Introducing Improv

Listen! Say Yes! Commit!

Book review by Ron East and Lin Grist

This book is presented as a practical guide to employing improvisation to facilitate team development, creativity, and communication for organizations, as well as the development of leadership skills. It is, according to the authors, a resource for organizational managers, facilitators, trainers, change agents and those interested in creativity enhancement. The authors’ rationale for this practical guide is to respond to “the speed of change and increasing uncertainty” (p 18) in the organizational and business environment. 

First, the authors orient the reader to facets of the improvisational experience, as well as describing their own roots in improv comedy for the theatre. The ‘Impro System’ and Theatresports pedagogy of Keith Johnstone, together with local practitioners in the Brighton improv community, provide the pedagogical basis for this work, and many of the exercises draw on this theatrical experience by transferring it into an organizational context. Certainly improv can facilitate an animated and engaged experience, but in our view the theatrical base causes the work to lose focus. Improv exists in the workplace, in communication and interaction, in imagining future opportunities, in facilitating change, and innovation. While we support the authors’ intent and enthusiasm, as presented in the book, they have not really progressed beyond adapting theatre improv for business.

Our concern is for the reader, taking this material and attempting to employ it in an organizational context without considerable prior experience with improvisation as both participant and leader. The animation of these exercises is crucial, and that only comes through trial and error. There appears to be an assumption that facilitators/trainers already have some experience in improvisation, and indeed experienced consultants do – they listen carefully to their clients and respond, based on their past experience and skills, ‘off the cuff’ to their clients – improvising in the moment for that specific situation. This book acts as a useful introduction more than a practical how to.

It is divided into two parts – the first deals with managers and management team-building, and the second   with leadership. There are some good practical guidelines presented in the first part, and the initial chapters are largely practice-based. The series of exercises outlined there focus on building trust among a group, honing communication skills to unleash the individual’s creative and innovative juices, and how and when to work most productively with their teams: “In today’s more complex organizations, where an individual may work as a member of several teams, the ability to understand how and when to contribute is an important skill” (p 29).  Providing a positive approach to the task at hand is useful and not always easy to achieve, especially when a group or organization is managing a crisis, or has very tight deadlines.  

While these are good generic improvisation exercises for enhancing communication, developing trust and creativity, the book lacks the practicality of case examples. To see the exercises in a real-life context would allow the reader to imagine how it might work in situations they are involved in. The exercises are clearly outlined and easy to follow, however there is no follow-up that sets up the work in the ‘warming up/freeing up’ sessions for working through concrete issues in business situations. So people are warmed up but then how do you build a team in an organizational setting?  Unfortunately, briefly introducing aspects of psychology and neuroscience, while trendy, betrays an under-researched description, and a lack of serious scholarship.

The second part, on leadership, has a much more theoretical flavor. It discusses the formalleadership of the team leader and the informal leadership that may shift between and among the group as ideas develop – depending on their skill and knowledge base and issue at hand. How does improvisation contribute to leadership? In our view there is little offered that can be employed in a practical context. There are no descriptions of actual experiences, with no real evidence-based support for the exercises. It is difficult to feel confident about undertaking these exercises, without a sense of the direction of travel.  Yes improv is about exploring uncharted territory – but there needs to be some frame of reference.

Overall, the book provides a good basic  introduction, with some useful tips, and a bibliography, citing where to learn more if improv is an intervention that the reader would like to add to their consultancy tool kit, but it does not entirely  live up to the authors’ stated intent . The authors rightly claim that there is little UK specific research about improv and organizational change, and this text is a welcome addition.  However, it is important to point out that there is a growing body of research with direct applications to innovation and creativity in business already available to consultants and facilitators in the UK.  

Book details

First published by Harry and Julia Improv, 2015

Paperback 135 pages

£12.50 from Amazon. ISBN: 978-1-326-12489-4

About the reviewers

Ron East

Ron East: has  expertise and experience in both the academic and professional communities on 2 continents as teacher and researcher; Ron has a career background in the professional theatre, including acting, directing, playwriting, dramaturgy, training; all employing an improvisational base. An MA from the University of Toronto, and PhD (ABD), University of Guelph, his thesis is: Imagination, Brain Function, and Creative Practice. Ron trained with Jacques Lecoq, and is a certified instructor in physical theatre. An actor at Stratford Shakespearean Festival and across Canada, in the U.S. and Europe, Ron has operated a theatre production company, creating sixteen original plays. He operated a professional theatre school in Toronto and London, England. Writing his second book, Ron  presented a research paper entitled ‘Altered States’ at both Oxford University, and at the National Humanities Congress in Ottawa, Canada this spring.

Lin Grist

Lin Grist, AMED member and principal of Chrysalis Consulting, brings experience from both Canada and the UK, advising client on both sides of the pond has given her a cultural sensitivity and flexibility that leads her to approach issues and challenges from an international experience and knowledge base. Her clients have ranged from investment banks to community organizations. Her practice includes large group interventions, like Open Space; small group facilitation,; training & team building, strategic planning, organizational development and capacity building processes. More recently, as a trained NLP coach, she has added personal and corporate coaching and organizational creativity workshops to her portfolio.

She has a life-long passion for theatre and the arts and has worked with a number of theatre companies and theatre schools in Canada and in Europe to help them develop financially stable futures and over time has introduced her learning from artists into her organizational development work in other sectors.  

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