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Six lessons improv comedy taught me about product leadership (and one I needed to unlearn)
In this piece, I share lessons improv comedy taught me about product leadership.
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As I have been looking for some new and fun experiences during the pandemic, I stumbled upon the Blind Tiger Comedy — a local comedy school. This is when I decided to try improv comedy, and for almost half a year, I have been learning the ropes of this art. In this piece, I share lessons improv comedy taught me about product leadership.
The art of improvisation
An improv scene is an art of collective storytelling. If you haven’t been to an improv comedy show — here is how it generally works. First, the audience shares a word or a phrase to inspire the scene (a “suggestion”). The performers take this suggestion, and without any preparation, rehearsal, or even a nod to one another, start the scene. One person says or does something (“makes an offer”) while others take this “offer” and start building on it (“if this is true, what else is true”); this is how the story unfolds.
This can sound simple or terrifying depending on who you are, what you like, and what stories you tell yourself. For me, it has been both. The fact that there is no preparation or rehearsal has been incredibly liberating as I know I cannot forget anything, and there is nothing I need to prepare for. On the other hand, the spontaneous nature of improv also means that you’ve only got a few minutes to pull together all the tools in your arsenal and make it a great show. That is hard (in any case, it has been for me).
Improv comedy doesn’t have many (or any — depending on how you see it) rules. After all, it is hard to improvise when you have a laundry list of things to avoid. There are, however, several guiding principles improv comedy builds on (Improvise by Mick Napier summarises them well if you are looking for a comprehensive read).
As I was progressing from one class to another with the help of incredible instructors (thank you, Tom Hill and Taz VanRassel), I started to see that the principles of improv comedy are applicable far beyond the comedy itself.
Product management and improv
Public speaking and the ability to think on your feet are the most obvious skills product managers can learn from doing improv, and there is much more. Before talking about the specifics, I would like to quickly go over three broad categories of superpowers that can be harnessed by improv comedy.
Product management is all about managing uncertainty and thriving in ambiguity. The market conditions and the customer needs are always evolving and the strategic outcomes of most product decisions cannot be easily A/B tested. The ability to handle ambiguity is critical, and nothing helps with it better than being on the stage and having to develop a story without knowing what the next line will bring.
Building relationships and high-performing teams
Building great relationships with a broad range of stakeholders is a critical task for a product leader. At the core of this is the ability to listen, giving everyone a space to contribute, and willingness to build on each other’s ideas.
Innovation is a core mandate for a product manager. Whether we are talking about designing new features or entering and even creating new markets, the only way product leaders can enable innovation is by encouraging new ideas from any source, at any time, and without judgments.
This is very similar to improv where everyone in the ensemble gets to co-create a story, ideally without any one person dominating the scene. It is at the intersection of many different ideas that both innovation and a great story can happen.
With that, let’s discuss how doing improv comedy made me (and can make you) a better product leader.
The six lessons improv comedy taught me about product leadership
Improv requires people to be present and to listen to one another, rather than waiting for their turn to speak or trying to come up with something funny. To put it differently, improv teaches to listen to understand instead of listening to respond.
Listening isn’t limited to “hearing words”, it’s much broader and encapsulates several different dimensions:
Listening to emotion — every word comes with an emotion attached to it as everything we say reflects our feelings, our mindset, and our convictions. For product managers, listening for emotion can help to understand the team dynamics, the incentive systems at play, and other factors affecting people’s decision-making. For improv actors, listening to emotion is important to be in sync with other members of the ensemble and to respond with empathy.
Listening to physicality — with over 80% of the communication being non-verbal, listening to physicality can help product managers to uncover true emotions and better understand their stakeholders. In improv, facial expressions and gestures can help actors to better express their characters.
Listening for intent — is arguably the hardest skill to develop as it requires you to be in sync with another person, to understand their emotions, needs, and motivations. Listening for intent allows an improv comedian to see beyond what is said, and to react accordingly. There are times when “don’t open this door!” is an invitation to open the door, and “don’t cut the ribbon!” is a dare.
Product managers who can spot true motivations behind different forces at play will be able to champion the outcomes with much higher degrees of success than those who listen only to what is said. When a development team lead says that they cannot make a change, being able to see their emotions and armed with the understanding of where they are coming from, to come back with a clarifying question like “I am hearing the target date is a concern; what could be done to give your team what they need to succeed?” is powerful.
Improvisation completely reverses the “yes, but” and “no, and” thinking. It does it by embracing the “yes, and” approach and inviting people to build on each other’s ideas. “Yes, and” does not imply full alignment, nor does it have to; what’s important is that it opens the room for more ideas and welcomes more opportunities.
Saying “but” creates a barrier, and rejects the other person’s contribution; it is destructive and shuts down the group’s creativity. Let’s say you are having a conversation about increasing signups and an executive offers an idea that you think is not going to work. You can respond by explaining the “but” (“that’s a great idea but it’s not going to work because…”), or you can build on their idea with “yes, and” (“yes, and let’s run some numbers before we pull the trigger so that we can make sure it meets our desired return on investment”). In both cases, you are highlighting that additional information is needed, but the outcomes will be dramatically different.
When somebody offers an idea about doing something — support them and go for it together!
“Let’s walk like happy penguins looking for a piece of mozzarella cheese”
Supporting a team member in doing what they see as a good idea is important both in improv and in product management. It gives people a sense of ownership and a sense of community: “I would like to do X, and I have the full support of my peers who don’t just “agree” with me but who do it together”.
Think about the times when someone on the team had an idea and you dismissed it because it didn’t fully address the problem or because it had visible gaps. I have done this many times. For example, in one of my past roles, a company was looking to launch an initiative to increase customer signups. I had some well-reasoned doubts about the whole approach as I didn’t think it was going to be as impactful as some people on the team wanted it to be. So what did I do? Well, I was arguing that before we invest, we should do some analysis to understand if it’s realistic, etc.
I think I would have accomplished as much while keeping the levels of team’s enthusiasm by simply saying “Yes, let’s do it! And — let’s make sure we put success measures in place so that we can measure the impact”.
You can see the power of “yes, let’s!” combined with “yes, and…” — insist on the higher standards in a way that helps you build on the team’s ideas instead of highlighting what won’t work and why.
Make your partner look good
One of my instructors put it well: “When you’re on the stage, it’s always about the other person; it’s never about you”.
If you make your partner look good, he or she will make you look good as well. There are many ways to do this in improv — matching your partner instead of playing a conflict (it’s always easier to default to the conflict), giving them “gifts” (something that stimulates the character traits they have established), playing with people new to improv or people with different backgrounds, and many more.
At its essence, making your partner look good is about being willing to do what’s required to build a great scene, even when it involves putting your ideas aside and backing the vision of your partner instead.
This principle applies to product management as well: if you can push aside your personal need to be recognized and celebrated and put the team first, you will go a long way. Remember this principle — if something worked well — it’s the team’s achievement; if something fell apart — that’s your miss. Make your partner look good.
Know the who, the what, the when, and the why
Improv scenes where people cannot easily understand the who, the what, the when, and the why, are confusing to the audience. Actors need to make it easy to understand the relationship between people and establish a context for the scene.
In the same way, product managers need to provide the necessary context to make sure everyone is on the same page before starting to work on a new initiative, and even before asking people to contribute to a meeting.
The Why is arguably the most important piece. As Simon Sinek puts it,
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe. In fact, people will do the things that prove what they believe.”
Get out of your head
Each of us has an inner critic inside, and it’s a harsh one. We overthink. We doubt our ideas. We think that everyone around us has it all figured out while we are unsure about what to do. This is where the imposter syndrome comes from as well: what if I have just tricked others into thinking I can do X, while I actually can’t?
Talking about our ability to improvise, Dr. Charles Limb explains that:
“It’s interesting that children are less inhibited and, in many cases, more creative than adults, but they have that trained out of them as they get older. At first, they don’t have the capacity for self-monitoring and self-awareness, but then when they get self-conscious, they lose their ability to improvise.”
To get the ideas flowing, we say people need to “get out of their head”. Your brain will be telling you “you are not good at this, follow what’s known, stop what is uncomfortable”. It takes courage to accept that you are perfect for what you are about to do, and what you do is exactly what you should be doing. Something didn’t go the way it should have? Let it go. Get out of your head, and you will be a better improviser (and a better PM).
One improv principle I needed to unlearn
Following these lessons, I would like to also share one that I needed to unlearn.
Improv comedy asks you to “choose to know” — meaning you know as much as a person you are talking with, and because you know as much as them — you should generally avoid asking questions, especially open-ended ones. For improv, this principle works incredibly well, as it encourages comedians to take care of their partners and avoid putting them on the spot where they need to come up with answers while the person who asked the question just sits back and waits their turn to respond.
Product, however, is a different game.
In product management, asking great questions is akin to a superpower as it allows people and teams to dig beyond the surface, uncover a deeper understanding of things and generate insights critical for making great decisions. This is why product managers should invest time to master the art of asking powerful questions (becoming a certified life, career and executive coach has been a game-changer for my product career but that’s a story for another time).
Closing notes: life is an improv
Improv comedy is hard as it goes against the core principle we were taught to follow since elementary school: you have to be prepared. I remember there was a time when “being prepared” sounded like the only skill we have to master to succeed.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson
In improv, there isn’t much you can prepare, and nothing you can predict or rehearse in advance. To do a great scene, you need to actively listen, you have to be fully present, be in the moment. You need to co-create with your peers, give your team space to participate, and make them look good.
I am not saying that preparation isn’t at all important. It’s just that real life is more like improv than it is a well-rehearsed performance. Imagine the situation — you have prepared a presentation, planned exactly what to say slide by slide, and even predicted the questions you will be asked. Great job! Feeling well prepared, you get into the meeting, and an executive tells you “I went through the slides you sent in advance so I am familiar with the problem. Let’s fast forward to the solution and dive right in”. Bang. You need to improvise. I am sure a similar situation, in one form or another, has happened to you at least a dozen times.
Doing improv has helped me to become a better product and startup leader. I am hoping you will find it as valuable as I did.
So, let’s do a scene? (Yes, let’s!)
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Blind Tiger Comedy but as a fan and a grateful student, I am happy to say it is a fantastic comedy school. Tom, Taz, Amy, Caitlin, Sasha & the team — you are amazing!