es, and: Business Lessons I Learned as an Accidental Comic

About a year ago, I was looking ahead at my last year in university, and I wanted to try something different. The three years prior had been filled with optimization problems, discussions about the economics of rice and rhino horns, and accounting classes that — while interesting enough — did not feel like the complete arsenal I needed to take on the real world.

I stumbled across the UBC Improv Club’s booth and was offered a spot after a few auditions. I eventually realized how passionate the other members were and in many ways, it guilted me into wanting to learn how I can better contribute to my team’s performances. Soon enough, I was learning more business lessons from improv than my lectures. Here’s what I got:

Every team needs a Robot, a Ninja, and a Pirate
This was one of the first things I learned, and it remained my favourite throughout. In improv, a Robot is a person that’s great at following the patterns and beats of a performance. They know when to jump in, when to pull another performer in, and when to leave and cut a scene. Every scrum has a Scrum Master, and they help navigate the team’s structure and improve its productivity. Even at a wider scope, I have never worked at an organization without a structure, a plan, or a mission statement that they referred to and were grounded by. Improv really showed me the value of having a Robot when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong, or when everyone is excited by a scene and it turns into chaos.

There’s also Ninjas. I was especially bad at being a Ninja. These are team members that do the little things that make you shine. They recognize that a scene at a barbershop needs a few people mime-cutting hair in the background, and that a water that spills will eventually cause someone to slip. No matter what you are creating or doing, there are little things that could be optimized in the background, and the Ninja on your team will find them. Empower them to come forward to make note of these inefficiencies, and you have your employee of the year. Don’t, and they may never shine a light on them.

Finally, my favourite (at least to be when I am in scenes), is the Pirate. Pirates are loud and brash and can often claim centre stage. Yes — that does sounds annoying as hell. But at the same time, they can be the force that pushes your team forward and give the rest something to play off of. The key to a Pirate is to embrace it in doses. Of course, everyone is a mixture of the three, and figuring out what part of your skillset is needed at each point is the way to always contribute your most. Same goes for managing people and steering them towards their strengths.

A clear example of everyone doing their job and benefiting the team’s success.

Use familiar concepts to educate your users
My team performed for an audience of UBC students in Vancouver, BC. We all knew that, and knew what ideas we could pull from and work into scenes to make them more natural and familiar. This was especially helpful when we tried something different and needed to have a reference point that both us and the audience knew.

This is a great way to cozy-up to users and make the product or solution that you present them with more intuitive. This, however; could also get repetitive and reduce your differentiation. I’m not saying every product should be ‘Airbnb of books’ or the ‘Uber of fishing’, but using a segue for newer companies, products, and markets is a good way to ensure your point translates well across checkout counter.

Innovate, learn, iterate, and learn
I was never as painfully aware of everyone else’s reactions as I was on stage. Every laugh (or lack thereof) meant something, and helped us decide what our next move would be. When it’s your first time on the stage of the Scarfe 100 lecture room, you have a structure for your scenes, but no content, no pre-planned jokes, and definitely not a complete act. It’s a learning process that’s guided by both your team and your audience at each step.

In Agile , this is exactly what you build and continue to rebuild. Everything is alive, growing, and able to react. The key here is listening. I wasn’t a great listener then I was too good at it and became too obsessed with each snicker from the audience, and finally, balance. Customer feedback is a guide, but each customer has their needs and will try to drag you into a different direction. The average of their needs is about where I would strike.

“Yes, and …”
These two words summarize most people's knowledge of improv, and that's for a good reason. It's all about accepting the situation you are in, and adapting to it. Sometimes you're on an airplane and a shark pops up, so you become a world-renowned shark whisperer; other times you're at a Starbucks with no baristas so you take up the green apron one last time like John Wick and you serve all the upset customers. It's all about taking note of your current situation, finding its needs, and building upon it till that's filled and a meaningful scene emerges. This is what many great disruptors recognize and capitalize earlier than the rest of the field.

You’re never ready enough
Waiting on the sidelines was always frustrating to me. I wanted to join a scene and often had really good ideas, but did not feel as ready as I wanted to be. With time to, I was quicker to run onto the stage and felt more natural. This was something I revisited while learning about when to launch a minimal viable product. Many great projects fall to perfectionism where the team behind it continue to work on it for years before finally launching what ultimately feels underwhelming compared to the promise. The improv approach would be to jump in with a viable idea then to sort out the logistics.

This ties into the audience’s feedback. The first idea is good, but then you adjust and tweak it a bit and they are more and more impressed with the scene’s fluidity and adaptability to what they think are good comedic beats. Compare that to an improv player who stays on the side waiting for the absolute best opportunity. It may never come!

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Khaled Nassra

Khaled Nassra

Making sense of the world — one number at a time. @nassrakhaled everywhere