What consultants can learn from improv theater

Went to improv last Saturday night, had a a great time and laughed a lot.  It made me think: What can consultants learn from improv?

My first reaction to the question was dismissive.  After all, improv is about entertaining the audience, making things up, and generally “winging it.”  Nothing like the well-choreographed meetings and formal presentations that I am used to giving to clients.  Did a little bit of research and I feel there are 7 things consultants can learn from improvisational theater.

Improv and Consulting1. Practice.  These actors practice.  They use games and there are real skills to learn.  In one skit, they had to imitate German, Scottish, Swedish, Klingon, and Australian accents.  Not different from the ways that consultants practice excel modeling, presenting in front of audiences, and learning to say “yes. . and”

2. Listening.  Improv actors have to build on what their colleagues say.  There is no script.  Consultants could learn to listen better to client and their colleagues.  Listen not just to the words, but also listen for meaning.  What do they “really” mean?

3. Use EQ.  Consultants think more than they feel.  This is usually a good thing because we can work with data and develop hypotheses, but it can also be a major limitation.  We forget that it is people (yes, humans with feelings) who need to implement the recommendations.

4. Stay in the moment.  Improvisational theater actors do not have a script.  There are no lines to memorize.  They are entirely committed to the moment.  That is something that we can all learn from.  Put the cell phones away.  Make eye contact with the person you are talking with.  Listen to what the other person is saying, and stop thinking of your witty rebuttal.

5. Be authentic.  This is harder than it sounds.  As consultants, we want to be experts.  We want to command respect and be authority figures.  In reality, we need to be more comfortable in our own skin – no matter how unique, geeky, or even boring.  Be yourself.

6. Don’t get stuck. This is a critical point.  There are points in every project where it seems like you won’t find the answer.  It is a dip.  It is bottleneck.  This is the time when you need  to reach out to partners, other mentors, executive sponsors – and bust through the problem.  As one consultant said, “Just model through the problem.”

7. Remember the audience.  This applies to everything consultants do.  Writing emails.  Drafting proposals.  Making phone calls.  Crafting presentations.  Know your audience.

So now, what are the 3 things that make improvisational theater ENTIRELY different from consulting?  There are many . . but here are the 3 that come to mind.

8. (Don’t) Make it up.  There is no excuse for this.  When you don’t know the answer to a question.  Don’t fake it.  Say you don’t know, and then quickly find the answer.

9.There are (most definitely) mistakes.   In improvisational theater, it is important to build off the the previous person’s “schtick” and keep going.  They say there are no mistakes.  Well, in consulting there are definitely mistakes.  Bad excel models, poorly thought-out presentations.  Uninformed clients.  Faux pas by immature consultants.  Lots of potential mistakes.  As a project manager, you cannot be careful enough.

10. (Don’t) let go of control.  It is easy for consultants to feel overly comfortable at the client site.  We specialize in exceeding expectations, and after a couple of “quick wins”, it is easy to be overly self-confident.  I remember sitting at a TGI Friday’s talking about the client (not all bad, but not all good either), and when we get up to leave – we notice that some clients are sitting in the booth right behind us.  Uh, not classy.

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2 thoughts on “What consultants can learn from improv theater

    • Excellent. Thank you. Extremely relevant.

      I followed your link to a BBC broadcast about someone (Neill Mullarky) who uses improv to work with business leaders. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p944k

      Around minute 8, he says some pretty good stuff.

      “[Improv] looks at creativity that embraces the unexpected, . . .encouraging the positive outcomes that emerge from uncertainty and ambiguity. . . .it is, at its very heart, how we hold conversations.”

      Reminds me that organizations that can create flow between their people, create a real conversation of skills, experience and trust win in the marketplace. Keeps bringing us back to the strategic and amorphous thing called culture.

      Thanks again for the comment and link.

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