Moving to the U.S. without ever living in an English-speaking country and barely knowing anyone falls right in my philosophy: Dream big and act fearlessly. Already six months into living in Durham, I have experienced the craziest things (good and bad) that I wouldn’t have back home. One of my main challenges was understanding how to network, a highly valued skill used here to land a job. I signed up for the Workshop in Managerial Improvisation after learning about it from a friend, telling myself that if I didn’t like it, at least we would go through it together. On the first day of class, I didn’t know what It was about or what to expect.

Dean Steve Misuraca opened the workshop with a speech, and I was excited to start. Professor Bob Kulhan and his team gave us an overview of improvisation with topics that we suggested in the moment. I was impressed and amazed. Then, I thought there was no way that they would teach us to do this in five days. I set two personal goals anyway:

  1. To be able to communicate with anyone
  2. To overcome my mental barriers and insecurity of not talking because I have an accent and often feel as though I have nothing interesting to say

“Yes, And…”: The Foundation of Improv

We split into small groups of ten, and my instructor was Bob. We did some exercises that at first were fun, but I was wondering if these were useful for my goals. It wasn’t until later, when the class began working in groups, that I was pushed out of my comfort zone. In my group, we had to discuss a problem and come up with a solution. My fear then came up! Everyone was talking, and that made me feel stuck! I could not say a word. Now I understood why those exercises were important.

Two students doing an improv performance at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

We worked through different improv scenarios, and I struggled. I often couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt stuck and was incapable of making stuff up, even though I knew it didn’t need to make sense.

Learning the “yes, and…” concept helped me be friendlier and more engaged in conversations in different settings. I applied “yes, and…” in my communication with some loved ones and was amazed by how I easily avoided conflicts and arguments. I am now aware of how powerful those two words are. They have calmed down my reactive tendency and forced me to have a collaborative mindset, a comprehensive approach, and avoid assumptions about other’s intentions.

Empowering Yourself and Others

On the second day of the workshop, we focused on interactions, building stories, and being part of the improvisation story made up with the team. We also worked on settling arguments and getting what we ask from a figure of authority, friends, or partners. The problem in that interaction is that we can quickly get caught up in a scenario where we either don’t listen or do not care about what’s happening and end up just enduring the interaction. My main takeaway from this lesson was that I have a voice and I am empowered to be who I want in my interactions.

Group of students doing an improv performance at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business

In my past working experience as a manager, I was influenced by my environment. When it’s inclusive and people are interested in me, I can be chatty. However, in a new environment or when experiencing a new culture, as I experienced moving to Durham from Paris, I tend to feel like an outsider and isolate myself. At the end of the day, I feel exhausted, out of energy, and not wanting to socialize.

I gladly learned from the improv class that energy is contagious. Right away, I began applying that principle to networking events and even daily with anyone I met, wherever. I notice two results, either people talk to me with a smile and interest or they ignore me. Either way, I don’t feel exhausted from interacting with people at the end of the day.

Diverge: “Postpone Judgement” – Converge: “Judge a Lot”

One of the most important skills I learned in the improvisation class is how to diverge and converge. Diverging means postponing judgment and generating as many ideas as possible, no matter how crazy or silly they are. Converging means judging a lot and selecting the best ideas from the pool of divergent ones. These two processes are essential for creativity and innovation, both in work and in life. I plan to use this concept to stimulate my team’s creativity by applying the following steps:

  • Set a clear goal and a time limit: For example, we want to come up with a new product idea in 15 minutes.
  • Diverge: Everyone in the team writes down as many ideas as they can on sticky notes, without censoring or criticizing themselves or others. The more diverse and wild the ideas, the better.
  • Converge: We stick all the ideas on a wall and group them into categories based on similarity or theme. Then we vote on the best ideas from each category and narrow them down to a few finalists.
  • Evaluate: We narrow down the finalists based on criteria such as feasibility, originality, usefulness, and customer appeal. We choose the winner and celebrate our creativity.

By using this concept, I hope to foster a culture of creativity and collaboration with my current Fuqua teams, future work teams and my family. I believe that diverging and converging can help us generate better solutions, have more fun, and grow closer together.

While I went to the class without knowing anything about improvisation, now I feel like a whole new person. I can’t wait to see how I will grow as a leader with all these new tools at my disposal.