Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Business Interview: Improv

Improv Interview with Andrew Burnham

Improvisation is a misunderstood skill. Enjoy this interview with Andrew Burnham who uses Improv as a business development tool. Andrew is president of Improv at Work.

I've seen improv on TV and it is very entertaining. How can it be used to build better business teams?

Andrew Burham
What you’ve seen on TV is improvisational comedy: a group of people creating scenes without a script. We often think of improvisation as being what comedy clubs like Second City do; a comedic form of entertainment. But the ability to improvise is much deeper and is comprised of many important team skills like creative thinking, flexibility of response, listening and collaboration. The skills by which an improv comedy team builds ideas, reframes situations and people, collaborates and produces results under pressure are the same skills business teams need. Improv comedy teams, like good sports, military or any high functioning teams are examples for us to follow. We are simply applying what these teams do to succeed by looking carefully at how they do ‘good team work’.

What is the essence of improv?

Andrew Burnham
Improvisation is arguably humanity’s oldest skill and it gives us the capacity to experiment, take new actions and generate new ideas. Think about the last time you did not know what to do or your team was stuck for answers. What did you do? You improvised. You thought creatively, stepped outside of your conditioned patterns, asked different questions. Dr. Mary Crossen of the Richard Ivey School of Business says that “Improvisation is one of the few tools we have to develop a capacity to be innovative and in the moment – a key requirement of organizations in the 21st century.”

Is improv just for clowning round? How can you really apply it day to day?

Andrew Burnham
Clowning around has its benefits but business like improv at work who are using re-emerging methods to build stronger teams are extracting and applying improvisation’s behind the scene’s thinking and behaviours. We’re not turning people into comedy actors. One of these methods is in fact clowning around; we prefer the word ‘galumphing’. This is the term that anthropologists use to describe what higher primates (we’re in that category) do to build flexibility of response.

Think of galumphing as taking the scenic route home for a change, pretending you are somebody different, or re-enacting a work situation and seeing how many ways there are to look at it. It is well known how effective it can be to take fun break or do something a little unusual and then return to the problem, work or issue.

Improv tools also help teams create maximum ideas in little time as they learn how to ‘offer’ ideas without their ego’s getting in the way and how to save time and money building these ideas by focusing on how ideas could work instead of spending time killing ideas in their infancy (ideaacide).

When you scout out a prospective client, what are the key indicators that you look for to know if your program will work for them?

Andrew Burnham
I learned a long time ago not to try and fit a program to a group of people. You know the old adage: “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The best way to ensure clients get what they want is to listen as far as possible without filters. I mean really listen to them, figure out where they are coming from and what’s happening and not happening in their teams.

If that goes well then I design a program and solution specifically for them. Usually the programs involve improvisation but sometimes I employ other methods to ensure success. My clients are as diverse as my services are. They are looking for my expertise in engaging groups, teams and audiences through the creative mediums I use such as improv, sketch/scenario writing and filming.

Key indicators that attract clients to my services could be distilled to these:
· Do they want to engage and involve people?
· How much do they really want to change and do they have a solvable problem? (!mprov at work’s work in training and development)
· Are they looking for creativity of approach and delivery?

What environments would improv not work in?

Andrew Burnham
Improv does not work well in static unchanging environments. Some groups may just want to stick to more traditional ways to build teams, off the shelf training programs and traditional ways of learning and change. Some teams are looking for an expert to tell them what to do, or tell them that’s its ‘all okay, just follow these rules and things will get better’. Improv would not work well here because the presumption is that the team actually does know what is best for them even if they do not know that yet.

What else would you like to ad?

Andrew Burnham
I’d like to return to the question of how improv is used day to day. Imagine that you go to a Karate class and get the crap kicked out of you (in a fun and non-life threatening way). Or you learn how to meditate, calm your mind and you’ve been doing that for awhile now and now your buttons are not pushed so easily, you don’t get out of sorts so much. You’re not exactly sure how this happened, it just did.

Learning improv is a lot like these examples. It’s sometimes just the experience that creates a shift in you. You don’t know exactly how you are different but does that matter? The important thing is that you are different, you’ve changed. Many people are now enrolling in public improv classes to simply build their confidence and reclaim their power and creativity in front of others.

People adept at improvising excel at sales, customer service and all interactions with people including clients. The improvising skill is sought after in experiential marketing campaigns, delivering presentations and for generating ideas and new courses of action in all areas of business. Improv is also an excellent team building platform. I employ improv skills because it gives me the creativity I need to stand out from my competitors and add value in new ways.


In 1999 !mprov at Work was launched by Andrew Burnham to provide unique and engaging team building services. Andrew now custom designs and delivers interactive, engaging and transformative workshops, learning events, out of the box consulting as well as video production services through both !mprov at work and Mind Tools for Self Management Andrew is an entrepreneur, a University of Toronto business graduate, and a professionally trained improv theatre performer with a passion for working fun and action into learning.


George Torok

Creative Facilitator

Creative Problem Solving

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