Duke MBA Business Improv Course

A year ago when I was still a first year Fuqua MBA student, I saw "Business Improv" when registering for classes and had no idea how it may be useful, so I went back to preparing for my summer internship interviews. Fast forward to the end of the summer, and I was given feedback from my internship's final presentation that I needed to improve my speaking skills.

Everyone has probably received this feedback, and I've gotten this more than once. What stood out this time was that the feedback gave a specific piece of advice that was actionable - to take an improv class. When class registration came around again in December of my second year in the Duke MBA, I immediately signed up for the Business Improv class offered at Fuqua.

What is Business Improv?

What is business improv, or otherwise known as managerial improv? I see it as a mentality - a mentality that embraces listening and encourages contribution. You can see how this mentality ultimately leads to a more collaborative and authentic relationship with the people around you.

The core tenant of improv is to say or think "yes, and...", as opposed to just "yes", "yes, but..." or even "no, but". With "yes, and..." you are affirming that your brain has accepted the information that someone has given you, and you are now adding to it.

How Business Improv Helps

How often have you caught yourself not listening to the person who is speaking to you? I for one find myself often mentally spacing out and have to ask them to repeat something. Another mistake I do is to start thinking about a response when someone else is speaking.

I know I'm not alone - this is quite common in the age of mobile devices and the perpetual multitasking it has brought into our lives. I'm also often thinking about my next meeting or an issue that I need to deal with when in the presence of others. This is called not being present and is something that mindfulness is trying to help us with.

However, I find that business improv exercises have been a very practical way to train my brain into staying engaged. That's because by having a "yes, and..." attitude, you have to be actively listening.

My Business Improv Learnings

When interviewing with companies during the Duke MBA, I have always said that I had great listening skills. After stumbling through the first improv exercises, I realized that I was good at listening, but wasn't actually good at hearing.

I started recalling all the arguments I experienced in team settings and in my personal life, and realized this was in fact a systemic problem with my communication skills (who hasn't argued with their significant other?).

It became apparent that while I did have the communication skills to be a decent contributor, they were not at the level that could allow me to be a good leader.

Business improv isn't just about communication, however. It's also about facilitating a collaborative team environment and unleashing creativity. In the most simplest terms, I see business improv as removing ineffeciencies between people that cause tension, disagreement, and wasted energy.

At the beginning of each day, my Fuqua MBA improv class did warm up exercises and started off by building trust. Once trust is established, we start challenging ourselves to be present, creative and supportive of each other. There was a lot of overlap in the themes that came out of these exercises, but they were reinforced into my brain's "muscle memory" throughout the week.

A bit more on supporting each other. In the Duke MBA, we pride ourselves on the value of supportive ambition and we actively support our team members. However, after going through a few improv exercises, I realized that I needed to be better at supporting my team even when it made me feel vulnerable. If you're shy like me, you don't really like singing or dancing in public. During those exercises, we had to step into the spotlight and support our team mates when they needed help by singing or dancing. I hesitated at first, but quickly realized what I needed to do.

This underscores that while on the surface, there's a lot of singing and dancing and crazy stuff in improv, but at its core it's teaching us fundamental teamwork techniques. You'll never catch me singing or dancing on stage, but you will see me get out of my comfort zone to help a team mate.

Why Business Improv is Important

After experiencing the business world through the Fuqua MBA program, I've come to realize that human relationships are the core to a successful career and business. Sure, we live in an increasingly technical and analytical world, but until robots take over everything, humans are going to be interacting with each other to build and create.

Furthermore, the business world is changing at an alarming rate given how technology has re-shaped our lives. Current and future leaders must genuinely be adaptable and able to respond to rapid and unexpected changes in their assumptions.

Through Business Improv, Students Learn the Following

1) How to facilitate a collaborative environment, build trust and unleash creativity.

2) Develop active listening skills and learn to have a "yes, and..." mentality that enhances communication and relationships.

3) Practice getting out of your comfort zone, or I suppose enlarging your comfort zone. By being comfortable with a changing situation, you can be more effective in meetings, presentations or in everyday life when something unexpected happens.

For folks who have not yet experienced improv, I'd highly recommend signing up for a business improv class at your local university or theater.

Each year, Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improv, leads a cohort of instructors/performers to Fuqua to train MBA students. Bob's company, Business Improv, has taught at leading business schools and Fortune 500 companies. Visit their site to learn more.


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