We’ll have to improvise our way out of this, says Max Dickins, in his latest book Improvise, on how to react to the pandemic
Minutes after Boris Johnson had announced the UK lockdown on that cold evening in March, I got on the phone with my business partner. We had of-course discussed the trouble this pesky virus might cause, but our worst-case scenario had extended to three months of disruption. It had now dawned on us that this was a once in a generation crisis that would be with us for six months, minimum. And it represented an existential threat to the business we had built over the past 15 years.
Hoopla! is an improvisation training company and theatre. We teach thousands of people improv skills every year in face-to-face courses, put on shows in our London comedy club six nights a week, and work with corporate clients all over the world in conference keynotes and interactive workshops. In short, Covid seemed perfectly designed to destroy us. On the phone that evening we spoke in stark terms: we have to reinvent ourselves or we will die. And we need to do it almost overnight.
Luckily, we had been training for this moment our whole lives. Your association with improvisation is probably the off-the-cuff comedy show Whose Line is it Anyway? Off-stage, however, improvisation might be best described as the art of acting without a plan (or when your plan has been ripped up in front of your face.) It’s a methodology that allows you to react and adapt to change and Covid 19-despite being scary-was a chance for us to walk our talk. After-all, our old script was no longer relevant.
In the face of any curveball or crisis, to deal with change and carry on successfully towards the outcome you want, I believe you have to cycle through the NLDC loop:
Ø Let go
The quicker and more accurately you can move through this loop, the more agile you will be in any scenario. Let’s explore in more detail what each stage of the loop involves so you might be able to use the tool yourself.
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The first step in the loop involves observing what has happened, or is happening, as accurately as possible. It’s an obvious thing to say, but you cannot react to something you haven’t noticed. This is harder than it looks because it involves not just using your eyes and ears but overcoming the cognitive biases which prevent us from seeing reality as it actually is.
Noticing change is not enough. If you want to be adaptable, you need to let go of your current plan in order to form and pursue a new one. This is predominantly an emotional challenge. You are not only giving up certainty, but you are also giving up a great deal of sunk costs you’ve invested in the status quo: time, energy, resources, and (especially) ego.
This surrendering of redundant plans is made easier if you can reframe the situation in a way that highlights the opportunity and not just the threat. Improvisers have a rule of thumb that’s relevant here: ‘Everything is an offer.’ This involves treating every curveball, mistake and even crisis as a gift rather than a curse. You ask yourself, ‘What can I use here?’
If you want to move through a crisis or a change and out to the other side, it is crucial to keep making decisions. It’s easy to get stuck in paralysis by analysis especially if you are making decisions with limited information. Improvisers say that the only bad choice you can make in a situation is to make no choice at all. Because even when we make a bad choice it means that something is happening. If something is happening, then we are getting feedback. If we are getting feedback, then we are learning. Remember, you can always adjust course if that choice turns out to be wrong. As General Stanley McCrystal puts it, ‘You can’t steer anything until it’s moving.’
Finally, having made a decision, you act on it. Which in improvisation, and so often in life, involves communicating this choice clearly and persuasively to others.
So how did we use this loop? Well, the ‘notice’ part was pretty simple. There was a lot of information about Covid at the time, although predictions of how bad it might get were all over the place. We decided to be bearish in our assumptions, while many businesses in our sector refused to absorb the grim truth that the game had totally changed. When it came to ‘let go,’ the reframing of the situation was key. We knew the future for Hoopla would be different, but we were convinced that that didn’t have to mean worse. This helped us make some key decisions quickly.
We immediately set about transforming our curriculums so they would work on online mediums like Zoom. Our trainers got to grips with the medium and found ways not just to make it work, but to make workshops even better in the virtual context. In the week following Boris’s announcement, we also put on a load of online socials, such as interactive ‘tea breaks,’ to replace the water-cooler moments our customers had lost in the office. We even put on free live comedy shows twice a week. It wasn’t perfect at first, but by diving in at the deep end it made our learning curve so much shorter. This gave us a competitive advantage over our competitors.
When it came to ‘communicate’ this was mostly about being totally transparent with our customers. Most of our students moved online with us, delighted to have a distraction from the virus, not to mention the opportunity to laugh and connect with others. Far from separating us from our customers, Covid has brought us closer to them. Into their living rooms, in fact. Moving online also meant we could attract customers far beyond the borders of our home patch of London. Despite the stress, we now have digital capabilities we frankly would never have bothered developing without a gun to our head. In the heady future without Covid, I know this gives us growth potential we never had before Johnson’s fateful speech.
I’ll leave you with a little story from one of the best improvisers of all time: the jazz musician Miles Davis. While performing onstage, Davis was known to call out a song for his band to play but demand it to be played in a different key to what everyone was used to. Davis did this to break his band out from what jazz-pianist and management guru Frank J. Barrett terms ‘competency traps.’ Likewise, off-stage, for all of us mere mortals, the Covid crisis represents a great opportunity to break out of old scripts. To change old habits, try new things, and create positive change in our professional and personal lives. Let’s not waste it.