Illustration by Michelle D’Urbano
How do you deal with a crisis? What do you do when a sudden change disrupts routines? In order to thrive in times of uncertainty, you need managers and employees who can think on their feet and act fast — without an instruction manual. That is, you need skilled improvisers.
Improvisation may seem incompatible with the well-defined processes that govern most mature business practices. Hiring teams don’t often screen for improvisation skills, and most employee training programs focus on developing leadership or technical skills rather than helping employees to become better improvisers. However, improvisation is in fact key to organizational agility. Managers and employees who are capable improvisers will steer their companies through crises and paradigm shifts, from technological breakthroughs and changing trade regulations to environmental disasters and the myriad challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of course, developing improvisational skills is no simple matter. In the words of Joshua Funk, Artistic Director of the prestigious improv theater and training center The Second City, “it takes years of work before you can get good at improv.” But while it’s hard work, getting better at improvisation is far from impossible. Our recently published research sought to better understand how anyone can improve their ability to improvise through an in-depth analysis of the different types of improvisation skills that exist, how they are developed, and what factors can hinder or accelerate the development process.
Attempting to answer these questions through observation of traditional organizational settings would have been difficult, since improvisation is unplanned by nature, often hindered due to protocol, and not externally visible in many professional settings. Similarly, trying to recreate real-world improvisation in a lab experiment would be challenging, as an artificial setup would likely be very different from most work environments. As such, we chose to study a context in which improvisation is common, highly observable, and fairly analogous to the workplace: Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) games.
LARPs are performative games where participants play specific characters while interacting with others in a physical space, much like the guests of the Westworld park in the popular TV show. In LARPs, players must constantly improvise to deal with continuous changes and surprises generated both by the plot and by other players’ spontaneous actions, making these games more similar to the corporate world than you might think. Moreover, the LARP we investigated, Vampire: The Requiem, focused on players’ decisions in the face of unexpected strategic challenges, power struggles, resource negotiations, and political alliances — in a nutshell, decision-making processes that in fact closely resemble the types of rapid problem-solving that managers and employees must engage in every day.
To gather data in this setting, we gained access to three different LARP groups for over two years, with researchers acting both as external observers and as participants. We conducted dozens of interviews with players, and documented over 100 hours of observations, allowing us to construct a comprehensive picture of how players developed and exercised improvisational skills in the LARP context.
Three Types of Improvisation
Based on this data, we first identified three types of improvisation skills: imitative, reactive, and generative improvisation. Imitative improvisation, exhibited by the least-experienced players, consists of observing what more-experienced people are doing and matching their responses with minimal variation. For example, in one scenario, we observed a new player whose character was entering a coven for the first time. Unsure of what to do, he looked at the more-experienced players and adjusted his costume and make-up on the spot to be more in line with their styles. While this is the simplest type of improvisation, it is an effective starting point that enables newcomers with limited experience to get involved.
The next type of improvisation we observed was reactive improvisation: using inputs from both the environment and other players to develop your own original reaction to an unexpected situation, without relying on others’ actions as a guide. For instance, when players faced an enemy attack and had to defend a fort, they spontaneously reacted to the threat by moving their troops and continuously reorganizing their defenses, demonstrating a novel reaction to both their fellow players’ actions and those of their enemies. We found that this type of improvisation was generally developed after players had already mastered imitative improvisation, as it required players to build on their existing experience to extrapolate new, original courses of action.
Finally, the most advanced form of improvisation we observed was generative improvisation. Generative improvisation is about probing into the future and proactively trying new things in an attempt to anticipate and even catalyze (rather than react to) what could happen. Because it is fundamentally speculative, generative improvisation is inherently the riskiest — but it’s also often the most effective for developing truly unique, innovative ideas. This type of improvisation was exemplified by a moment when two players decided on the spot to embark on a dangerous mission aimed at retrieving a powerful artifact in order to avoid potential problems in the future, without any specific external event triggering that decision.
Importantly, these two players were respected and trusted within the group, and so other players supported and eagerly incorporated the new idea into their collective plot (rather than ignoring or blocking the idea). This suggests that generative improvisation requires a higher degree of mutual trust among players, both to provide the improvisor with the confidence necessary to pursue an idea that may not work out, and to increase the chances that others are receptive to the idea. This level of trust can be challenging to achieve, but once you reach a certain threshold, it can create a virtuous cycle, where people with strong social connections in the group find their ideas more readily accepted and thus are even more confident about proposing new ideas in the future.
Developing Improv Skills Requires Both Collaboration and Competition
Once we’d identified these three types of improvisation, we were able to begin exploring how these different skills were developed over time. Based on our two years of observational and interview data, we charted detailed trajectories of how each participant advanced their improvisation skills. We found that the critical factor in determining how these skills were (or weren’t) developed was the extent to which an individual was competitively versus collaboratively oriented.
Specifically, our research suggested that competitive individuals generally develop reactive improvisation faster, because they act on as many inputs as possible (to the point they often leave nothing to other players — essentially “stealing” cues that were designed to bolster other characters’ story arcs). While advantageous in the short term, this approach tends to alienate other players, hampering the longer-term development of generative improvisation skills. On the other hand, collaborative individuals tend to take longer to develop reactive improvisation, since they often prefer to allow other players to react to new environmental cues instead of immediately seizing every opportunity themselves. This greater emphasis on collaboration can stymie initial growth, but ultimately helps these players gain the social connectedness and environment of mutual trust necessary to develop the ability to improvise generatively.
This suggests (perhaps unsurprisingly) that there is a place for both competitiveness and collaboration — and that leveraging the right approach at the right time is essential for cultivating improvisational skills. Individuals who start out competitive and become more collaborative as they gain experience transition fastest from imitative to generative improvisation. Most importantly, no matter where you are in your development of these skills, our research demonstrates that there is always a path towards improvement.
So, how can all this be applied to the workplace? Our findings translate into three key takeaways for managers and employees looking to foster improvisation skills:
1. Build awareness of how different types of improvisation skills are developed
As a first step, simply educating yourself and your team about the different types of improvisation skills and how an emphasis on competition or collaboration can impact their development is crucial. Greater awareness of these skills can inform team composition, ensuring that newcomers are paired with more experienced improvisors from whom they can begin to learn imitative improvisation skills. It can also inform team allocation, enabling organizations to identify teams or individuals with strong improvisational skills and assign them to the projects that are the most unstructured and uncertain.
2. Balance collaboration and competition
Our research illustrates yet another way in which both collaboration and competition are necessary for a healthy organization. Managers need to carefully manage this tension, pushing their employees to develop collaborative skills without hampering the competitive instincts of ambitious newcomers. An emphasis on collaboration is ultimately necessary to foster generative improvisation, but without a strong competitive drive, employees may struggle to develop the reactive improvisation skills that they’ll need as a foundation for further growth.
3. Nurture social structures — especially when working remotely
Finally, the importance of strong social structures cannot be overstated. To foster true, generative improvisation skills among their employees, managers must create a psychologically safe environment of rich social interactions that engenders trust and collaboration, enabling employees to gain inspiration from each other’s subtle cues and work together to come up with new ideas without excessive fear of rejection. And of course, this sort of environment can be challenging to maintain in the best of times, but it’s even harder virtually. As such, especially in the face of limited in-person interaction, managers should pay extra attention to supporting both formal and informal mechanisms for building strong social connections between team members.
Now more than ever, every organization needs managers and employees who can think on their feet and experiment outside a prescribed path. Leaders can no longer afford to leave the development of improvisation skills to chance, or worse yet, to assume that the ability to improvise is an innate quality rather than a learnable skill. Instead, they must proactively foster an environment that encourages all team members to develop these critical skills, promotes a health balance of both collaboration and competition, and offers the strong social structures necessary for improvisation — whether that’s in the office or the LARP arena.