Improvise Your Way to Better Communications and Leadership Skills

Last Updated Feb 16, 2010 8:56 PM EST

Robert Kulhan is an instructor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. But Kulhan doesn't require students to immerse themselves in case studies or wade into arcane academic articles. Rather, he asks them to dive into the world of improv to improve their communications skills and teamwork.

BNET: Why are improvisational skills important for future business leaders?

Kulhan: The past year and a half provides some great examples of how in business, we never know what is going to come next. There has to be a level of adaptability and flexibility while one is still trying to be focused and execute strategy. We need to expect the unexpected, to use an old phrase, and more than that, to take advantage of unexpected opportunities with which we are presented.

BNET: Is improvisation something that's learned individual-by-individual or team-by-team?

Kulhan: Well, it's innate in some people, but in truth you can always sharpen the skills on both an individual and team level. You can use these skills as a solo contributor or really optimize a whole team. Improvisation also helps you as a leadership tool for any teams you head.

BNET: What kind of educational tools do you use to impart these skills to business professionals?

Kulhan: We do a bit early on to dispel some of the myths around improvisation; there's a connotation that it's associated exclusively with comedy, though that's not the case at all. It's not comedy and it's not acting-it's re-acting, in the moment at the top of your intelligence. We're always in teams. Even when we think we're alone, there's always something in our environment to which we can react and adapt.

Then we get into an experiential learning process. We always take time out to make sure everyone knows how any lesson can apply within their work environment and their daily lives.

When we start the exercises, people need to leave their inhibitions and their concerns of the day at the door; they really need to be a blank canvas. The exercises at the beginning really get them "out of their heads," so to speak. We may toss balls of different shapes, sizes and weights around with no set pattern, so you don't know which direction they are coming from and you need to keep your head on a swivel. There's a real emphasis on supporting the person receiving the ball from you. This makes the exercise not about you, but about the other people on the team. You need to make sure the person you are passing to sees you are passing him the ball and recognizes exactly which ball it is. We teach them that this is actually a blueprint for a productive brainstorming exercise, where not ideas or "balls" should ever be dropped.

BNET: How do you drive home the lessons so that they more directly translate into the business environment?

Kulhan: A very important concept is "yes, and...". This little phrase is the cornerstone of all improvisation around the world. The "yes" means unconditional acceptance and the "and" means you are taking the idea and building directly upon it. We are encouraging buy-in of the ideas and ownership of every individual participating in the success of the activity overall. You need to be talking with people and not at them. "Yes, and" slows things down and makes sure you are present and in the moment.

You can't fall into one of the common pitfalls of human communications, which is "what are you going to say next?" as opposed to actually listening to what is being said around you. Another aspect of "yes, and" is the suspension of judgment; if you've suspended judgment, you will at least temporarily accept everything whether it's right, wrong, good, bad or ugly, appropriate or inappropriate. In turn, since others are suspending judgment, you are not as worried about what you are going to say, so you can turn off that internal editing and censorship device. There is no right or wrong answer. You just need to say something that spurs reactions in others, so you, in turn, can react to them. You build momentum and flow into the conversation to the point where, to borrow an advertising term, it "gets legs" and moves forward on its own.

Next week, we'll hear which prominent figures in the worlds or business, politics and sports are good improvisers and which are not. You can learn more about Kulhan's techniques at http://businessimprov.com/.
  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."