Career paths are no longer linear. Instead, one can make more varied choices throughout their journey. The structure of jobs themselves may change many times over in the next two decades, as will performance parameters. Organizations find themselves in a constant state of restructuring and change, and this makes the future of work very volatile. If all predictions about the future of work are true, skills like creativity, agility, flexibility, and communication will be more valued in the potential leaders of tomorrow.
How does one learn these soft skills?
Take inspiration from improv performing artists, who use high levels of these skills in their craft, since improv is a form of live theatre that works without a written script or plan. The plot, characters, and dialogue are made up in the moment by the performers. Given only a basic premise, the actors spontaneously and collaboratively perform an act that unfolds in real-time. This is more demanding than traditional theatre, which has a script and a more structured direction.
By virtue of what they do, improv artists master the art of:
- Staying flexible, open, and responding in the moment.
- Being equally willing to lead and to follow.
- Listening closely to what is going on with their fellow performers.
- Having fun and experimenting.
- Communicating clearly with their audience and their fellow performers.
- Learning something new at every opportunity.
Here are a few tips that anyone can learn from improv artists to succeed in a constantly changing business environment.
- Respond with a Yes, and instead of Yes, but: This is a “simple but not always easy” technique that helps you stay truly flexible. By using Yes, and, you make yourself more open to other people’s ideas. By being more open, you are free to think creatively, improve your output, and work smoothly with others. You are seen as a team player and people will be more willing to collaborate with you. Try this out in your next team meeting!
For example, a co-faculty that I was working with once suddenly raised the point that the session we had created was too basic for the audience. Initially, I found myself resisting the new and contrary thought she just expressed, more so because we had put in a lot of our time and effort into creating the session. However, I used the Yes, and… approach and instead of objecting, I ran with her idea for a while and our discussion was so much more productive! We came up with some excellent ideas and found that we were both happy to revise the original plan.
- Listen deeply: When listening, try to understand where others stand. This helps to find common ground, a starting point to add something that takes the conversation forward. But often we come with our own fixed agenda. For instance, preparing a sales pitch without understanding what the client really wants. You want to be more flexible. Pay attention to what people have to say you’ll understand their needs better, save time, and deliver the desired results.
- Communicate clearly to your audiences: In improv, there are two audiences to your performance: the audience that sits across the footlights and your co-actors! Both groups do not know what is coming next. Let’s apply the same lesson to the professional context: When you contribute to a project, take the effort to present your work in a way that’s clear to your various audiences (like colleagues, partners, or clients).
Instead of dumping unprocessed data on them, craft the information in such a way that the next person can run with it. Do not assume that they will simply forget it. For instance, if you’re making an important presentation to a client, give them context, share all important information discussed so far so everyone is on the same page, provide the rationale behind your idea, and end with a clear call to action.
- Try new things and learn to move on quickly: Even though it may look off-the-cuff on stage, improv is something that requires a lot of practice! Kinks are continuously ironed out during rehearsals and performances. The author of a study on Irish jazz ensembles observed that the more veteran musicians were a lot more comfortable improvising compared to the new entrants in the team. This is because, in music, new entrants need to learn the rules of improv such as what musical gestures are acceptable, which notes are to be avoided, and what constitutes brilliant jazz. This kind of expertise and comfort may take time to develop. But even if it feels clumsy, to begin with, the point is to keep moving it forward. Learn from your mistakes and course correct.
With time, you’ll be more responsive, alert, and constructive even when things go wayward. In a work context where technology is taking over practically everything, what remains a valuable asset is your ability to imagine, to create, be agile, and to connect with other people. Practicing these key principles of improv will help you do precisely.
This article was first published on HBR Ascend.