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Q&A on the Book The Improv Mindset

Key Takeaways

  • The brain is wired to avoid risk at all costs - paradoxically, compelling new ideas and products requires taking risks.
  • Quickly responding to change requires improving how your brain responds to ambiguity and uncertainty.
  • Organizational creativity is the hallmark of successful teams and organizations.
  • Business leaders should provide mechanisms and incentives to celebrate success AND failure.
  • The rules of improv provide the tools for increasing individual creativity, dynamically improving team performance, and creating a corporate culture of innovation. 

The book The Improv Mindset by Bruce and Gail Montgomery provides the framework, activities, case stories, and data to help you apply improv in a business context. They show how you can deal with uncertainty by changing how your brain responds to change, as well as provide methods to systematically improve individual, team, and organization performance by leveraging the core principles of improv.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of The Improv Mindset.

InfoQ interviewed Bruce and Gail Montgomery about the improv mindset, why creativity matters for companies, the characteristics of perfect teams, applying improv to enable creative collaboration in teams and fostering organizational creativity, dealing with failure, agile leadership and what leaders can do to make people feel more comfortable with change and ambiguity, and how to apply The Improv Mindset 4i Methodology.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Bruce Montgomery: Gail and I took our first improv class in 2005 and quickly formed an improv troupe (Evergreen Players improv Comedy or "EPiC") and started performing in front of crowds. I absolutely LOVED improv. When I went to get my MBA at the University of Denver in 2012, one of the questions that kept coming up in my entrepreneurial track was, "What do you like to do? How can you turn that into a job?" As I looked at everything that I’ve done in my life (professional theatre actor, computer trainer, management consultant, senior leader of an IT organization), I realized that improv was at the top of the list - and I wondered, "Is there is some way that I can take my business experience and apply improv into that context?" Our company, ExperienceYes, was born.

I must say that I wasn’t as interested in understanding how good of a communication tool improv is and how it makes you a better listener (it does both, by the way). I was more fascinated by the neuroscience behind it all - what happens in the brain when you improvise? As I started my research to answer that question, I almost immediately stumbled upon the work of Dr. Charles Limb (then out of Johns Hopkins University) where he studied jazz musicians under functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRI). He and his researchers found that jazz improvisers are able to suppress the part of their brain that is focused on assessing and reacting to risk when they improvised.

I made the connection that this also happens in the brains of comedic improvisers - it’s how we can approach a crazy scene or a suggestion without fear and just leap into doing something, not knowing how it will end.

The book was born out of this research, including our own participation with Dr. Charles Limb (now at the University of San Francisco) where he studied the brains of comedic improvisers while improvising.

Gail Montgomery: Data. Pure and simple. It became our 1.2 pound business card and gave us a platform to share real data about improv and the brain, which in turn supported the work we were doing. So, with that in mind, and the idea that books can provide instant credibility for many areas of business, we got down to researching, writing and putting it together.

We started talking about how we could integrate the fundamental methodologies of improv into business through leaders, teams and culture, and we knew that we had something different than other consulting companies. The entire concept of addressing the brain by using improv as a means of disrupting evolutionary behaviors in business is new. We know of no other organization that is approaching companies with this type of thinking.

As we were developing content and networking with organizations to develop our sales pipeline, we immediately realized that the leaders we were speaking to wanted DATA. They wanted proof that what we were proposing was actually going to provide an ROI to them. This was difficult to do, because no one was out there doing what we were talking about, and we were just getting started. The book helped us get our message straight and further support the work we wanted to do.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Bruce Montgomery: The book is intended really for anyone who wants to improve their tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty (which seems to be especially important in these days of COVID-19). It’s funny - we find in our work that we end up working with a lot of engineers - software, mechanical, electrical. And to be honest, they’re terrified of the thought that they are going to "have to do improv." The book really focuses on the brain as a system, and as such if you understand how that system WORKS, you can CHANGE that system. We have all sorts of exercises and examples where the information is presented in the context of the business world.

Gail Montgomery: For those in business who are struggling with uncertainty, encountering and dealing with change, and getting their teams to embrace failure. For leaders ready to jumpstart their team’s creativity, problem solving techniques and emotional intelligence. For those visionaries who are ready to put action into developing and inspiring people in their organizations to smash the box and love the deep end.

InfoQ: How would you define the improv mindset?

Gail Montgomery: A mindset that is born out of the practiced and dedicated, following the core principles of improv:

  • Yes, AND…
  • Listen with the intent to SERVE
  • Support your teammates AT ALL COSTS
  • Trust your instincts

Consistent engagement and following these "rules" eases reactions to ambiguity and yields a deeper understanding of individual, team and company dynamics, culture and relationships.

Bruce Montgomery: The Improv Mindset is the practiced ability to react and recover to change quickly. The human brain is wired to want things consistent - there’s a whole part of the brain called the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DL-PFC) that is devoted to assessing and avoiding risk! By learning how to modulate and suppress the reaction of the DL-PFC, you’ll be able to move to new and innovative ideas faster.

InfoQ: Why does creativity matter for companies?

Bruce Montgomery: Hah! Well, arguably, creativity is THE thing that sets companies apart. There was a study done in 2014 around the value of creative companies (The Creative Dividend, by Forrester Consulting). When we think of creative companies we think of places like Apple, Google, Virgin… The study found that a "creative" company has more market share, higher dividend returns, and happier employees.

Usually, when we say something like this, people will respond with, "Yeah, well, my company is no Apple ... we just make widgets." Yes, and making room for creativity and having creativity as part of the CULTURE of an organization is what’s important. Look at a company like Handelsbanken (a banking institution in the northern part of western Europe). They survived (and even thrived) the economic downturn of 2008 because they were able to creatively respond to market conditions by flattening their decision-making process and putting decisions into the hands of the employees closest to their customers.

Don’t think of creativity as "everyone gets to wear shorts to work and we have this open office concept." Think of it as the foundation for how your organization thinks, makes decisions, and responds to change. With that lens, creativity is the life force of a company.

Gail Montgomery: It is the difference between open for business and shutting down. Needs change, products change, regulatory boundaries change, and people change. That constant of change makes creativity a requirement to ensure your company is ready for change.

With the increase of AI and machine learning, and businesses being forced to adapt to new technologies, shifting world priorities, customer needs and things like pandemics, there is ALWAYS a need for creativity. We would argue that having a culture of creativity allows for increased agility in constantly changing markets, regardless of industry.

And, to take it a step further, when your teams regularly practice creativity through experiential and immersive activities, their ability to solve problems, to weather change and to keep progressing into the next business revolution is significantly more consistent and successful.

InfoQ: What are the characteristics of perfect teams?

Gail Montgomery: When teams have a shared language, take time to review past failures, learn how to iterate and adapt to change, and engage in good followership, this creates the best teams. Sports teams are our favorite go-to comparison. They are ALWAYS practicing. They look at footage from games; identifying and calling out any missteps and errors. They know the rules of the game, and could slip into other teams with ease and grace.

Sports teams have each other’s back, work toward a common goal, and have clear direction. They are in the position of having to improv ALL of the time. Many planned plays aren’t ever executed, and they must figure things out on the fly. THIS is what makes for a great team.

Bruce Montgomery: Obviously, "perfect" is difficult to get to, though we can readily identify behaviors that get you there - things like: listen to one another, have a common goal, strive for success, celebrate failure, have rules of engagement on how they operate, and PRACTICE being a team.

Additionally, great teams LAUGH together, which is one of our more important social bonding methods. This is why we love improv so much - improvisers practice all of these things, over and over again. And that is because we are focused on making the other improviser look good (that is, supporting our teammate at all costs). And what happens when someone fails at improv? We laugh. We laugh a lot.

There’s one other benefit to having practiced these rules together: we can go anywhere in the world and drop into an improv team. What if your employees could drop in and out of a team and not have to worry about establishing trust and shared language? Think of how much faster that team would get to PERFORMING!

InfoQ: How can we apply improv to enable creative collaboration in teams?

Bruce Montgomery: The rules of improv provide the foundation for creative collaboration - specifically with the concept of "Yes, and …" Take a second and think of all of the times you say the word "no" in a day. Include all of the times you say things like, "Yes, but …," "However," "Still …," "Maybe." We say "no" in LOTS of different ways.

Now count the number of times you say "yes." Chances are you say "no" many more times than you say "yes" (and if you have kids, that number is even higher!) Why IS that? Well, we come back to the neuroscience of it all and to that little part of the brain that is constantly assessing risk, the DL-PFC. It’s WIRED to say "no," because if you say "yes" to something you are taking a risk. Plain and simple.

What’s funny to us is that with collaboration, true collaboration, you have to give and take ideas. You have to SAY YES. But this is difficult - it’s much easier to say "no" and keep doing what we’ve always done.

Compound that with what happens in your brain when you are on the receiving end of hearing the word "no." Your brain shuts down and it takes you more than 60% longer to return back to efficiency. Just by tweaking your language and using "Yes, and …" you dynamically change the way the brain reacts, improving both individual and team performance.

Gail Montgomery: Exactly what Bruce said. And, improv teams (like sports teams) are always engaging in new things, never aware of what the outcome is, thinking and acting on their feet, and embracing failure quickly to iterate and move forward. The four principles we share and believe in can build the foundation, yes. It’s the active daily engagement in using that foundation for all conversations, product or process development, and internal and external people relationships that truly affects change and impacts creativity. To be creative, one must stay OPEN to possibilities. Yes, AND… absolutely supports this.

As a final note, creativity thrives in an environment that is free from judgment, unattached to outcomes, and void of ego. This is the very essence of improv.

InfoQ: How can we practice "Yes, and ..."?

Gail Montgomery: Changing habits takes time. It starts with the recognition of current behavior. Pay attention to when you’re saying "no" or "but". See how to change that to "Yes, AND…" Reserve judgment and stay open to possibilities by allowing for time after others speak or offer suggestions to process what has been said. Give yourself that cushion of time to allow for you to modify habitual remarks, comments or responses.

Think of "Yes, AND…" as a way for you to establish a place of agreement or understanding with someone, basically as if you were saying, "I hear what you are saying, AND…" Finally, engage an accountability partner to help you a) recognize and call out when you fall back into old habits, b) celebrate when you succeed, and c) join you on your journey to shifting your thinking.

Bruce Montgomery: One of the most important things you can do is identify when you say "no" and follow that up by looking for patterns related to WHY. For example, when you find your immediate response to something is "no", stop yourself and analyze the response. What is threatening about that idea that you are saying "no" to? Does it relate to something consistent? Is there a way you can turn it to a "Yes, and…," without sacrificing something? You have to PRACTICE by DOING - and that means simply saying "Yes, and…" more.

We often hear, "Well, you can’t say ‘yes’ to EVERYTHING." And, the people who say that are right. There’s an idea that will put you out of business? Say "no" to that. Do something illegal? Say "no" to that, too. The point is that by focusing on your emotional intelligence steeped in your own personal reflection and self awareness, you will begin to identify more opportunities to say "Yes, and…"

InfoQ: What can we do to foster organizational creativity?

Bruce Montgomery: The first thing to do is to acknowledge that creativity is important - from individuals, to teams, to corporate culture - and this is best if it’s done from the top of the organization down. Senior leadership has to provide the commitment and space for organizational creativity.

The second thing is to provide incentives for creative work and output. Tech organizations like Google and Apple are famous for ensuring that employees are given 20% of their time to devote to something of the employee’s interest. We love the story of Gore-Tex - like other companies, they provide 20% of their work time as space for team members to look at solving problems of their own interest. One team member, a musician, wondered if they could apply some of their tech to guitar strings. He formed a team and they started exploring - and soon created the best-selling guitar string out there.

The third thing to do is to get the organization comfortable with FAILURE.

Gail Montgomery: I completely agree with Bruce on all of his points. I would take his "get the organization comfortable with FAILURE" comment to another level. Comfort can be misleading. Look, nobody is out there aiming for failure. They are aiming for success. And, success is born OUT OF that failure. To us, comfort really means acceptance. Accept it, understand what bombed, and move on to the next iteration. As I mentioned before, sports teams analyze their film. They analyze other teams’ film as well. They tease each other about missing a shot or pass, laugh and move on to figuring out how to fix it the next time.

Some companies have a FAILURE WALL in their offices. Celebrating that Jane Smith discovered how NOT to do this or that. Poking fun and giving awards is all part of it. If people understand that they can take risks and get accolades for giving it their all, they are incredibly more likely to take chances and BE creative.

InfoQ: How should we deal with failure?

Gail Montgomery: There is a lot of work that needs to be done to de-stigmatize the word itself. Everyone is terrified of "failure." And we’ve created a culture where failure is not tolerated. Yet, we KNOW that we learn when we fail - it really is one more step toward success. Having the courage (or having leaders who have the courage) to acknowledge failure is a huge part of it. Don’t sweep failure under the rug. Encourage your teams to OWN the misstep. And that really does feed back into the "Support your teammates at all costs" concept. If you are using terms like "WE" and not "ME," it’s everyone’s to own and everyone will grow from it.

Bruce Montgomery: Failure is tricky. Our culture is geared towards avoiding failure, yet failure is one of the most important contributors to good learning and success. We need to change the way that we look at failure. When speaking of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison famously said, "I didn’t fail. I found 10,000 ways that won’t work."

Let’s take a common example - a toddler. Imagine if every time a toddler fell as they were learning how to walk, you told them that they couldn’t fall any more, that there would be adverse consequences every time they fell, that they’d be trapped in a post-mortem review. That toddler would be one giant, anxiety-ridden mess, afraid to get up and take a chance going down the stairs.

We DON’T do that with toddlers, do we? Instead, we instinctively know that in order for a toddler to learn, we have to give them opportunities to walk, opportunities to fall, and we don’t chastise them when they do. Instead, we laugh, we clap, and we lift them back up.

For whatever reason, we don’t do this in business. And, we would argue that we HAVE to. You can do small things that will help you to embrace and celebrate failure through The Improv Mindset.

InfoQ: How do you define agile leadership?

Bruce Montgomery: Agile leadership is the process for accepting new ideas, acting on those ideas, and celebrating failure. If you think about it from the perspective of Agile software development or the Agile Manifesto, "Welcome changing requirements" fits right in line with this concept.

Additionally, agile leaders understand their ROLE in the creative process. In improv there are commonly three roles:

  • Initiator - the person who takes a risk and steps out with an idea
  • Supporter - the person who steps out to support the Initiator and supports them at all costs
  • Back Foot - this is the rest of the team waiting on the sidelines, listening for what the scene needs. For example, if a scene takes place in a forest, several of the other players might step out to be trees. If a scene takes place at State Fair for a World’s Largest Watermelon, then a team member might step out to be the watermelon.

Unfortunately, when we think of "Leadership" we often equate it with the person making all of the decisions. Command and control. An agile leader will move through all three roles, and most importantly settle in as a Back Foot, waiting to clear roadblocks when necessary.

Gail Montgomery: Bruce nailed it. The only thing I would add is FOLLOWERSHIP into the toolbox of all leaders, and for that matter, teams. Bruce’s explanation of the triangle of Initiator, Backfoot and Supporter are all aspects of how to nurture followership. This idea is relatively new, and sparks some interesting debates among teams we speak to. To follow often brings up the connotation of weakness, of not contributing, of just getting in line and being a robot. This simply isn’t true. To lead, and lead well, you need to surround yourself with smart and capable teams, help to illuminate the path towards specific goals, and understand when to let your team GO. That is a large part of followership, and keeps leaders agile.

InfoQ: What can leaders do to make people feel more comfortable with change and ambiguity?

Gail Montgomery: I am certain Bruce will go straight to the tangible activities on this, so I will do what I do best and talk about the people. In my mind, everything starts with people.

Leaders should start with communicating what is happening. Things like new technology, reorgs and reductions in force, new leadership, mergers, and so on can cause intense emotional discord. Leaders MUST address that elephant. Empathy goes a long way in both assuaging fear and inspiring action. Leaders have no choice in this business climate but to increase their emotional intelligence and create space for these conversations.

Next, I would say having a strong change management plan and team to execute that plan is key to the success of any change initiative. These types of things often fail because the stakeholders see no real need for them and therefore the investment is only lip service.

Engage your "naysayers", gatekeepers and key influencers to be PART of the change. When the team feels included, they have accountability. When they have accountability, they have the skin in the game to get it done.

Bruce Montgomery: The only way to be more comfortable with change and ambiguity is to put yourself into changing and ambiguous situations. You have to PRACTICE in order to get better at it. And you can start doing this with very small exercises that can immediately begin affecting your brain. We list a 30-day Brain Training program at the end of The Improv Mindset that includes things like:

  • Use your non-dominant hand for common tasks - showering, making breakfast, etc.
  • Pick something in your office and think of as many things that you can do with it over 2 minutes. For example, how many different ways can you use a paperclip? Don’t be limited by its size or the material it’s made out of. You need to think more like a kindergartner!
  • Take a picture off your cell phone and try to draw it. Now flip the image so that it’s upside down and try again.

InfoQ: What does the improv mindset 4i methodology look like and how can we apply it?

Bruce Montgomery: There are four components to The Improv Mindset 4I methodology - Improv, Identify, Imagine, Implement. Not surprisingly, everything in this methodology is built around Improv as the foundation. You and your teams need to know and have practiced the rules of improv (Yes, and…, Listen with the Intent to Serve, Support Your Teammates AT ALL COSTS, Trust Your Instincts). You need to practice how to apply these within the context of business  and then within the context of creating something new, as well as FAIL TOGETHER.

Next, identify problems or challenges that exist that need to be solved. The problems might be something tactical, like, "We need the dev team to communicate more effectively with the product owners". Or the challenge may be something bigger, like, "What is the most important feature we can add to our product?" or, "What should our new product be?" Use a facilitator, collect data, and rank the ideas. Then pick the one that people are most excited about.  

Third, think of as many different ways that you can solve the problem. Be as creative as possible! No boundaries, no limits. Then hone in on the solutions that get the team the most excited (notice a theme here?).

Finally, GET TO WORK. Solve the problem with a minimum viable product (MVP), then test it. Learn. Fail. And try again by starting over at the beginning!

Gail Montgomery: Bruce has described the components and what it looks like to apply it. I would only add that we believe teams should be using this approach ALL of the time, not just when they have a problem to solve. That’s certainly the main use, and it is what it’s intended for. Ideally, companies would have several cross-functional teams who a) understand the methodology, b) are allotted time to engage in this work, and c) are supported to do so by executive leadership.

About the Book Authors

Gail Montgomery is CEO and founder of ExperienceYes, an innovation company that utilizes the core methodologies of improv to help companies get to solutions faster, help leaders and teams to work more efficiently and effectively, develop a foundation for a strong culture, and increase emotional intelligence. Co-author of The Improv Mindset, she is passionate about partnering with companies in their ongoing efforts to align their culture with their mission, vision and values, and strives to maintain a sense of fun, innovation and buy-in with employees in all industries.

With over 20 years of IT and management consulting experience, Bruce Montgomery has worked with some of the most exciting clients out there - NHL, NFL, NASCAR, and The Shubert Organization, to name a few. As president of ExperienceYes, he is passionate about business-driven creativity and innovation, focusing on driving adoption through experiential and immersive engagements. Co-author of The Improv Mindset, he is involved with world-renowned researchers such as Charles Limb to better understand the inner workings of the brain while performing creative acts, and Ellen Langer to determine the best methods for increasing productivity through creativity.



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