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Everything’s an offer: Using improvisation to do things differently

Season 2: Unlocking productivity

Robert Poynton Author & Associate Fellow at Oxford University

Everything’s an offer: Using improvisation to do things differently

Woman listening with rapt attention

Work isn’t a place you usually associate with improvisation. Which is a shame. In the real, messy world in which we live and work, the plan alone guarantees nothing (as soldiers say “the first casualty of war is the plan”). 

It is true that you need more than improvisation, but you won’t get anything done without some measure of it. Unfortunately, we are so used to the idea that work gets done by structured timescales and predetermined goals that we forget this.  

So, letting go of the standard goal-driven approach isn’t as left-field as it sounds. You don’t have to abandon plans and goals, but you shouldn’t be limited by them either. Learning to improvise will help shift energy and mood and unleash creativity to solve problems, generate new ideas and boost productivity. 

Everything’s an offer 

The art of improvisation at work means understanding that everything’s an offer–everything is at your disposal. As you become more willing and adept at flexing and adapting – skills that improvisation gives you – you’ll learn that it can help you make better use of what you have rather than wishing you had something else. 

Improv practices are simple and obvious. There is nothing complicated or difficult here. You can understand these ideas easily, learn them quickly and use them forever. You don’t have to work hard at it, just consciously and continuously return to the three basic ideas: notice more, let go, and use everything. 

There are no rules 

These ideas can all be used, in any combination and in any order, as you see fit. At any point, in any circumstances you can ask yourself, “What else could I notice? What might I let go of? What can I use?” 

This will help you to see that anything and everything can be seen as an offer (or “an opportunity”) if you have the presence of mind to look for it.

This is a truly creative step – look for the offer in any situation, however awkward or difficult and you will find it.

Your willingness to see that mistakes, problems, or errors can be flipped and used to your advantage will increase your creative and productive resolve. 

ROBERT POYNTON

A common situation could look like this: Before calling a work meeting, you might have a rough idea of how it will go – your agenda is just a starting point. But it may not go that way at all. 

Challenge assumptions 

By allowing people to break away from a rigid agenda, you get to notice more – is the right conversation happening? Is there enough input? Are the right people involved? Is this going too far one way? In turn, this encourages you to let go of any preconceived ideas about how that meeting should go. It will also give you the chance to consider or even use everything that was said or covered. Someone might make a small comment that turns out to unlock things. 

“Everything’s an offer” should serve as a reminder that you can frame things differently. You do not have to stick to the tried and trusted ways. Whatever your job entails, look for new methods. Speak to people not immediately involved to get their viewpoint. Pay attention in every situation for that off-hand comment that could be the nugget of gold you’re looking for. And constantly challenge and question assumptions.   

Improvisation for leadership 

Improvisational behaviour helps anyone lead, whatever their formal position. Paying attention to others, taking their contributions, and working with them or adding to them is highly motivating to other people. It can give you that magnetic ability to inspire and encourage others to do things they might not be willing or able to do ordinarily. 

On the improv stage, there is no designated leader. People step forward or back as the situation requires, according to their ability or perspective. The same is true at work – if a team is working well together. Everyone has the opportunity (and sometimes the obligation) to lead. Improvisation nurtures this collaborative environment where everyone can contribute, no one is a passenger, and no one is left behind. That makes for a highly productive team. 

Improvise to do things differently 

By improvising at work, you can navigate any situation that comes up. Past errors and mistakes become “offers” that you learn from, instead of looking for someone to blame. We are responsive, improvisational beings and that is just as true at work as anywhere else. For example, any good meeting (or conversation) requires people to go beyond the agenda, to listen and respond to each other and build on each other’s ideas. And that requires improvisation. 

If you want to get creative and productive, don’t think you have to plan and control more carefully and in more detail–allow yourself to improvise and do something differently and you will find you get the results you need far more easily than you might have imagined.

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