Is Business And Leadership Just An Elaborate Improv Skit?

Karen Hough was on stage at five years old, but her acting career was far from a childhood whim. She went on to study at theatre at Yale, perform at Chicago’s Second City, and clock hundreds of productions for film, radio and tv. In the competitive world of acting, Karen Hough was a success. But why am I writing about her in the context of HR, leadership and learning?

Karen transitioned to business and after spending a number of years as a network engineering executive (wow, right?) she began testing the practices of Improv at the Wharton Business School. After collecting eight years of data proving that improv positively affects leadership skills, Karen set up a phone line in her basement and started a business. Karen told me that improv made her a better person. It is clear to me that she was determined to share that experience with others.

At the beginning of her journey, Karen faced so much skepticism. How can the arts improve business? With a knowing laugh, Karen told me, “skeptics are my favourite people!” Not only does she have research that proves improv training in business works, she believes it.

One of her great moments of affirmation early on in this venture was when an executive came to her a year after receiving her training and said, “I wish I had had this 10 years ago. Not only am I a better business leader, I’m a better dad and husband.” How does training of this kind create such a visceral reaction?

Karen explains that improv training is completely different than traditional training. It’s not about theory. It’s about doing. Karen aptly put it, “Until you do it, you’re just thinking about it.” So Karen preaches practice and immersion; this plants the seeds for new habits to form and participants to rethink their beahviours. Discomfort is implicit in the process of improv training but that just serves to quicken the learning process. “We cover what you’d get in dry courses too, we just do it better. The methodology gives people pause,” something most training cannot achieve. Karen believes our bodies affect our brains and that a new technique “must be felt and experienced to know it will work.”

Karen dispels the myth that improv is all about comedy. Improv is experiential. Improv is behaviour altering. Improv is serious business.

I firmly believe that by altering our behaviours on a small scale, we make it possible for our larger goals to be achieved. It’s the small everyday habits that get repeated over and over again. These affect culture and the behaviour of others. These become our default behaviours. We operate on autopilot and far too infrequently second guess if there is a better way. By using any one of the many techniques Karen teaches, we create small change with a powerful ripple effect.

Change requires humility, intention and will power. Improv nurtures humility by teaching participants to be vulnerable. Improv encourages leaders to rethink their behaviour and be intentional going forward by creating discomfort and reflection. Improv cultivates willpower by providing an experience that is so much sheer fun that you want to repeat it. These statements aren’t from the research. They’re my take on the refreshing improv training I discovered with Karen Hough. Think about shaking up your leadership and excuse me while I go have some fun with my team.

Author: Juliana Trichilo Cina

I’m an academic at heart with a love for the practical. My time at the University of Toronto and Queens University were some of the best years of my life. Today, I am deeply involved with my work, family, friends, and insatiable need to learn. While my love for tradition runs deep, as a first generation Canadian, I am eager to usher in new ways of thinking. I love communications, gardening, technology, and folk music—I was once called a bundle of contradictions and I couldn’t agree more. I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, reader, animal lover, and wannabe comedian. I live in Toronto with my husband, son, and pet rabbit.

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