Bob Kulhan has been improvising since before he knew what it was. He trained with the originators of improvisational theater in Chicago, working with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, before launching an MBA elective Business Improvisation course at The Fuqua School of Business.
Kulhan explains why improvisation matters in business, and what business leaders can learn from the form, in this Fuqua Q&A.
Q: What is improv?
There's a couple of definitions. It depends on the context. The art of improvisation is a form based on creating things in the moment, in a collaborative way. It's the art of making stuff up with other people, essentially. In business, improv can be defined as an intuitive, coordinated and spontaneous response to a dynamic environment. It touches on behavioral economics, cognitive and social psychology, decision-making on an individual basis under stress and uncertainty, and how groups make decisions. Our job is to create the learning environments in which individuals can thrive, take chances and discover. In a class of 10 people, you could have 10 different, strong inspirations from it, and each one is as valid as the next.
Q: How do you work on these ideas?
The first thing you do with any group new to improvisation and new to each other is to get them comfortable. It has to start with teamwork exercises and loosening of inhibitions, so you get into that suspension of judgment mind frame. From there you get into communication. The cornerstone is the phrase, "yes, and." It's about accepting whatever is offered to you and adding new information. It's about not denying. It's all about working toward the betterment of the team. What you need to do is be honest and in the moment at an incredibly high level, and be open to what other people are communicating.
Q: Why is suspension of judgment important?
You suspend judgment of other people and you suspend judgment of yourself. If you have this non-judgmental environment then you create fearlessness and intrinsic motivation in people. Sometimes people recognize the fact that they deny people, or "yes, but" people. Others learn they were not great communicators, that they're bad at eye contact and engagement, so they come out stronger at that. Others have found they feel much more confident chiming in during meetings and are less worried about being wrong. Suspending judgment opens the door for personal and team growth.
Q: How can studying a performance art benefit business leaders?
What improvisation really does is strengthen the so-called soft skill sets. There's not an equation for a great leader; there's not a formula to create a great team. It's a constantly shifting, dynamic entity—a leader and individuals in a team. We strengthen the skillset related to leadership and communication, creativity, innovation, adaptive problem solving, and crisis management. We do it in a way that's very interactive, very dynamic, up-on-your-feet, engaging, and frankly fun as well. We talk about distributing leadership, leveling status and different types of leading—leading from on high and leading from within. When you distribute leadership it doesn't mean you lose power, it just means somebody else takes over for a little while. It's about give and take. The art of improv strengthens the skill set related to connecting with people.
Q: How does improv help with the interview process?
What you're really talking about is comfort in the unknown, being peppered with questions that you couldn't prepare for. In improv, you're not focused on your memorized answer, you're letting your personality and your natural intelligence come out, which is so important. Because ultimately, when push comes to shove, if you get two resumes that are close enough to each other, what employers and leaders look for is fit. Do you fit in my team, do you fit with our future? It's that old seven-hour layover test. Who do you want to sit next to for seven hours? If candidates are only focused on giving the right answers, then they're jeopardizing their own potential: the opportunity to show who they are and letting an employer see that.