Having a plan is the business equivalent of hanging out in sweats in front of a fireplace with a mug of steaming hot chocolate on snowy winter day. It keeps you cozy and comfortable.
Unfortunately not every project or task comes ready made for a plan. It may be too vague, too overwhelming or simply too sudden. By definition, that’s always the case in improv comedy. So many times you have to start a scene without having a shred of an idea of what you’re going to do.
Fortunately improvisers have a plan for that or at least a few techniques to get the ball rolling. Three common ones are:
1. Reveal a secret – This tried-and-true method puts the audience smack in the middle of someone’s life (or own private hell). Examples include:
– I defaulted on my college loan
– I never loved you
– I inadvertently killed my father and slept with my mother
2. Become a distinctive character – Improviser extraordinaire Jill Bernard created a character creation toolkit she calls VAPAPO, where you adopt a voice, attitude, posture, animal, prop or obsession. By choosing only one of these, say a Brooklyn accent, you can open up an entire world to build a great scene.
3. Get physical to establish a location – This can mean anything from doing a cartwheel, to pushing a shopping cart or picking a daisy. Miming any of these actions creates a specific setting for your audience. And the more you do to enhance this imaginary place, the more you’ll have to play with in a scene.
Although it may not be obvious at first glance, these same techniques or variations on each are useful for starting a project.
1. In a business setting, it’s probably not a great idea to confess to your Oedipal complex, however, it makes a lot of sense to reveal the real problem you’re trying to solve. So often a team gets a generalized task such as improve food-handling safety. But the story behind that objective (e.g. We’ve had eight cases of food poisoning from chicken in the past quarter) is not only motivating but revealing.
2. Instead of becoming a distinctive character, what you want to do is bring in one or more characters (or just plain people.) Someone affected by the problem you’re trying to solve is a great place to start. When I worked for a Rochester, NY health system, we kicked off a campaign to improve hand hygiene by bringing in the father of a 27-year-old man who died of a hospital-acquired infection. Not only did the grieving dad have a compelling story to share, he had become an expert on getting health care workers to follow safer protocols.
3. Some aspects of getting physical are clearly frowned upon in the office. So maybe this one is stretching the theme a bit, my focus here is on the setting. At IBM when my team was tasked with improving cycle time of a manufacturing line, we visited another plant where they had achieved this objective. The team there offered advice and showed us how they did what they did.
Sometimes simply a change of scenery does the trick. Take a team off site where they can focus on the problem and brainstorm ideas.
When you don’t have a plan, don’t panic. You now have at least three choices always available to you for taking a first step. And once you take it, you’ll be surprised at how clearly you see where you need to go next … including setting a date for a date.