you only have one or the other. Perhaps you have an idea but have no attention – you have a plan, and you will stick to it whatever happens. Or you are flying in the wind with no particular plan, but you’re aware of your partners and surroundings. If you have neither, that is a bit like winging it and you’ll be unable to progress.

Radical candour is a similar theory in leadership skills which draws several parallels: you are challenging directly while caring personally. If you’re not caring personally but challenging directly, it can feel like brutal honesty; the individual feels like there is a lack of compassion. Conversely, caring personally without challenging directly is known as ruinous empathy, usually done to spare someone’s feelings, but it equally fails to help the individual progress.

Improv says: pay attention to what’s happening at the other end.
You’re only as good as your partner. In order to succeed in improv, you need to practice active listening. This collaboration allows you to creatively find solutions to your problem. Particularly in today’s working environment, where we have spent the last year on Zoom calls, we need to understand what is happening at the other end of the call to keep people engaged and ensure each call is as effective as they can be.

For instance, I’m much closer to your face on Zoom than I would be in person. I’m getting more information from you; your body language, your face and demeanour, how you move. All of this will be apparent at the other end. But there are things happening at the other end which aren’t necessarily visible. One of my clients asked her boss if they could avoid meetings at 1pm and 5pm because that’s when it’s feeding time for their children.

You work with what you have, what everyone else has, and act on it accordingly to find a solution.

Neuroscience says that we need a change every five minutes.
Our attention span is shorter than it was just twenty years ago. Even things like standing up while you present or having 3D objects in shot—I have taken to using flip charts—are more interesting for the viewer than a slide deck. Use constant interaction to keep up the engagement.

There’s a phenomenon called Zoom fatigue, Netflix intrigue: while watching a TV programme, there may be 20 cuts or more in a minute. When you are following a Zoom presentation, you’re watching that same person for 20 minutes or more.

Improv is not the same as ‘winging it’.
The term derives from theatre, where the actor has not learned their lines, and will try and memorise them in the wings, backstage. Improv is the opposite: there is no script at all.

Having a script may prevent you from being fully aware of what’s unfolding. Improv is a conversation, where your response is a reaction to something that’s happening in front of you.

You accept the external information given to you and you respond, and your response then becomes part of the script. We have cobbled together a bit of a script in the last 18 months about how to work and we quite quickly fell into comfortable habits. Instead of reverting to the old script, or trying to ‘wing it’, we should look at what worked in Spring 2020 that didn’t work in Summer 2021. What’s going to stop working as we move into Autumn 2021? What’s the best use of technology? What’s the best use of people’s energy? We can ad lib our strategy, but that only works alongside a prepared script.

Read more expert insights
Back to Leesman Review