Applying Improv in Organizations

Sanjiv Bobby Desai

Sanjiv Bobby Desai

Sanjiv Desai, who only
responds to 'Bobby', is a
consultant, coach, trainer,
cook, actor and a few other
things as well. He has been
working with the Vyaktitva
community for the past five
plus years, helping
organizations enhance their
leadership performance. He
splits his time between
Ranikhet and Delhi.

“The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind – creators, empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people – artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, leaders, big picture thinkers – will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys” – Daniel Pink in A Whole New Mind, 2006

We are all improvisers at heart. When you create something out of nothing, you improvise. Our lives are not scripted, no prompts, no cues – just us and our gut. In that sense, we are all performers, performing all the time. Therefore, the case for applying improv to the business and life stage is extremely simple. Human beings have a natural proclivity towards improvisation. Any interaction can be viewed as an improvisational scene in which we are the actors, the writers and the directors. Then, by studying the principles and techniques of the improviser, we just try to figure out how to do it more effectively. How can we become better at our performances as leaders, team-members, teachers, students, parents, innovators and managers? Obviously, improv applies to any human interaction at work.

Improv, by definition, does not provide, a neat and tidy step- by-step, instruction manual on how to become better at what we do. What it does provide, however, is a set of philosophies and exercises that are remarkably simple and universally applicable in nearly any situation in which humans wish to build relationships, solve problems, adapt to new circumstances, create new products and processes effectively. All you need is a wish to enhance learning and infuse your environment with creativity, teamwork and effective communication.

Fundamental Skills and Techniques of Improv

The Corporate world has been increasingly mirroring the world of improvisational theatre. The script is constantly 3 being rewritten. The opportunities to plan thoroughly before acting are becoming fewer, shorter and less reliable. This is why, in recent years, businesses have begun to realize the value of consciously fostering creativity and teamwork within their organizations.

The fundamental skills and techniques that improv develops are:

1. Trust

2. Spontaneity

3. Accepting Offers

4. Listening and Awareness

5. Storytelling

6. Performing with Presence

Vyaktitva’s Improv workshops aim at helping participants develop an understanding of these techniques, practice exercises to develop these in a safe environment and finally, learn how to apply these in their real-world scenarios. Let us take a closer look at these techniques.


At the very heart of collaboration lies trust. Without it, no speech will be convincing, no agreement solid and no relationship productive. Improvisers demand that they have colleagues who they can trust and have developed exercises to build that trust.


From a very early age, most of us are taught to censor ourselves. Which is a good thing, really: Without the ability to control our impulses, make judgments and choose when and if to act, we would be crippled. However, there is a price. We spend so much time exercising our judgment muscles that our creative muscles can atrophy. In order to create, a person needs to be able to trust her impulses and follow through on seemingly irrational, nonlinear or ‘foolish’ ideas. Although the abilities to evaluate and critique are important, if they are out of balance with our ability to take risks, creativity is impeded. In improv, there is no time to evaluate. By definition it is- creating in the moment without the ability to revise. Improv has developed exercises to help build the spontaneity muscles. 

Accepting Offers 

When we practice being spontaneous, we learn to accept our own ideas. It is equally important to accept others’ ideas. Teamwork of any kind depends on both, our ability and our willingness to do that. Often, organizations lose speed and opportunities because ideas are rejected (or perhaps only nominally accepted) when there is value to be extracted. People reject ideas for many reasons, all the time, without fully exploring them.

In improv, ideas and actions – words, physical actions, character attributions, musical accompaniments – are called ‘offers’. Anything your partner says or does is an offer. Improv has developed exercises that help participants learn how to accept offers and run with them. 

Listening and Awareness 

It is impossible to accept and build on others’ ideas if we cannot recognize them. By enhancing listening and observational skills, teams and individuals can harvest more ideas, increase their understanding of each other and cultivate effective communication. The good news is that listening and awareness are also muscles and they can be developed and exercised through improv. 


All communication, it can be argued, is storytelling. The way humans make sense of facts is by creating narratives that link bits of data to each other and to past experiences. Storytelling has become a widely recognized leadership competency. Thought leaders such as Stephen Denning have been championing it as an invaluable tool for increasing influencing skills, knowledge-sharing, building organizational culture and learning of any kind. Storytelling can be used for everything from increasing presentation skills to building teams to reviewing technical processes to motivating employees. 6 And the best newsisthat human beings are hardwired to think narratively, so getting better at soliciting, interpreting and telling stories is a goal we can all achieve through improv training. 

Performing with Presence

There is much more to being a good communicator than the words we use. A tilt of the head, a smirk, a smile, an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ can define our trustworthiness and our character. 

Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus at UCLA, in his famous treatise on trustworthiness in communication, Silent Messages, said “when people perceive a contradiction between the words, the tone and the physicality of a speaker, they believe the words least of all and measure nearly all their faith in the speaker’s trustworthiness by the tone and physical appearance or presence (vocal cadence, gestures, clothes, facial expressions) of the speaker”. 

Improv helps people with their presence, through exercises designed to increase their ability to be heard, to be relaxed in front of people, to support their content with their tone of voice and physical expression. 

All in all, improv is a rich source of creativity, communication and collaboration techniques and it is therefore imperative that companies tap into improv as a source for organizational development.


• Viola Spolin: Improvisation for the Theatre 

• Getting to “Yes And”: Bob Kulhan, Forbes #2 Business book of 2017 

• Daena Giardella: MIT Sloan Expert, Article March 12, 2013

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