How Can Theater Improv Skills Impact Organizational Change?

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Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

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Suite 3500
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376

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How Can Theater Improv Skills Impact Organizational Change?

By Ed Finkel

Comedic and theatrical improvisation skills are important tools for learning and organizational change, according to a virtual panel of alumni from Northwestern University’s Master’s of Learning and Organization Change (MSLOC) program, who spoke to about 80 students and fellow alumni as part of a MSLOC 20th anniversary celebration.

“Improv skills and the lessons they foster help with everything you need to do to change organizations,” said Kimberly Scott, assistant professor and director of MSLOC, who moderated the panel.

“Improv works because there are principles,” Scott said. “There are rules. You’re working with a group at a large company, trying to help people think about possibilities, build connections, and solve difficult problems, pivoting in the moment. These are things participants understand, and that helps them to work together.”

MSLOC offers an alternative to MBA programs and master's programs in organizational development, organizational behavior, industrial/organizational psychology, human resource development or similar graduate programs. The center of MSLOC’s attention is not the business or enterprise but the people within the enterprise.

Alumnus Michael Kessler (MS18, SoC09), senior knowledge analyst – organization design at Boston Consulting Group, said improv training taught him to better appreciate:

  • the power unlocked when leaders value relationships,
  • the process of learning to analyze what you and your stakeholders each want,
  • the obstacles that stand in the way of you and your stakeholders getting what you each want, and
  • the tactics you can employ to overcome those obstacles.

“As an organizational change practitioner and a theater practitioner, it’s the same types of analyses,” he said. Alumna Kate Cohen (MS17), leadership development manager at Deloitte Global, uses the principles of improvisation with her internal clients. “Improvisation is based on active listening and authentic response,” she said. “I do a lot of program design, facilitation, and development of leadership capabilities. Pretty much every improvisation skill is relevant in that area.”

The concept of wholeheartedness is key to improvised collaborations, said alumna Megan Redfearn (MS11), director, faculty support and doctoral student affairs at SESP. “Especially [when] thinking about equity and inclusion, and inviting people to bring their full self to the space where we’re connecting, and giving it structure to do that,” she said, “it’s a great way to build trust quickly, especially on virtual teams, where you only have a little while to build that trust.”

The alumni panel led the virtual participants through several classic exercises so they could try improv concepts themselves. In one, they were asked to respond to each other with statements including the phrases “yes, and,” and then later, “yes, but.” The participants observed how “yes, and” conversations are much more apt to lead to collaboration, while “yes, but” causes people to talk past one another.  

When infusing such concepts into their own organizations, Cohen suggested that it’s not necessary to overtly connect the exercises to theatrical improv. “A lot of times, you’ll find immediate resistance to that,” she said, but the concepts themselves usually win people over. “The demonstration of someone coming in with that mindset, and that curiosity to listen to them, and explore with them, and collaborate with them—maybe it isn’t enough to change it all overnight. But it’s enough to start moving the needle a little bit on their buy-in.”

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MSLOC offers an alternative to MBA programs and master's programs in organizational development, organizational behavior, industrial/organizational psychology, human resource development or similar graduate programs. The center of MSLOC’s attention is not the business or enterprise but the people within the enterprise.

Contact Us

Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

1800 Sherman Avenue
Suite 3500
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376

MSLOC Staff In-Person Office Hours - Monday - Thursday 9:30 am - 4:30 pm

MSLOC Staff Remote Office Hours - Friday 9:30 am - 4:30 pm

Email: msloc@northwestern.edu