Putting the rules of improv to work

Written by Maureen Paulsen on Monday, June 30th, 2014

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey

A few years ago during a professional development session, our team was introduced to Tina Fey’s bestselling book, Bossypants.  In addition to being a quick and hilarious read, the book offers some very practical advice that we’ve incorporated into our work philosophy:  the four rules of improv.  While developed in the world of comedy, we find that these rules apply just as well to professional life.

Any company looking to drive innovation, creativity, performance and collaboration can benefit from these rules (excerpted from the book* in italics):

RULE #1:  AGREE and SAY YES

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Of course you’re not going to agree with everyone all the time, but this rule is about being open minded, respecting what the other person is saying and accepting the reality of the situation.  Start from a place of YES and see where it takes you.

RULE #2: YES, AND…

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

As Fey points out, the YES, AND rule is about not being afraid to contribute.  Always add something to the conversation.  You have value to bring to the table, and it’s your responsibility to do it.

RULE #3:  MAKE STATEMENTS

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag.

Making statements is about having confidence and taking a risk.  Sure, your idea might get shot down, but making a statement will almost always help move toward a solution.  Asking questions is great, but only asking questions is a quick way to stall progress and squelch innovation.

RULE #4: THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities.

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

This can be a tough one for business folks focused on the bottom line.  Whether it’s losing a big customer or going over budget on a project, we tend to label things that don’t turn out the way we planned as ‘bad’.  But work is messy and mistakes happen.  Being able to see them as learning experiences is what keeps an organization growing and improving. Stay positive and adapt to the opportunities that present themselves every day.

Try incorporating these rules into your company culture and see if it make a difference for your organization.  And…have fun!

*Tina Fey, Bossypants (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011)

About Maureen Paulsen

Maureen brings 15 years of marketing and communications experience to her role, where she develops brand strategies and communications programs for a diverse group of clients. She specializes in creating innovative marketing and advertising campaign concepts. Maureen oversees content development and provides art direction for client collateral, Web and advertising to ensure brand consistency across all media formats. In 2011, she received a Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications.

Prior to joining MPD Ventures, Maureen worked as the Marketing Communications Manager for one of the largest law firms in Texas, where she led a major rebranding initiative. Her past experience includes freelance writing focusing on consumer and personal finance issues, as well as project management for a Boston-based energy services provider.

Maureen serves on the board of directors of Dallas non-profit agency Attitudes & Attire. She earned her undergraduate degree in English and Art History at Wellesley College.