I came back to Durham a few weeks ago to take Managerial Improvisation. Fuqua was an innovator over a decade ago, providing an optional improv class for 1 week during Winter Break. Business schools around the country quickly caught on, and now many programs have seen the value of adding improv to their curriculum. At Fuqua, it is an extremely popular class, with over 80 students.

Group of students on stage
On stage with my silly improv group.

For those who don’t know about improv, Wikipedia defines it as the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one’s immediate environment and inner feelings. Essentially, it is creatively thinking on your feet … something all business students and future leaders must do!

My class was divided into small groups of 10-12 students, and each section was taught by a professional improv comedian. Each day, we went through a series of goofy and off-the-wall exercises to get our minds thinking creatively, forcing us outside of our comfort zones. At the end of the week, we put on a show for the ENTIRE school. We gave our groups names, mine was Shoes, Garbage, Batman! Each group was on stage for 10-15 minutes! It was scary, exciting, entertaining, and extremely rewarding. I highly recommend that EVERYONE take an improv class, either via business school or via a local theatre. It is an awesome experience and it will transform you.

What I Learned

I am sure many of you are skeptical and you should be … how can one week change you or make you think differently? It is difficult to explain. It’s something that must be experienced, but I do have 5 main takeaways:

  • Active Listening – It’s interesting to see how much most people don’t listen. We are often too busy thinking about what we’re going to say next, or what point we want to add to the conversation. Now, imagine a scenario in which you have no idea what the topic will be or what the person before you will say – this is improv, and it builds your active listening skills. You’re forced to stay in the moment and not think about anything else. You have to listen and react accordingly. Now, apply this to a similar situation that we all will face – the job interview. I know I often start thinking about what I am going to say before the interviewer even finishes their question. This leads to stale and rehearsed answers that may or may not answer the question. After improv, my new goal for interviews is to really listen to the question, pause, and give a response that not only answers the question but allows me to shape the rest of the conversation.
  • Just Go With It In class, we did a great exercise called “Yes, and.” Imagine a conversation where no matter what someone says, you start your response with “Yes, and … ” It forces you to go with whatever topic has already come up. We generally want to shape conversations or experiences ourselves, and we can’t just let ourselves go with whatever the other individual has suggested. However, “Yes, and” makes you go with it. In the end, you’ll see that the conversation or experience is still great. It may not turn out the way you would have thought, but it is powerful to see that going with the flow of what your team or another person suggests doesn’t necessarily mean that the conversation won’t be as good as what you may have expected.
  • Pressure – I know I am not alone in this – I put too much pressure on myself to think and say the “right thing.” Sometimes you have to learn to react and shape your thoughts in the moment. It is something I constantly struggle with, and I need to learn to be comfortable in the moment. While I am not totally comfortable yet, a week of intense improv has me going in the right direction.
  • Build Trust Early – It is clear that building trust early and often is clutch in successful team environments. We started improv in a class where most of us didn’t know each other. However, we did some classic trust building exercises (trust fall!), shared some personal experiences about ourselves, and built a solid foundation. Throughout the week, we continued to learn more about each other and built a safe environment where we could be goofy and try out different things. This built trust, and by the end of the week, we were a solid unit and team. It only took one week and some effort up front, and the result was awesome. I really feel like I made 9 new friends, and I hope to use this same method in the future on professional and academic teams.
  • Volunteer First – No one ever wants to go first in any setting. It isn’t always fun to go first because it might lead to early failure. After a week of improv, my opinion has shifted. Going first provides great practice for thinking on your feet, rather than sitting back and thinking about what you’ll do when your turn comes. Improv forces you to take initiative and shape the experience. True leaders want to shape the experience, and I think the more you put yourself out there, the more you will shape your experience.

Now, am I a totally different person because of improv? No! However, I think it gave me some really interesting skills that I want to develop, and luckily, Fuqua has an improv club where I can continue to work on those skills!

If you want to learn more about business improv, check out the group that conducted our class at Fuqua: Business Improvisations. And here are some more photos from our performance:

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