Working without a script: how improv helps you adapt to any situation

May 14, 2020 James Hayward

Striving for change and building something new is hard at the best of times, let alone in the midst of our generation’s greatest crisis. 

As Kelly Leonard, Executive Director at the world famous The Second City theatre, says “In times of crisis our minds instinctively revert to fight-or-flight mode. This reduces our ability to retain information, make decisions with clarity and be creative.”

But if we can flip our mindsets to focus on positives rather than be enveloped by fear, there is an amazing opportunity for magic to happen in times of crisis. 

Play the scene you’re in

“Nothing truly innovative has ever come out of the ordinary,” says Leonard, who gave a keynote during our spring virtual summit, Paradigm Shift. “And as we’re faced with the most unique circumstances of our generation, we’re all learning how to work without a script.”

So how do we focus our minds on opportunity over fear? “You learn how to improv,” says Leonard. “Improv is yoga for social skills. It’s loud and noisy group mindfulness. It’s a practice of being unpracticed. It’s literally learning how to work without a script.”

Those who improv are living in the moment, they’re working as a team, and they're thriving under pressure. And, when you improv, you’re not just agilely reacting to changing circumstances around you, you’re also innovating, says Leonard. The two practices are one and the same. 

Improv exercise #1 

There is no right way to improvise, but there are ways to practice and improve your skills. This exercise, from Kelly Leonard’s book ‘yes, and’, will help you and your team overcome their fears and focus on being present in the moment.

Here’s how Leonard says to do it:

Divide your group into two lines, facing each other, about ten feet apart. Have the two groups stand looking at each other. Give this some time, and once there is noticeable discomfort, have them look somewhere else in the room, to complete a counting task (e.g., bricks on the wall, ceiling tiles, etc.). The fidgeting and discomfort will stop, with everyone instead concentrating on the task at hand.

The innovative art of ‘yes, and’

At the core of improv and innovation is the concept of “yes, and,” says Leonard. 

“When a group of people come together to make something, be it comedy, or a new process at work, they get nowhere by saying no. They don’t even get far saying yes. Instead, they must say ‘yes, and’ because the best innovation happens when you confirm, attribute, explore and higheten ideas with others.” 

Improv exercise #2 

Here’s another exercise from Leonard's book that's focused on ‘yes, anding’. He says it's designed to show how innovative people can be when they work together.

Here’s how Leonard says to do it:

Gather six to ten people in a circle, and ask them to tell an original story, each contributing one word at a time. The first participant commences with a single word, the action moving in one direction around the circle. Each successive player contributes one word toward the overall narrative. The exercise plays out over several minutes, and a story develops that takes hilarious and unexpected twists and turns.

Live in the moment rather than catastrophizing the future or ruminating the past

The world has turned upside down and many of us are desperate for it to go back to how it was before. But it’s likely there is no going back. The thread on the sweater has been pulled and because of this we’re all having to improvise. 

So to focus on the positives, and maximize the opportunities to build a better world in the wake of this crisis it’s key to focus on what we can control and learn to play the scene we’re in. 

“It’s easy to catastrophize the future or ruminate the past—but that only achieves negative outcomes,” he says. “So if we’re to get through the crisis and build a better world coming out of it we must stay fiercely in the moment. That way we can improvise and overcome.”


About the Author

James Hayward

James is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Tradeshift, focused on crafting compelling stories that provide supply chain professionals with unique insights and actionable advice on how to take their organization to the next level. A journalist by trade, James was previously the Global Editor at Treasury Today magazine.

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