Improv for business and giving up control

The exercise was simple enough: In a group of four, tell a story one word at a time with the title, “Colin gets a promotion.”

Our group went a little like this:


Off to a good start, I thought. We’ll get the hang of this pretty quickly.


I raised my eyebrows at the guy across the circle. “Birthday?” I thought we were telling a story about a promotion. I used all of the internal energy I could muster to telepath a reminder to him: This is a work story, remember? Get with the program.

The group continued. There was still time to recover.


I shot the woman to my left a look of death. You took “exciting” and you added in “legos”?! What gives? Again… what is happening here? This story was going completely off the rails. I decided to start a new sentence to try to bring the group back.

“PROMOTIONS” I said, with a bit more emphasis than was likely appreciated.
“More” I said, then held my breath and waited. Say money, say money, say money, I tried to mind read to the guy on my right.

“Legos!” He concluded, with a smile.

That’s it, I decided. This story is over. We’re too far gone now. And somehow I kept getting stuck with “filler” words, required to have the sentence make sense but completely unable to effect change on the result. What a racket.

By the end of our two-minute exercise, I was pretty unimpressed with our group’s progress. I wanted a redo.

How did that go for you?” asked our facilitator.

“Well,” I said, “Our group completely deviated from the intended theme and it stressed me out that we didn’t stick with the plan.”

She gave me a look that I probably deserved.

“I mean…” she said, “That’s kind of the point.”

I waited a beat. She continued.

“I never said you had to stick with that theme. It was just something to get you started.”

I narrowed my eyes and growled internally to myself, in a gesture not dissimilar to how a cat might react right after you cut its claws. Even though your cat might intellectually know it’s nicer to have shorter claws and not get stuck on clothes and furniture all the time, it doesn’t mean the cat needs to enjoy the trimming process. In fact, it’s likely that the cat will make your life as hellish as possible during that forced, three-minute manicure, lashing about so much that it hurts itself (and you) in the process.

I took a look around the room and back at my group, then took a bathroom break in protest to think it over a bit more.

Feel familiar? Asked that inner voice that I hate (but I know is often right). Don’t be like a cat. This is quite literally the lowest stakes situation in the world. This story makes no sense no matter how you tell it. Why does retaining control matter so much to you? Wouldn’t it have been better for the group if you all just went with the legos theme a bit more?

Which, of course, exactly the point. If you’re playing with a team, you have to go with the flow. Sometimes plans are important. But other times, they are only intended to help you get started. So how do you know where to draw the line, what to stick with, and what to let evolve and adapt in real time?

I think I might need to play another few rounds of this game to know for sure.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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