Good and bad Improv

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

In the midst of a great meeting a couple of days ago with Tim Kitchin and Paul Goodison we shared a grumble about one or two client contacts who were behaving erratically – you know expressing enthusiasm, then changing their minds; half-committing then falling silent. The usual kind of thing.

Yes, it is the usual kind of thing in my experience. And of course the usual kind of thing is for us consultants to grin and bear it. Well today I’m not in a grin-and-bear mode. More just a plain bear mode.

What frustrates me about so many businesses is that they describe themselves in such orderly terms, it’s all strategies and plans and spreadsheets. Yet the day-to-day human reality is sometimes nothing like that. It’s a chaotic cocktail of confused and indirect communication, with oodles of second-guessing of what other people might or might not like.

Businesses sometimes hear about Improv (ie Improvisational Theatre methods) and think it’s completely alien to them. What would we want with all that spontaneity? they seem to say.

Well, I think they’re missing something. The reality, I find, is that they’re doing Improv the whole time, they’re just doing bad Improv. They’re not present to the immediate relationship they’re in – instead, their minds are wandering elsewhere to what some other person might think; they’re constantly fumbling the offers they are made; they frequently fail to give voice to the obvious.

Charles Handy has a nice word to describe what he sees in business today: presenteeism. People showing up with their bodies, but leaving their spirit at home. Gallup surveys consistently show that only around a fifth of workers actually feel engaged in their work. Good Improv exercises quickly get folks to be fully present, an experience that comes as a pleasant surprise to many of them! Bad Improv businesses seem to function only by people ignoring much of what is going on around them.

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