Improv is the Gym

Improv principles entered the workplace somewhere around the mid-90′s. Back then, the idea of applying those mindsets and exercises was pretty wacky. Now, there are thousands of practitioners around the world working in organizations of all sorts, sought out to help develop creativity, flexibility, performance and collaboration, the cornerstones of applied improv.The ideas and approaches that improviser have claimed, have become integrated into general consulting and business practices in much more general ways.

We no longer have to spend much time pitching the value of developing those skills. Mainstream and  traditional publications such as the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review regularly run pieces on the value of  listening better, taking creative risks, celebrating failure, collaborating across differences, “yes, and-ing.” Sometimes these articles reference applied improv. Often, not.

So, what, if any, is the special value that improvisers bring to the table? I think it’s this: Improv is the Gym. Many people TALK about the importance of listening well, of not censoring ourselves in brainstorming, of accepting and building with others’ ideas and opinions. Improvisers have developed  - over the last half-century or so – exercises to build “muscles” in those areas. Perhaps the principles are the same in every discipline, but improvisers, because their work has no other goal than to create collaboratively on the spot, have developed a rich set of tools and skill-building activities.

Wanna build those strengths? Reading books won’t do it. At least not JUST reading books. Go find an improv class. Or find a group to work out with. Get up off your butt and play!

Featured Activity: String of Pearls

Asking “What does the scene need?” can help you expand your range of performance options, add value to any encounter, and be experienced as helpful. Here’s an activity to help you and your team practice:

String of Pearls Storytelling


  • One sentence at a time, participants create a story, adding there sentences in random order, building the story as they go.

Improv Topic:

  • Listening and awareness
  • Yes, and
  • Storytelling
  • Performance


  • Team building
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Review


  • n/a


  • 5-6 minutes per round

Number of Players:

  • 7-10 per round

Game Flow:

  • One person steps on stage and offers a sentence that could belong “somewhere near the beginning of a story”
  • The next person stands at the other end of the stage and adds another sentence that they believe belongs “somewhere near the end.”
  • 5-7 more people add sentences to complete the story, standing closer to Person 1 or 2 depending on where they believe their sentence should go.
  • After each sentence the whole story is repeated in order until all the participants are used, and the story is complete


Sentence #1 – “Joe loved fishing.”

Sentence #2 – “And they never went to the lake again.”

Sentence #3 – (added close to sentence one) “But this time, what he pulled up on the end of his hook wasn’t a fish…”

Sentence #4 – (added in between sentence #1 and sentence #3) “Every day he went down to the lake and caught fish for his dinner.”

Sentence #5 – (added close to sentence #2) “Finally Joe and the mermaid killed the octopus monster!”

So the story at this point would read…

Joe loved fishing. Every day he went down to the lake and caught fish for his dinner. But this time, what he pulled up on the end of his hook wasn’t a fish…. Finally, Joe and the mermaid killed the octopus monster…. And they never went to the lake again.

Subsequent players fill in the remaining gaps.


  • Ask the participants to explain a business process.
  • Ask the participants to recount a real-life event they experienced together.
  • Do a couple of rounds telling sentence at a time stories in order first.
  • Use the Story Spine as a template, asking participants to start their sentence with one of those cue phrases.


  • Encourage the 2nd person to add a sentence really remote from the 1st. If he is not sure what the connection might be, that’s fine.
  • Remind the participants to repeat the story so far each time a new sentence is added.
  • If participants hesitate, coach them to add one small detail or bit of action. Tell me to figure out what questions they have as audience and then make a choice to answer one of them.

Suggested Debrief Questions:

  • How did that feel?
  • What moments were most satisfying?
  • How did you choose what to add?
  • How does a good sense of what is needed narratively help us?
  • How is this activity like your work tasks?


Freestyle Repertory Theatre, Theatresports community

Yes, and… WHAT?

That  ”Yes, and” rule…. Are you a lifelong “yes, and” evangelist?  A born again one? A sceptic? An analytic parser of nuance? A tired old-timer over the whole topic?

Regardless, I humbly suggest you may be missing something.

Let me catch up the uninitiated: The now ubiquitously heralded improv principle, taught and embraced by organizations worldwide, goes like this:

  • Everything  - in a scene, in a conversation, in a problem-solving session – EVERYTHING is an “offer”.
  • As improvisers, it our obligation to see and hear the offers that our partner makes and build with them. (The “yes” means I see and hear and accept the existence the offers. The “and” means I use those offers and add some of my own.)
  • The “yes, and” rule is the foundation of all improv. It allows us to develop scenes and song and stories collaboratively, on-the-spot, with whatever happens, rather than freezing, judging, debating or hedging – activities that would scuttle any creative endeavor.
  • In the world of personal and organizational effectiveness (a.k.a. Applied Improv), the “yes, and” rule enables better brainstorming and innovation, more respectful, trusting and satisfying relationships, clearer communication and problem-solving, and deeper understanding and connection.

“Yes, and” is a profoundly powerful approach to interactions on and off stage. Some people fall deeply in love with “yes, and” right away. Others reject it as simplistic or cloying or even as a dangerous path to “group think”. Improvisers parse the difference between a character saying ‘no’ and the actor saying ‘no’. We have long conversations about when and where and how “yes, and” is useful – what we get and what we risk when we apply it.

Here’s what we often miss:

We are ALWAYS “yes, and-ing” SOMETHING.

In any given moment there are infinitely more offers than we can receive, let alone accept. With every choice we focus on and build with some and ignore and block others. For example:

  • When I say “no” to a colleague’s suggestion, I may feel I am “yes, and-ing” budget limitations, or my own idea, or Joe’s idea, or my understanding of what’s physically possible.
  • When I say “no” to more cake, I am perhaps “yes, and-ing” health.
  • By choosing to fight back when I feel insulted, I may be “yes, and-ing” my sense of justice or self-respect. Alternatively, by ignoring an insult,  I may be recognizing and “yes, and-ing” someone else’s pain or insecurity.
  • By saying “no” to an exciting and lucrative professional opportunity, I am able to say “yes” to being present for my daughter’s first day of school.

So, really, the question is not ARE we “yes, and-ing” but WHAT are we yes-anding?

To maximize it’s potential value to you, revisit “Yes, and…” Ask yourself:

  • What offers AM I yes, and…ing?
    • What is that getting me?
    • What might it be costing me?
  • What kinds of offers may I be missing because I’m focusing on other kinds? (e.g. By focusing on the content of what someone says too specifically, we may miss an underlying emotional offer or need.)
  • Are the things I’m noticing and “yes, and-ing” aligned with my intentions and values?
  • What other kinds of offers could I look for that would be valuable?
  • Where might a “no” be a “yes, and” of some higher value or goal?

When we shift the conversation from IF we accept and build with offers to WHAT we are going to accept and build with, we open up powerful new vistas of exploration.

Relishing Feedback: Tips from the Theatre

Everyone knows that feedback enhances performance. Most management training programs include some module on how to give it. And at some point in those trainings, almost invariably, some one says, “Yeah, but you know what we need…. We need to teach THEM how to RECEIVE feedback. They are so defensive, or dismissive, or ….”
A couple things about this comment:
1.     All we can control is ourselves. Blaming others for unsuccessful interactions is a dangerous and unproductive path to walk. If we are working on how to give feedback effectively, that does not mean “giving feedback effectively if the person I am giving it to is perfectly open, willing and self-aware.” The techniques we practice assume that the person receiving the feedback might be resistant or confused.
2.     Good point.
Receiving feedback well is as much of a skill as giving feedback well. In fact, selfishly, it may be the more important skill, because it is when we are on the receiving end of feedback that we have the opportunity to learn and grow.
I realized that actors (like atheletes) have special receiving-feedback skills when my first O.D. mentor, Cal Sutliff, pointed the fact out to a group of my colleagues and me at the New York Association for New Americans. We were mostly starving actors, who had been teaching English as a Second Language to Russian refugees, and now, promoted to supervisors, we needed foundational management skills.
Cal delivered a half-day training for us, sharing best-practices and procedures and giving us some specific coaching and feedback. Then he went away. When he returned six weeks later to watch us in action, he was floored. “Uh, what happened?” he said. “ You are doing everything we talked about. Your behavior is completely different now.”
We were as surprised at his feedback as he was at our behavior. “Well, we did what you told us to do,” we said. As any good actor would, we had taken his notes, shifted our performances based on them, and continued to practice over time.
This, we learned from Cal, rated as wildly aberrant behavior. What we took for granted as actors – that a core part of our job was to glean and apply feedback – Cal revealed as a unique and special set of skills and mindsets that we should treasure.
So, some thoughts from the actor on how to hone your Receiving Feedback skills:
  • Value Feedback – Often actors complain not that they are getting bad feedback, or too much, but not enough. If a director ignores an actor in her notes (which are given before, during and after every rehearsal) that actor is likely to feel lost and anxious. There is a covenant between director and actor that is based on this exchange of feedback. Both parties know that you can see things from the outside that you cannot from the inside. The giving of feedback does not imply that the director does not trust or respect the actor. Rather, it allows the artists to collaborate and create in ways that are larger and deeper than either could without the other.  By definition, someone outside of you has a view of you that you do not have. When they share that view, and you can receive their insights, your opportunities for growth..uh, grow. 
  • Value Any Feedback – Not every director is great. And not every great director is good at giving feedback. But actors know that it is their job to serve the production, lead by whoever the direct happens to be. Part of that job entails receiving feedback and implementing it even when you don’t like it. An apocryphal story has Coppola directing Brando in a scene, “Marlon,” says Coppola, “Say your line, walk over here, and then say the next part.”  Brando replies, “What’s my motivation?”  To which Coppola says, “Your motivation is we’re losing the light. Do it now.” Part of the actor’s job is to justify the direction – to make the feedback work. Period. 
  • Value Any Feedback, Part 2 – When you demand that the person giving you feedback does it “the right way” you are missing opportunities. Learning to learn from anyone at any time affords you huge opportunity.  Become a lesson gathering machine. Why give someone else’s clumsy communication the power to deprive you of development?
  • First Implement, Then Evaluate – We all have defenses…and habits and assumptions and comfort zones. There are many stories of highly successful people ignoring feedback and common wisdom along their journey and shocking everyone with their achievements. But, we remember those stories of exceptional people because they are exceptions. Often it is the best feedback that we are the most resistant to. Why? Because it is the feedback that addresses weaknesses head on that makes us the most vulnerable. In addition, we don’t know what we don’t know. Coaching can be understood only through implementation. DO it. To the best of your ability, the way you are being asked to do it. THEN figure out whether the change deserves to stick. You can always go back to your old ways. That’s easy. 
  • Make Friends with Discomfort – Perhaps the most important tip for getting better at receiving feedback is to remember that it will likely feel bad. We improvisers talk about “celebrating failure”. What we mean is, celebrate the result of risk-taking, whatever it is. Celebrate trying something new. Celebrate that you have stretched yourself.  The phrase reminds us that in order to grow we MUST fail. That we must measure success as much by process as by results, because it is the process that will lead to ongoing success over time. But the part we tend to gloss over is that failing often feels BAD. We can experience embarrassment, shame, anger, disappointment and fear when we fail – even when the failure is innocuous or highly subjective; even when there are no real-life consequences. Good directors learn to be gentle with their actors; managers and coaches get trained on how to give  feedback in the most constructive way; but still there is no getting around it: negative feedback can hurt. So make friends with the hurt, rather than avoiding it. The goal is to be okay being uncomfortable – to learn to move into the discomfort, in fact. That is where the growth is. When we workout physically, we don’t get so freaked out by pain. We understand that some physical pain is an indicator of progress, and we are able to distinguish between soreness and injury. It is that level of comfort that we seek in other arenas.
  • Seek Feedback You Trust – Of course, not all feedback is created equal. Actively seek out feedback from people whose insight and input you trust. These may be people who are skilled professional coaches, or people who are naturally gifted at seeing behaviors and articulating challenges and suggestions, or people who are terrible at giving feedback but who know a lot about things you want to learn. If you have been honing your receptors, you can learn even from this last group.
  • Let It Go - You are not obligated to fulfill someone else’s vision when it conflicts with your own. Some feedback is unsolicited and unhelpful, period. . As you exercise your receiving feedback muscles we suggest you take a moment to reflect on even that feedback which you initially want to reject. (See the points above.) Ask: “What value is there here?” Say: “Okay, that’s stupid, but if I don’t take it literally, what inspiration could I find?”  But ultimately, after you have openly received, reflected upon, and implemented feedback, THEN, if it doesn’t work for you: let it go.  If a tip doesn’t help you – even if it’s a good tip in theory – release it and seek out other strategies. When unsolicited advice seems to serve an agenda that conflicts with yours, disengage. 

Finally, for many of us, the more experienced and expert we are, the harder it becomes to receive feedback. We expect things to continue indefinitely to work as they have in the past. We expect ourselves to succeed. We expect to know more than others. We demand of ourselves that we perform better than the rest.

The story goes that Laurence Olivier developed increasingly bad stage fright as he got older. One day a young actor said to him, “You get stage fright? But you’re Laurence Olivier!”
“Exactly,” Olivier replied. “When you go out there, you just have to be good. I have to be Olivier.”

So, along your receiving-feedback journey, remember this: be gentle with yourself; know that the courage to receive feedback ultimately makes you look, as well as be, stronger.  And remember to celebrate your feelings of discomfort and failure. They are surely signs of success.

We’d love your feedback: whether we like it or not.

Gifts Great Leaders Give

Dion Flynn, Brenny Rabine, Melissa Delany Del Valle and Geoff Tarson

From our current Kopco newsletter, where you can also get recommendations for great books and talks, and a coupon for free presentation coaching, we offer you these thoughts on gifts great leaders give.

During the holiday season, giving gifts becomes a major task and preoccupation. For improvisers giving gifts is an everyday focus. We talk about viewing mistakes as gifts that allow us to create fresh and unexpected scenes and narratives. We talk about receiving our partners ideas as gifts and expressing whole-hearted  acceptance of them. We aim to “delight our partners” by thinking about what offers we can make that will delight and inspire them.

Leaders, too, can think about giving gifts to their people year-round, and improv practice offers a number of them. For your consideration at this time of year, some gifts we believe great leaders give:

  • Attention – Many of us are starved for it. Simply feeling seen and heard can increase motivation and commitment. And leaders who pay attention – by walking around, talking to people, asking questions, listening rather than speaking – give themselves the gift of richer, more honest and useful information.
  • “Yes, and” – This foundational improv principle simply means accept what is offered and build with it. Good and generous leaders give the gift of building with what they see and hear – with what exists, BECAUSE it exists.  By doing so, they develop deeper more trusting relationships, and have access to better more innovative solutions to issues.    
  • Status – Face it, feeling respected and powerful is a fundamental human desire. Those in positions of authority can become blind to the privileges they have. We forget that others do not have the flexibility, attention, care-taking that we enjoy. By honoring others publicly, complimenting them authentically, and conferring real autonomy and authority, leaders can give the gift of status, one of the most valued gifts of all.  
  • Room to Fail – Improvisers speak about celebrating failure because they know that it is only in a culture where failure is REALLY okay, not just tolerated as a cringe-worthy evil, that creativity and collaboration can thrive.  
By cultivating a mindset of delighting others and giving the gifts mentioned above, leaders become more effective, more influential, and more appreciated. 

When, where and to whom can you give more of these?

Committed Collaboration

Jay Roderick and Kat Koppett, overseen by Cathy Salit at CiBC

You know the old saw about the difference between contributing and committing? It goes: The chicken contributes to breakfast. The pig is committed.

Improvisers commit to collaboration. They live and die by it. Our mantra is “Make your partner look good.” This means: Focus on your partner, not yourself. Delight them. No matter what brilliant idea you yourself have, let your partners offers guide you. Collaborate or die!

On stage,  this can be a challenging enough task. Especially when you have a “good” idea, and you are sure the audience will reward you with laughter and applause. But the best improvisers know that “Make your partner look good” is not just something nice to do when it’s easy and convenient. The best improvisers know (often because they’ve learned it the hard way through many years of trying it the cheap way) that “Make your partner look good” is THE fundamental secret to creating rich, meaningful and yes, funny improv scenes. It is only by focusing on the people you are working with, by supporting their ideas, by looking for ways to inspire and engage them, that something sustainable and  truly creative can be built. The audience may, in fact, laugh at the individual funny gag made at the expense of your partner. But what happens after it has been proffered? Do you have an engaged partner working with you or a distracted, embarrassed or downright pissed Other? Do you have a scene that is moving forward or story shambles? Are you expending energy competing for status and control or really working together to build something better?

Even in formats such as the world-reknowned Theatresports ™ in which teams of improvisers compete for the approval of Olympic-style judges, the improvisers realize that the “competition” is just a gimmick. As the Artistic Director of The Mop & Bucket Company, Michael Burns, like to say to his casts, “Remember people, Theatresports is not really a competition. It’s a show ABOUT a competition. Help each other out.” In Theatresports, that may mean a team decides to forgo performing their favorite game because the other team just did a similar one and the show needs something else. Or it may mean that a member of one team actually jumps in to the other team’s scene to offer support.

In life we talk about collaboration a good deal, but we tend to be chickens rather than pigs. How many of us regularly put our own heads on the chopping block to support the interests of our partners? How deeply do we really believe that if we focus on supporting those around us, our own opportunities will grow and improve? Do any of us promote our direct competition?

Improvisers do. Even in our business lives. Not always, of course, but to a surprising degree. I was struck anew by this fact last month when I was working for Performance of A Lifetime.  Performance of A Lifetime (POAL) is theatre-based executive education firm based in New York City. Although there are style and content differences between Kopco and POAL’s work that we as practitioners are aware of, tor all intents and purposes the are minor, and most clients would be hard-pressed to name them. We are direct competitors by any definition. It would have made great traditional business sense for us to be rivals. We could have chosen a performance of competition and proprietary “closed-door-ness” in which we made sure not to reveal our processes and content to each other. We could have made every contractor we worked with sign non-disclosure agreements and choose sides. Instead, (and I give POAL all the credit for initiating this) we have chosen to embrace each other. Regularly, they hire us. And we hired them. When onsite with a client of theirs,  POAL people promote our book and ideas. When working for them, we help with instruction design and client relationship building, knowing that the work will be better, and better is good for both organizations.
Last month, Cathy Salit, POAL’s President and I, both presented at the Creativity In Business conference in D.C. We had our own individual sessions in which we offered up our own individual spins on using improv in organizations. We also said yes when Michelle James, the conference organizer, asked us to do a closing session together. I don’t know how Cathy felt but for me that joint session was the highlight of the day. I know we got more positive feedback (and more business leads) from that session than from the other two.
POAL has influenced Kopco’s work and deepened it in innumerable ways. They tell us that our involvement with them has made their work better (and more marketable) as well.
When the field of Applied Improv was growing up, we collectively wrestled with how much to share, how much to protect, how much to be a community. In the end, (or currently), a belief in the value of collaboration won out. The Applied Improv Network was born, and through that organization we share content and process tips, form partnerships and alliances,  and promote each other as a way to promote the field and ourselves. We understand that growing a field of high-quality and respected practitioners is good for us all – for our reputation, for the understanding of what we do, and for our own growth and pride in our work. Plus it’s way more fun to play with others.
My book, Training to Imagine (due out in a new edition early 2012) lists dozens of improv exercises with facilitator guides. I set myself the task of attributing those exercises. But, of course, that was an impossible task. Virtually all of the games were created, appropriated, reinvented, and inspired by hoards of anonymous improvisers over the years. The best I could do was say, “I learned this here,” or ” I know this person influenced the work in this way.” Ultimately, the bottom line is that Applied Improv is now an actual field – a rich, dynamic, growing one – because people shared their creativity rather than hiding it. We committed to collaboration. And now we are all bacon. What could be more delicious?
I know it may sound crazy but give it a try. Ask yourself:
 - Who are my competitors?
 - Is there any way I can support them? Make them look good? (Think “Miracle On 34th Street” when Santa sends a customer to Gimble’s.)
 - Take stock: Spend just a moment assessing who has helped you, influenced your work, given you opportunities. As Elizabeth Warren has been saying, none of us did it on our own.
 - Be grateful. Pay it forward.
Then sit back and see what comes back to you. New learning, fresh perspectives, deeper relationships, unanticipated opportunities. And make sure to let us know.