Chief Improv Officer?

Improv comedy is not just for fun. It’s gaining ground in the corporate world of engagement, negotiations, team building, and leadership. Should CIOs turn to improv to rethink their business? About time.

Gunjan trivedi Feb 14th 2014 A-A+
Gunjan Trivedi is executive editor at IDG Media. He is an award-winning writer with over a decade of experience in Indian IT. Before becoming a journalist, he had been a hands-on IT specialist, with expertise in setting up IP WANs. Reach him at

This Saturday afternoon I got this funny itch to dig up the old episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Youtube. Most of us, I am sure, would have laughed out hard till either our throats croaked or ribs hurt on the improvisation comedy game show that became a household name in the 90’s.

As I scrambled through one episode after another, I stumbled on the Youtube channel of a certain corporate comedian, Tim Washer. Don’t ask me how.

Among others in the playlist, what caught my eye was this three-part series of CIO interviews called Fast Innovation and the Slow Waiter that Washer had done for Cisco.
Set on the backdrop of a plush restaurant, Washer played an over-friendly waiter who interviews real-life CIOs on subjects of customer experience, loyalty and analytics. Laced with humor and great stories to tell on business-IT strategy, these crisp customer testimonials were a little under three minutes long.

But what was more interesting was the backstory of these videos. Author, speaker and MarketingProfs’ Chief Content Officer, Ann Handley, details in her blog that instead of shooting the regular talking head videos, the makers showcased real people with real personality, who played along as Washer improvised on camera. All this was done at a CIO conference during the 15-minute session breaks. Results? Impressive.

This took me back to the very essence of Whose Line Is It Anyway?—improvisation. Sure, it can be an unconventional method for CIOs to address a wide spectrum of business and leadership scenarios: From creating innovative solutions, to negotiating with vendors, to fostering mutual trust with business peers, and collaborating with teams.

Improv, as they call it, is all about working with a spontaneous approach to entertain in a highly constrained environment of being live, on stage, without any script whatsoever. It is all about relying on your mind, your skill to listen and your ability to be witty to come up with lines that feed off your partners’ comments and take the story further.

Quite interestingly, this approach is being frequently applied to the fields of business leadership, ideation, negotiation and team management, and is teaching executives to grab unexpected opportunities, take risks and respond to sudden threats.

Here are the four key attributes of improv that can be successfully adopted by CIOs to significantly enhance the way they work with their teams, users, vendors, and business management:

Yes, and….: Improv comedy acts rely solely on acceptance. And, so does the art of negotiation or fostering team collaboration. Falling prey to impulsively deny, differ or disagree kills the act. Welcome the unexpected and even the unwanted demands, and coax your counterpart to top it in response. This can surely help in either shaping the negotiation to your advantage or collaboratively improvising on an innovative solution to a problem.

Make My Partner Successful: In one of his speeches Washer says that the most powerful question in managing any conflict is to understand how you can make your partner successful. On stage or at work, the pertinent point is to understand the motivation of your partners and figure out what you can do to help them reach their goals. This encourages empathy and works wonders in building mutual trust.

Failure is Good: In an improv comedy on stage, there are no mistakes. Even if a performer goes blank, it can be used as an opportunity to take the act further. Business is all about risks. And, without taking risks, CIOs and their teams can never uncover the unconventional path to success.

Follow the Fear: Washer says that on stage when your partner says something to you, there’ll be multiple ideas popping up in your head in response. One of those ideas may scare you significantly, such as ‘someone may not like this’ or ‘I am unqualified to do this’. Washer strongly recommends that you follow the fear and push that idea through. Perhaps, that will be the greatest thing that you may ever do.
Sounds interesting? Your turn.