Poynton is an associate fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School and author of two books—Everything’s an Offer and Do Improvise. He believes the practice of improvisational theater can be useful in the world of business and leadership.
Leaders are not omnipotent heroes who always know exactly what to do next. And no plan survives day one. The key to great leadership then, especially in a world of quick and disruptive change, is setting your team up to be flexible and to think on the fly.
“Seeing a world full of offers means looking at everything as something you can use to create flow—even something that seems to be a problem,” Poynton says. “It’s about leaving behind the fruitless debate about whether things are good or bad and adopting an incredibly practical and constructive stance about how to use what you have.”
I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Poynton to learn more about how improvisation can help us navigate an uncertain and accelerating world. We talked about the fluidity of leadership in improvisation, how to deal with the moment when best-laid plans hit reality, and the only six words you need to know to begin practicing improv in your work and life.
Lisa Kay Solomon: You’ve been teaching leadership through practicing improvisational theater. What does leadership have to do with improvisational theater?
Robert Poynton: A complex world demands an improvised response.
Improvisers have to work together to create something original, in real time, to satisfy their audience in uncertain circumstances and with few resources. It’s like a laboratory for the messy, chaotic, unpredictable world in which we all live. So what they know can really help us.
For leaders, it’s particularly important because they have to deal with a host of uncertain and unpredictable factors—for example, the people they lead! People being people, they are always going to react or respond in a way that can’t be predicted or controlled, so leaders have to deal with that. Not to mention the exponential technological change and the effects that has on businesses, markets, social systems, and so on.
I’ve been designing leadership education through improvisation for over 10 years at Oxford University, with Fortune 500 companies, and even in primary schools, and I think people have a lot of mistaken beliefs about leadership. I think there is a myth of the heroic or even omnipotent leader who is always right and knows everything.
In my experience, leadership is about creating the conditions where the work can get done. There is a lot we can learn from improvisers about how that happens.
LKS: What is it about improvisational practices and games that make it so effective for leadership training these days?
RP: One way or another, improvisers get results. They are able to satisfy their customer. There is tons of leadership behavior going on, even though there may not be any formal leaders. In improvisation, leadership is very fluid, at different points different people lead, and this changeover can happen very quickly (instantaneously, even) and very often.
In improv exercises you cannot rely on rational intelligence alone; you have to use other kinds of intelligence, like social, physical, and intuitive. This gives you an opportunity to notice how you react when the plans, processes, or other mechanisms that we commonly use (to protect ourselves from anxiety) are stripped away.
Planning is good, and it is important to understand that improvisation doesn’t act as a substitute for planning, it is a complement to it. Without the ability to adapt and flex, the best plan in the world will crash as soon as it meets reality. The problem is that we do a lot to develop our planning skills, and little or nothing to develop our improvisational skills.
Plans are also misunderstood. They aren’t necessarily there to be followed to the letter. As a West Point officer once said, “Plans are proof that planning has been done.” A plan should be a springboard, not a leash.
LKS: Can you share some of the core practices of improv that are most relevant to leaders?
RP: The practices that improvisers use are deceptively simple. l like to say in workshops the practices of improv are obvious, dull, and familiar. Which is precisely what is great about them. You can understand them quickly, learn them easily, and use them forever.
The six words you need are: Notice More, Let Go, and Use Everything. If that’s too many for you try these three: ‘everything’s an offer.’
The fact that they are simple doesn’t mean they are easy. You have to be willing to practice. To take these ideas and use them, repeatedly, in any and every context, where you get stuck, or need to respond, or create something, or work with others—see, just about anywhere!
The novelty and the specificity comes from your context. The discipline and rigor comes from you applying them. They are iterative and never-ending. You are never done. Which is why it is a practice.
The idea of offers takes a bit of understanding. To an improviser, an offer is anything and everything you can take and use, including errors, mistakes, shortcomings, or absences.
LKS: How can we all get better at seeing and using “offers?”
RP: Offers are everywhere if you are prepared to see them. Seeing a world full of offers means looking at everything as something you can use to create flow—even something that seems to be a problem. This is a very different attitude from seeing the world as full of problems that you want to get rid of. I think of this as the ultimate ‘abundance’ attitude—and it is one you can adopt for yourself, and you don’t even need any technology!
It isn’t about the kind of vacuous positive thinking that says ‘everything’s good.’ It’s about leaving behind the fruitless debate about whether things are good or bad and adopting an incredibly practical and constructive stance about how to use what you have. And what is incredible about that is that it becomes self-fulfilling.
Look for ways to use what you have, and the extraordinary capacity of the human being means that you will find something. That something could lead to something extraordinary. Maybe it won’t be what you expected, but you will find something.
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