Startup Advice

“Yes, and… “: Seven improv-inspired strategies that will boost your startup

Julie Trell /

There’s never a dull moment when you’re running a startup. Particularly in the early days, there is plenty of opportunity to be nimble, think on your feet and pivot when necessary.

Changing strategy can be scary, as there is a lot of risk involved in making an informed decision and seeing it through. When things are going sideways, people will tell you to meditate and take time for yourself. I say, yes — and play. Improvisation is a great way to activate playful meditation and the skills it takes to improvise can be hugely helpful when making a big business decision.

I’ve listed out seven principles of improv, all of which have the potential to help you improve your ability to run your startup. While these are written for the performer on the stage, I’ve taken the liberty of adding what it would look like should you apply it to your startup.

Keep these in your back pocket for the next time you need to think creatively and make future-forming decisions.

1. Listen actively

As simple as this seems, this is probably one of the most difficult skills to master. Get out of your own head. Let go of your agenda and be open.

Listening to others will free you from having to think of what you are going to say ahead of time. Listen to receive what’s being offered. You can more easily agree and find the ‘yes, and… ‘. Also, your personal stock will go up significantly when your team knows they are being heard.

2. Find agreement (‘yes, and… ‘)

Assuming you have listened actively, you will be able to agree with what was said and add information. Agreement is what allows a meeting or discussion to progress. Build on what you hear or receive. Connect and move forward. Find the and. Make sure you’re adding to the discussion. Your input is worthwhile. Because someone on your team is going to ‘yes, and… ‘ your comment and move the idea forward.

By agreeing and moving forward, you will also be able to suspend judgment. Stay present and evaluate later. Saying ‘yes, but’ is a blocker. Keep this in mind when you’re responding to someone in a conversation or crafting email responses.

3. Don’t block or deny

One of the quickest ways to destroy a meeting or team morale is by blocking colleagues by not listening or simply denying.

Denial is the number one reason most improv scenes go bad. Any time you refuse an offer made by your partner your scene will almost instantly come to a grinding halt.

Here’s an example.

Player A: ‘Hi, Jane, so glad you could join me at the beach today.’

Player B: ‘We’re not at the beach, we’re on the top of a cold mountain, and my name is Alex.’

We’ve all been in meetings where the above scenario has occurred.

Employee A: ‘I’ve been doing some research on customer experience and while the feedback is positive, we can increase it by creating more communication channels.’

Employee B: ‘No, that’s a terrible idea. No-one wants to hear more from our customers.’

What happens next? End scene. Because no-one likes to be blocked and no one likes a bully.

4. Be specific

Establishing the who, what and where of the scene (meeting) is essential to having a great scene (discussion). It helps to make sure everyone is on the same page — the players, the audience, your team members, manager or customers. 

I know we’ve all been in meetings or conversations where we’re afraid to ask these basic questions for fear of looking stupid. How many TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are used in meetings that you have never heard of? Often the speaker assumes everyone she’s speaking to knows the who, what, and where, when in fact, often the majority of people in the room have no idea what they are talking about.

Set the stage (meeting) accordingly with details.

5. Let go and expect the unexpected

Let go of your agenda. Don’t try to micro-manage the scene and see what happens. Throwing in multiple people into a scene (or a meeting) where everybody contributes to the success of that scene (discussion) means one thing for certain: things will go differently than you think they will.

This scenario is bad news for control freaks (and chances are, if you’re human and a startup founder, you’re at least a little bit controlling). But the good news is this: scenes (meetings, conversations) are never limited to what you can come up with on your own.

Let’s say you’re on stage and in your head you see yourself lounging in a flattering bikini on a hot day at the beach with an ice-cold margarita in your hand. However, your partner opens the scene first and says: ‘Brrr, it’s so cold on the top of Mt Everest even while wearing all this silly Eskimo gear. Here, have a hot chocolate.’

With this unexpected initiation (see principle four) you have a few options: lament the loss of your Tony Award-winning bikini-margarita scene; get over it quickly and start making the Eskimo attire work; or, passive-aggressively make everyone on your team feel like crap because you’re the misunderstood genius.

I strongly recommend taking the second option. Not only will it lighten up those around you and give them a reason to trust you, but it will also make you a more flexible person. And it will remind you to expect the unexpected. You may even learn to like it.

6. Make your partner look brilliant

Focus outward. Build on what they say. It’s not about you. The better you make your team look, the better the project is going to be and, as a direct result, the better you are going to look (another way to increase everyone’s personal stock).

Remember, go with the hot chocolate on the top of the mountain. While you may be cold, you’ll be a team player (and it never hurts to ‘yes, and… ‘ some whisky to that hot chocolate).

Running a business is always about relationships, not things or what you are doing. Make your meetings and projects focus on fostering relationships. It’s not about you, it’s about what you’re creating together. Leave your ego at the door.

7. Accept and celebrate failure

Often in improv, mistakes can lead to big unexpected laughs. In the office, it allows for a safe place to take risks and can provide authentic learning opportunities (read: growth).

When you fail, there’s a physiological response — you put your head down, scrunch up your eyebrows, hunch your shoulders — all which leads to more stress, anxiety and stagnation. What would you feel like if you let go and physically raise up your arms and cheer your failure? It would be much easier and quicker to move on from your failure with a smile. 

Next time something goes sideways, I challenge you to throw up your hands, smile and shout ‘ta-da’ like that circus acrobat who just fell from the trapeze. Notice how you feel!

Applying the principles of improv is another way of being in the moment, and comfortably so. If the word ‘improv’ elicits panic or anxiety about being put on the spot, think about it as simply a tool to help you think on your feet and be prepared for the unexpected in an unscripted way.

Isn’t that what startup life is all about?

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Julie Trell

Julie Trell is Australia country lead for SheEO and global head of muru-D. She is also a judge for the 2019 Telstra Business Awards.