What I Didn't Learn In Business School I Learned From Improvisation Instructors

Well I suppose technically speaking I learned this as part of instructional and experiential sessions at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and Duke's Fuqua School of Business, but I didn't pick up improvisation instruction at the Chicago Booth School of business more than a decade ago when I first got my MBA (side note: a cohesive mix of business theory and improv training definitely would have been good for prepping the cohorted classes).

Without getting technical and being too precise, what does improvisation mean to me (apologies to my mentors for cutting corners)? To me improvisation is about reacting in the moment at the top of one's intelligence and skills to serve not oneself but the greater good.

But there is a lot of confusion about what improvisation (or improv) means. Does is mean "acting" and "being funny"? No. Does it mean "making it up as you go along"? No.

Considering that I am a jazz drummer (long-time hobbyist), I would have thought I understood what the term improvisation means. After all, improvisation is something that is done in jazz music (e.g., bop, fusion) all the time.

I am realizing that improvisation is really a general foundational skillset and knowledge area that gets augmented by domain-specific areas. So "jazz improvisation (on the drums)" builds on concepts of core improvisation by adding things like common ride cymbal and snare drum comping patterns, song structure, phrasing, and supporting the band (above all). On the other hand, "improv acting" can include other concepts and specializations such as "physicality" (which seems to be about making it seem like you are interacting with real physical objects on stage when there is only thin air) and even "improv musicals".

As such, business improvisation is about taking improv concepts, developing specific specialties, and applying them in business situations. So core concepts of business improvisation can be further developed in areas such as creativity and innovation, teamwork & communication, change management, crisis management, merger integration, and conflict management. To take it a step further, these applications can be further used in situations related to sales & marketing, customer care, operations, and general management.

So what did I learn from my improvisation and business academic mentors? A lot, but here I'll share the tip of one area. It's about focus (of attention). Focus is something that needs to be worked on very consciously. And for me, there are elements of situational specifics. So for example, focus in a jazz improv session (a la Miles Davis) is different from focus in a sales meeting and which is different from focus in the household when you are talking with family. One can take one's skills too much for granted and move on autopilot. So a potential hazard of expertise is that one loses focus and/or one falls into the same habits. Improving focus requires constant work. And while I may go into more detail in a later post, some key elements of tweaking focus are around warming-up and supporting the team (and building on ideas).

Note: I have recently taken on a fractional, management role with a firm specializing in business improvisation training and human capital program development. If you want to learn more about programs that can be developed for your organization, please feel free to contact me. Thanks!


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