Lessons in Business From an Improv Workshop

By Tom Bales

When I learned about the improv workshop being offered to full-time MBA students at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, I had no idea what to expect. I only knew that it was being led by Assistant Professor of Marketing Jim Mourey, so I knew we would all would be in for a treat. But what does comedy have to do with business? I was excited to find out.

“This is not a workshop where you will sit and listen to me lecture the whole time,” Professor Mourey said within the first five minutes of the workshop. And sure enough, we were on our feet in no time, playing games that literally emphasized thinking on your feet, the same way that improvisational performers do. We all formed a circle and the games began.

Jim pantomimed throwing a ball, exclaiming “red ball, Cynthia!” Cynthia managed to catch it without dropping it, an impressive feat. “Thank you, Jim!” Cynthia responded, signaling her acceptance of the ball. Locking eyes with the next player, Cynthia threw the illusory ball straight toward Carl. “Red ball, Carl!” The game continued on as players around the circle stood vigilant, waiting for their eyes to lock with the holder of the ball and hear their name as the ball barreled toward them. As the game progressed, other objects started to make appearances, further complicating the experience. Sounds silly, right? Well, there was a method to the madness.

Throughout the entire game, we had to remain prepared and adaptable. We were never sure when our name would be called or how to respond to the situation, and we had to go along with whatever our friends threw at us—whether it was the red ball, a sword or even the Harry Potter wand that came into the mix.

This exercise made me think about an interview scenario. In a job interview, how often are you uncertain with what the next question will be? In improv, an unexpected situation is valued because it signals a creative opportunity. Learning how to adapt to the unexpected is an invaluable skill to have in both comedy and business.

Professor Mourey emphasized that improv is all about trust. When actors are on stage together with no script, they have to be able to trust that when someone takes the show in a specific direction, the rest will follow and work together to build on the scene. Because of this, improv actors typically have excellent communication skills so they can let their scene partners know as soon as possible how they are going to direct the scene.

This same concept applies in business. The best work gets done when everyone on a team is working together, supporting one another and communicating effectively about the business plan and direction.

Another important rule of improv that Professor Mourey taught us is to always say “yes, and…” This means that we should agree to whatever improvisation is being thrown at us and build on it. In improv, this allows for the building of the scene and for the act to move forward.

Again this made me think of job interviews. Saying “yes” to an interview shows that we support the idea that we are a good candidate for the job. The “and” comes when we outline all the skills and experiences that make us a good fit. “Yes, and…” can also create a positive mindset about a question that is unexpected or unwanted. If you are inclined to say “yes,” and think on your feet—as improv requires—you’ll be more adept to add your “and” and give a good answer.

“Yes, and…” also made me think about being in a business meeting. During a brainstorming session, people generally start with what they believe are their best ideas. “Yes, and…” will support those ideas and keep the creativity flowing by encouraging more people to participate in the meeting. If you don’t create a “yes, and…” environment in a business meeting, people won’t be as confident to speak up, so they’ll stop adding to the conversation, which could lead to lost problem-solving ideas.

Professor Mourey’s improv workshop helped us develop unique ways of thinking, which I think could strengthen my skills in the business world. The event taught me to embrace the risk of the unknown, to treat my next job interview less like an interrogation and more like a conversation, and to show up to my career confidently, ready to both learn and contribute with a “yes, and…” mindset.

Tom Bales graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He is currently pursuing an MBA at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, specializing in accounting, and works in the Kellstadt Career Management Center as a graduate assistant.



Posted on

April 13, 2020