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April 29, 2005

Lessons Learning from Improv

HeroesLast fall I finally began taking Improv classes. I say finally because for years that little voice we all have inside of us had been telling me to do it. Plus, since I’ve been evangelizing the merits of Improv in business … I felt it was time to practice what I preach.

After completing 18 weeks of improv comedy classes from the Austin-based Heroes of Comedy improv troupe, I’m set to graduate. For those living in the badlands of Central Texas, you’re invited to our Graduation Show at the Hideout Theatre on Tuesday, May 3 at 8:00 ($5).

I've learned a lot from the classes. But I still have much more to learn about the improv game in order to apply it to my every day business life. That’s why I’m calling the following ... Lessons Learning from Improv.

Failure is an Option
In business we’ve been conditioned to believe failure is bad and most be avoided at all costs. Improv believes in the opposite. In Improv, I’m learning failure is good because it means you are challenging yourself to take chances in pursuit of living in the moment. Failure happens. Mistakes happen. Learn from failures. Learn from mistakes. If we don’t take chances and fail, how else will we ever feel the pleasure of learning?

Practice Passionate Followership
Not everyone can be a leader all the time. Yet in business I’ve been trained to lead or get out of the way. In Improv, I’m learning to be a passionate follower. There is an interdependence in Improv where no one person leads. Instead, everyone leads helping to make the best scene possible.

Don’t Act, React
I’m learning to become a better listener and thus a better reactor. Contrary to what you may think, Improv is not about acting … it’s about reacting. If you act in Improv, then you’re a hack. (If you act in business, you’re also a hack.)

Go with your Gut
So much in business is preplanned. We develop precise, step-by-step action plans accounting for contingencies along the way. At least that’s what big businesses do. On the other hand, small businesses mostly rely on their gut instincts to make decisions and to deal with consequences as they emerge. I’m learning to apply that same thinking in Improv where performers must make lightening-fast decisions based on who they are, where they are, and what they are doing.

Don’t be a Blockhead
We’ve all been in ideation sessions where we’re told to leave our yeah-buts at the door. What if we were to always leave our yeah-buts at the door and instead spend our time supporting ideas and not negating ideas? (Hmm…) I’m learning to do just that through Improv. It’s a difficult lesson for me to learn because my ego tells me I always have the better idea. However, I’m learning to discard my yeah-but negative thinking for the much more positive, trusting, and less ego-driven approach of thinking yes … and.

Trust Others
Deep down inside I don’t trust people as much as I should. Improv is teaching me to trust others more. In business and in Improv, trust is critical to making things happen. At work, you must trust others will deliver on time, on budget, and on strategy. And in Improv, you must trust other players will work together to make things happen in a scene.

Make Others Look Good
In business I was taught to look out for me, myself, and I. (Why else do I feel the need to have a CYA email file?) The ‘me, myself, and I’ attitude doesn’t fly in Improv. I’m learning you are more successful when you make others look good in Improv. It’s living the Vidal Sassoon philosophy of “If you don’t look good, I don’t look good.”


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» Good Advice for Business and Improv from life (over IP)
Lessons Learning from Improv: (excerpted) Don't be a Blockhead We've all been in ideation sessions where we're told to leave our yeah-buts at the door. What if we were to always leave our yeah-buts at the door and instead... [Read More]

» Learning Improv as business training from The Tower Blog
Read this blog entry Lessons Learning from Improv and you'll read about innovative business training. It's brilliant in fact. The lessons John Moore blogs about what he's learned from taking Improv. comedy classes. The applications for business are exc... [Read More]

» Impro Ia: Related Reading from PEDABLOGUE
In my discussion of chapter one of Impro, I talk about Johnsotone's notion that students fear failure and this becomes a blockage to learning. I just read a blog entry by John Moore at Brand Autopsy called "Lessons Learning from Improv" that summarizes... [Read More]

» Impro Ia: Related Reading from PEDABLOGUE
In my discussion of chapter one of Impro, I talk about Johnsotone's notion that students fear failure and this becomes a blockage to learning. I just read a blog entry by John Moore at Brand Autopsy called "Lessons Learning from Improv" that summarizes... [Read More]

» Lessons Learning from Improv from Anecdote
My first blogpost was inspired by Patricias Madsons book on Improv Wisdom and its relation to business and organisations. Its great to see John Mooreexploring this too: In Improv, if you always play high s... [Read More]


John - sounds like you're improvising a new book idea here. Can't wait to read it! :o)

Thanks Cliff. But before I write that book ... I have a business management book of lessons learned from Starbucks to write. It's slated to be published by Dearborn in the fall of next year. I'll officially announce it once we've written more of the manuscript.

John -

Great post!

In another life time I was a theatre major. And altho my dad called it "basket weaving" - it was great training for anything including the biz world.

Here are a couple of "lessons" to add to your list. 1. The best "companies" know it's a team effort that brings success. 2. Take a risk every once in while. Great for creativity, new ideas and new skills. Playing against "type" can produce exciting results. Toby

John, very interesting stuff... You have reminded me that some of the best business inspirations come from lessons learned entirely outside of business.

Good post.

I hear ya! What blows me away is that we all know this stuff but fail badly at it.

Jim ... I agree. We all seemingly know this stuff yet we don't practice this stuff. I bet if we spent some moments every day trying to make others look good instead of blaming others for looking bad, then we'd not only be happier ... we'd accomplish more.

Here's another half-baked lesson I'm learning from Improv.

Through Improv, I'm learning to acknowledge and deal with better with 'status.'

‘Status' games go on in business everyday where someone plays ‘high status’ and everyone else acquiesces and plays ‘low status.’ Certain times call for playing ‘high status’ but it’s best to pick and choose your spots.

In Improv, if you always play ‘high status’ then you’ve probably got an inferiority complex to deal with.

Same goes in business. A boss who always plays ‘high status’ has personal issues he/she needs to address. The best bosses I’ve had have been willing to show their vulnerability by playing ‘low status’ at times.

Having been an improv 'maker' for the past five years, I couldn't agree with you more about the lessons learned. As a matter of fact I have combined real life comedy improv with business improv, and turned them into a $300,000 per year entertainment act called Wild West Express.

Our cowboy comedy improv team has been the 'most booked entertainment act of any kind in the Western United States' for the past four years and one of the top touring acts in the nation. But I bring this up not to stroke my ego, but to point out the truth of what you say.

My motto and the catch phrase I preach daily to our sometimes 18 plus cast members, is "If you're not failing, you're not trying". That line originated as an improv 'joke' during one of our performances, but it stuck and rings true.

The new guys that join up with us get left by the wayside, if they're not willing to go out on a limb (letting go of the proverbial safety of the tree) and take chances. If they play it safe, and use 'pre-prepared' dialogue or routines, the crowd doesn't feel it, the show doesn't work.

You see, there are hundreds of comedians out there looking for work(your uncle, your lazy brother, the auto mechanic, your AA sponsor), but they never make it. Everyone is doing it, to a degree (wanting to be a comedian), and fortunately for us, just not well, nor edgy enough to keep interest or pique curiosity.

I would rather see a new guy fall flat on his face with no one laughing and an incredulous look on the morphed face of the audience, than to hear polite chuckles, obligatory applause, or canned laughter.

And therein lies the trick, to not give up or revert when it's not working.
We strive to be rough and edgy, yet lovable, and that is a hard combo to find in potential team members. But occasionally we will find someone with that almost undefineable quality.

On the flip side of that, surprisingly enough, it can be taught to willing students, despite us not knowing what exactly it is or how to teach it.Five years ago, our Events Coordinator, Eric,was the worst cast member we'd ever hired, and had no comic sensibilities at all. He somehow stayed in the show performing badly (much to my dismay)for nearly two years. He now ranks as one of our best and brings a whole different style of humor to the show. He has gone far beyond our expectations (but not his, I might add) and has trounced the 'actors' that we tried to use one season when we found ourselves overbooked and understaffed.

The 'actors' couldn't get it, yet mistakenly thought they were killing 'em. In reality it was almost a reputation disaster, as despite being good performers, they were so generic, slick, unbelievable, and boring, that they almost put us out of business after their first (and last) season. We have since not hired actors, and instead look for raw, undeveloped talent, and smart alec, obnoxious, witty, but all around likeable guys.

It's working, and the old adage about thinking outside of the box is a good plan when it comes to improv as art and as life.

Quit second guessing yourself, say it before you have time to think it through (never play it safe). RE-act... don't just act. And keep moving, don't slow down for a minute to reconsider where it (and you) might be headed.

If you end up in a box canyon, with no way out, they'll always laugh at you because of your predicament and admire you because you knew you were headed into the box canyon, but took a chance and rode into it anyway.

Take care John. I'm a 'Brand' new fan...


Congratulations on having your article picked as one of the Month's Top Ten blogposts for the Carnival of Trust.

You can see the Carnival of Trust this month at Diane Levin's MediationChannel, at

The Carnival of Trust is the brainchild of Charles H. Green at You can read more about the Carnival (past carnivals, how to submit) at

Congratulations. And I really enjoyed the article. I particularly resonated with Go With Your Gut, Trust Others, and Make Others Look Good. All tried and true principles of trust.

Congrats and thanks.

Charles H. Green

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