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Principles of Improvisation for Leaders in Remote Teams

Improvisation theatre or in short improv is a type of live theatre where the dialog, the characters, and the plot are all created at the moment by the actors themselves. Improv helps actors experience learning both on a physical and emotional level and transfer that knowledge to any part of their lives including personal and professional. The principles of improvisation help nurture leadership and decision-making – skills we are going to discuss further in this article.

For the past 2 years, the field of improvisation has been in stagnation, but what I learned from my improv teacher just a couple of days ago is that every crisis is an opportunity, and what better time to improvise than when you have no idea what’s next? I haven’t met him in person in the past years, but when I saw him a couple of weeks ago, he was full of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas – he simply told me that this was the best time for me because truly successful improvisation happens when you feel the most uncomfortable.

focus and be present

The first principle of improvisation I’m going to share with you is Focus. In improv, it’s important to keep your eyes open. Consider the environment and the others instead of just focusing on yourself. In remote work, I think that’s one of the most important principles as well. Turn on your camera and look at your colleagues – their reactions to what you say and what they add to the table. Focus on the conversation. For sure, if the meeting was in person, you wouldn’t want to look at your phone, answer messages on Teams or check your email. So don’t get distracted while having a call either. A virtual meeting is still a meeting, don’t forget that. What I try to do in my daily work, is always turn on my camera and look at the other person while talking to them. The difference in the quality of communication is noticeable!

listen actively and don’t be afraid to ask questions

Good communication, both in improv and at work, means listening to understand, not to respond. Listen actively while working remotely. With so many distractions in your home office environment, it can be challenging – phone calls, emails, kids running around, lunch in the oven. Yet, if you want to be taken seriously, you must take responsibility, listen carefully, and build upon ideas. However, don’t feel embarrassed if you need something to be repeated or if you didn’t hear well something. It’s better to understand the topic clearly rather than pretend and waste everyone’s time. Just remember, there are no mistakes in improv theatre and no reason to feel insecure. Once, my kids were sick at home, and I had an important call to take. Honestly, I couldn’t focus on the meeting at all. However, I was honest with the person in the meeting. As a result, not only was he extremely understanding, but he even helped me take notes.

warm up and be prepared

One of the most important principles of improvisation is to warm up before going on stage. Prepare both physically and emotionally for the scene. I believe it’s the same with remote work and starting your workday – prepare as if you are going to the office. Morning exercise, breakfast, shower, a cup of coffee, and most importantly – have a dedicated workspace. Give yourself a fresh start every morning, be consistent in your routine and you are guaranteed to be more productive. If I am working from home, for example, I try to have the same routine every morning – 20 minutes for a morning exercise, shower, light breakfast, and a cup of coffee. Then when I sit at my desk, I have my water bottle, phone, a pen, a notepad, and everything else that I might need to concentrate on my priorities for the day.

make personal connections

Make personal connections with your colleagues. Pay attention and express interest in their emotions, actions, and environment. Get to know them on a more personal level and that will greatly impact your daily communication. Sometimes I talk to people on work-related topics 10 times a day, but I have no idea that they have a dog, 2 kids, or a health problem on their minds. A short chit-chat of 2-3 minutes doesn’t cost too much time, but in the end, the person on the other side feels more connected with you and more prone to help you out when needed.

make sure your team feels supported

According to one of the principles of improvisation, in theatre, the focus is not on you, but on the whole group. In the end, the performance of the team depends on each team member, not only on the leader. Thus, you should always make sure everyone feels good and comfortable enough to perform to the best of their abilities. This is something I have been focusing on during the past year – collaboration at its best. Always try to make your partner and colleague better – hold them up so that they can hold you up, too. For me, as a leader, the most important thing is the whole team to feel worthy and appreciated for what they have achieved. Each team member has a strong side that helps the entire team perform better.  

use your actions to set examples

And here we come to the next important principle of improvisation in leadership – words mean less than actions. Don’t simply say what you want or plan to do. Instead, take action. Set an example through your proactivity rather than only through your words. And yes, you can do that remotely as well – be prepared for meetings, act professionally, listen actively, and support others. Set an example to your team and be the mentor they need to develop both professionally and personally.

have trust in your team

In theatre, you have to trust your instincts and your partner. In leadership – you have to trust your team. And trusting someone means giving them the chance to improvise and the space to show their full potential. That doesn’t involve telling them what to do or the exact steps to do it. Thus, improvisation in remote work can actually be easier. People have more room to think on their own and get inspired while working from the mountains or someplace far away from home or the office. Be an advocate of showing trust and encouraging independence. Trust your intuition and give your team the chance to grow while guiding them. 

let go of your need to control

Great leaders prepare to be unprepared. In improv theatre, you practice the skill of improvisation. In leadership, you should practice the skill of leadership, not the skill of being prepared for every question and having a readily prepared answer in your head. We can’t control everything that happens in a meeting. Once we realize that as leaders, we learn to prepare to be unprepared the same way as we prepare to be prepared. It happens daily that my team shoots me with a question I have no idea how to answer. But I have understood that as a leader, I don’t need to know or control everything.

Yes, AND…

And here we come to my favourite expression – Yes, And. Allow for improvisation. Allow for possibility. Allow for creativity. Great leaders inspire, accept your idea, and try to help you bring it to the next level. It’s actually not so hard when you learn that there is no bad idea, there are just undeveloped and raw ones that need a little bit of “And” attitude. That is one of the crucial principles of improvisation.

to wrap up

Many companies have felt the uncertainty of the past several years (and maybe still do), especially with fully remote work policies and learning how to lead and manage a team without seeing them in person. Yet, improvisation means being agile, and most of the companies applying the principles of improvisation and agility not only survived but thrived and rose above the competition. 

Temenuzhka is a Business Development Specialist at Accedia, passionate about helping clients achieve great results in app development. Avid traveller and theatre addict. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch via LinkedIn.


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