How Improv Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

The 3 rules of improv that improved GQueues

Cameron Henneke
Feb 19, 2015

Today, employees and teams have access to endless gadgets, tools and tips to increase productivity. Their goals? Accomplish more in less time, “work smarter, not harder” and create a bigger return on investment.

However, focusing too much on how to be more, get more and do more can lead to being busy, instead of productive. On the other hand, learning how to be in the moment and mine all its worth is a strategy that can foster long term happiness and success.

I learned this, funny enough, through improv classes at The Second City. For those who aren’t familiar, improv comedy is a form of theatre where everything is made up on the spot. Doing improv forced me to get out of my head and make strong, confident choices using all the information available at that moment. It helped me see that success depends on my willingness to accept the current circumstances and support my team.

There are three improv rules I learned that have helped me shift my outlook on business and improve relationships with customers.

1. Listen.

To improvise well, everyone on stage needs to hear what each other is saying. You have to listen like your life depends on it and focus your attention on what's going on around you. Simple, though not always easy. My biggest challenge was resisting the urge to plan what I was going to say while other people were talking.

This intense listening skill applied a lot in my business, especially when it came to handling customer feedback - support issues, bug reports and feature requests - on the GQueues' forum. Whenever I jumped to conclusions (ie., "That's not a bug," "You're not doing it right," or "That won't work because of X, Y, Z...") I rejected the input, and missed the opportunity to apply it in a constructive way. When I used improv listening skills instead, reading each message as openly as possible, I understood the underlying issues and could respond appropriately. In practicing this skill, I have been able to create a better product and serve others more effectively by offering real value.

As Richard Branson says, listening in this way is key to success for entrepreneurs.

2. Say Yes.

How many times does your day go exactly as you plan it?

Not often, right?

Anything could happen - from getting a call from a frustrated client, to having a mixup with the conference hotel, to having an awkward conversation with your boss. These things happen. No matter the situation, we have two choices: resist and fight, or accept the circumstances as a way to grow.

You may have heard the core improv rule, “Say Yes.” This can sometimes be misinterpreted as always having to agree with what's happening around you. Really, though, saying yes is about acceptance. Accepting whatever situation you are in, and expanding it with your choices.

For example, if someone runs up to you in an improv scene and says, “The bombs are gonna hit! We’re going to die!” you might respond, “I just stocked my panic room with tuna! Let’s go!” validating her statement and adding to the scene. If you stand there with your arms crossed and say, “Stop. Those aren’t bombs. You look crazy,” you’ve rejected the scene.

Learning how to say yes really hit home with the evolution of the GQueues mobile app. For two years I clung tightly to an HTML5 mobile web app version I'd developed. It was built on technology that was supposed to revolutionize mobile apps, but it never lived up to expectations. Customers were complaining about poor functionality, so I finally accepted this and built new, native Android and iOS apps that would deliver a better experience.

Had I kept denying the circumstances, I would still be stuck, and customers unhappy. Instead, moving forward helped me build an app that people love and can use easily, giving me greater ownership of my work.

Ultimately, I learned saying yes takes courage, helps you develop more positive relationships and gives you power to move forward in your career, no matter what.

3. Roll with it.

One of my favorite things about improv is there are no mistakes. Every word and action taken on stage is fair game for a scene. For example, if someone gets tongue-tied and says, “I just got back from the barket” instead of “I just got back from the market,” they just made up a quirky world where Barkets exist - perhaps a national chain of grocery stores run by dogs.

These “slips” made on stage are gifts opening the players to limitless creativity.

Similarly, great leaders and entrepreneurs understand that mistakes are gifts - opportunities to gain insight and build a better business.

I’ve made a number of blunders working on GQueues - from bugs, to poorly designed features, to being inconsiderate with team members. While I regret the results, improv has helped me immediately start an action plan that can apply the mistake positively in my life. I accept what happened, make amends, then take time to explore what I can learn about myself and the situation. Writing this down helps me commit to growing and hopefully not repeating the mistake again.

The improv practices of intense listening, accepting circumstances and embracing mistakes helped me grow both personally and as a leader of my business. Although I was terrified at first, I learned to really connect with others in a bold and meaningful way that isn't often touched on in the real world. They taught me how to use everyday life to improve my weak spots and turn them into strengths.

If you haven't before, I highly recommend taking an improv class. After all, when you can grow your business in these ways and more and have fun, there's only something to gain.

About the author
Cameron Henneke

I love building products! And Python. And dark chocolate. When I'm not leading the team at GQueues, I can be found running ultras on the trails of the Rocky Mountains.

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