Sometimes business seems like a comedy sketch. This book drives home that point.

Introduction

I’m always on the lookout for interesting books that are off the beaten path but might have insights that the “wisdom of crowds” may miss. Recently I wrote about the book Tempo by Venkatesh Rao. An excellent book on the timing of decision making. In that book, Rao recommended Impro by Kieth Johnstone. On the surface, this is a book about the theater arts and improvisation, and for that purpose the book is excellent. If you’re in the theater this book is an excellent resource but what I saw in this book was a master class in how organizations operate and how to be a better organizational change agent. Perhaps because it’s not a business book, the approach is raw and direct while being entertaining and funny. I highly recommend anyone who’s working on organizations with any kind of hierarchy (no matter if you’re trying to change that or not) read this book. It will provide a unique perspective to the dynamics of the modern, or not so modern, organizations.

The book is dense with ideas the useful methods, but I’ll focus on two broad themes that stood out for me.

Coaching & Mentoring

Good and bad are opposites

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in the same activity, as if education was a substance and that bad teachers supply a little of that substance and good teachers supply a lot. This makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive process and that bad teachers are wrecking talent and that good and bad teachers are engaged in opposite actives.


What’s really being provided by a bad teacher or a good teacher, or in the sense that I thought of it a good or bad Scrum Master, Project Manager or Manager. Take your pick. Just as Johnstone describes for teachers I think it applies to other roles and it’s important to accept this. A bad manager isn’t just doing less than a good manager, they are in fact doing the opposite. Far too many leaders don’t take this seriously enough. As more and more management positions require increased mentoring and coaching (as opposed to task management), this will only become more critical.

As a leader if you reframe your thinking from a manager who performs poorly is just not delivering enough to a manager who performs poorly is actively destroying value in the organization even second they are active – it really brings to light the critical function of ensuring leadership at all levels is acting doing good for the organization and not destroying.

Bend like a reed in the wind

Anything an actor does is an offer that can be accepted, so the play continues or blocked.

Good improvisors seem telepathic, everything looks prearranged. This is because they accept all offers. They may also accept offers that were not intended.

Just as Paul Muad’Dib did in his fight with Sting, those that want to change an organizational structure and culture must learn to bend like a reed in the wind. When coaching organizations and people it is good to remember to accept all offers to keep the play moving along. Too often organizational change agents want to fight a religious battle rather than simply keep the story moving along. If the story is heading in the right direction, even if that journey is the scenic way around, so be it. You’re moving, so keep moving.

I find this important for general management as well. Too often management (and I think this is correlated to the level, the higher up one is the more likely this is to be the case) want to avoid the unscripted question. At one time I was in that camp, but have for some time now relished the opportunity for unscripted Q&A. First, the questions are out there anyway, not offering an opportunity for employees to ask those questions doesn’t make them go away. Quite the opposite, they fester and infect. No matter your organization you can be assured that the grapevine is efficient, fast and high bandwidth. The rumor mill in most organizations is the original 5G. Best to get it all out. The important trick, especially when doing a Q&A for large groups is to accept all offers. Don’t be defensive or upset with the question, even if it’s uncomfortable. Accept it and play the role. Eventually, you may find that the questions on that uncomfortable issue stop – this is often the case with difficult issues where the manager answering the questions may have limited control (HR or legal policies for example). But if you’ve given the team an opportunity to play the improv over and over they will move on.
Perhaps more importantly, unless you are a complete jerk, your team wants you to succeed and have the answer. Even if you don’t really have a solid answer to a question, the fact that you are dealing with it will push most people in the org to fill in the blanks for you. This may not solve the underlying issue, but it will allow people to settle their minds a bit and get back to doing the work of the organization.

We’re all crazy in our own way.

The improvisor has to understand that his first skill lies in realizing his partners imagination.

If someone comes up with something disturbing tie it to your own work or feeling that is normal, if you seize upon it you for them to defend.

When leading an organization through a challenging transformation, those “in the know” can often push back at others who still hold on to the old beliefs. Similar to accepting all offers, to keep the improvisation going, you have to accept the disturbing bits. In an organizational transition, this can be people trying to defend the old system – it may seem wrong or ridiculous to you, but you have to accept that. It can also come down to an opinion about people, sometimes unflattering opinions about one’s coworkers. In today’s environment of sensitivity to any slight, it is important during a change effort to avoid taking offense. At least in the US, you’re often dealing with folks from varied cultures for one, so take a beat and avoid reacting in a way that will shut down your partner in the improvisation of change. The point is to keep the improv going and not cause the other party to go into defensive mode.

Managing People

Catch them unaware doing something great

University students unconsciously learn to copy the physical attitudes of the professors – standing back, crossing arms etc. Such postures help them feel less involved and aloof. “The response of the untutored people is infinitely superior.”

I can see where someone who has some sense of how things “should” happen will be less interesting than someone who has a genuine response. This is why viral videos get such attention, the real, unscripted response is valuable, interesting and unique. There is a parallel in business here that I think many in a leadership role discount to their misfortune. Sometimes there are those in the workplace that don’t know enough to keep their mouth shut or avoid offending someone. They blurt the truth out. They say the quiet part out loud. Yes, this can occasionally cause problems and context is always key. It’s best to bias on the side of the truth, tactfully delivered if possible. Too often I think as leaders we teach people to keep their mouth shut. We often do this in unintentionally powerful ways. We should avoid this, try to nurture unvarnished opinions. You can always coach on tactful delivery.

Scared straight

Instead of seeing people as untalented we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teachers’ relationship with them.

Leaders should assume a phobia or fear rather than a lack of talent or motivation. The intricate complexities of most modern business political environments aren’t well understood – at least not intellectually by most managers. Middle managers feel this complexity daily but compartmentalize that information when dealing with reticence on the part of the staff.
Years ago after joining a new firm, and only a few weeks into my tenure, I had to assign a new slate of projects to project managers. I didn’t know the people very well so I relied on my management team to help select project managers for each project based on their skillset and prior engagements. In a review of the list (there were about 100 projects) with assigned project managers, one of my managers commented that we could not have Bob on a particular project because that project would involve the CIO a bunch. When I asked what the issue was all three managers popped up and told me a story of a meeting where Bob said something that the CIO didn’t like. It wasn’t clear what exactly Bob said, but I got the impression it wasn’t some wild outburst (which would be inconsistent with Bob who was even-keeled to a fault). In any event, I asked when did this occur. Seven years ago it turned out. So in some meeting seven years ago an employee says something a member of the management team doesn’t like and it’s engrained across the organization. Not only is Bob afraid in this case but all of those above him are afraid of action. Every level in the organization is acting on this fear, or not acting as the case may be.
In this particular case, the CIO was outwardly a nice enough guy, but leadership wise was a total disaster. He relied on his positional authority without understanding that he didn’t have the trust of this team, and his actions actively destroyed any possibility of trust developing. Yet, when a crisis arose he was the first to question why someone hadn’t come forward sooner? In this case, the process seals itself suffocating everyone in it.

Especially when you see your team doing something that you view as irresponsible or crazy-making first assume they acted out of fear and get to the bottom of that.

The master becomes the servant

These teachers, who were so sure of the rules didn’t produce anything themselves at all.

In a business organization, this problem manifests because of time and distance primarily. Those in management roles today were at one time likely on the production floor. At one time they understood what was happening with very specific insight. Over time processes and standards shift, even if not done so purposefully. In other cases, the organization relies on outside consultants who often have remarkably little real work experience. They are selling a framework outside the specific context of the organization. Most likely a framework that hasn’t been stress-tested in real life. The fact that most large consulting companies have many case studies on their website of success but no failures and lessons learned is the first clue that the change isn’t real.

The only people in the organization who truly know what is working and not working are the makers. Those who actually produce value that customers pay money for.

Conclusion

Just goes to show, once again, look in inspecting places for insights. Impro is a highly recommended read for anyone interesting in why things are the way they are in business and what you can do to bend the curve a bit.