Main illustration: Dani Balenson
Many of us have seen improv comedy before, a form of theatre where the dialogue, action and characters are created on stage, on the fly, collaboratively by the players. We remember the laughs and the slapstick humor, but in fact improv is about more than just being funny.
I’ve been doing improv for almost a year now, hosting the occasional performance at a theatre space along with some teaching on the side.
Interestingly, as I’ve progressed through this journey, it has struck me that the things that make improv so successful are also traits that can make product managers successful.
Of course, improv has all sorts of positive side effects. It helps build confidence, quick thinking and stronger communication, lateral skills helpful for all contexts and even more so for a product manager.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Improv has had a much deeper impact on how I think about product, from how to take risks to how I prioritize my work. In this post, I’m going to show you how some of the core principles of improv can easily extend to your day job.
👂 Becoming a better listener
Improv has no script to guide the people on stage. All we have to begin with is a single word. As everyone starts bringing ideas to the stage, it’s paramount to engage with these ideas attentively.
We’ve all been in conversations where we’re so busy thinking of what we’re going to say next that we miss out on actually engaging with what we’re hearing. We might be able to pull this off in an everyday conversation but when you’re on stage, grappling for ideas in the unknown, it’s vital you listen and engage before responding.
Without this, you’re throwing away any chance of making a cohesive scene. Even if you’re not listening, your audience certainly is and poor listening between scene partners is very transparent on stage. Every idea that’s being presented is a gift that your scene partners are offering to the scene and to you – receive this gift and present your own.
“Don’t just listen and act quick. Try and digest the motivations behind what you’re hearing”
Strong product direction is all about strong opinions. But in order to build those opinions, you need to soak in what all your partners are bringing to discussions. Don’t just listen and act quick. Try and digest the motivations behind what you’re hearing – the pain behind a customer’s feature request, the rationale behind user experience changes a designer is suggesting, or the new technology that inspired a feature suggestion from engineering.
Your customers, designers, researchers, engineers and marketers all have important points of view and are giving gifts to your product (and you) on how they think things could be better. It’s important for you to receive this gift by listening and truly digesting it.
🔩 Using “Yes, and” to build on ideas
Even when I’m attentively listening to what’s being said on stage, it can be challenging to know how to meaningfully respond to my scene partner’s prompts. Where should I help take the dialogue? How do we best start constructing a scene and actually build up to some comedy?
That’s where the “Yes, and” principle comes in. “Yes, and” is a pillar of improvisation. It’s the acceptance principle – when someone in a scene states something, accept it as truth. The “and” part of this principle means to build on that reality that has been set.
Here’s an example of how this may look in a scene:
Person A: “Let’s go on an adventure”
Person B: “Yes, I’m really excited about it, and I won’t forget a shield this time for the dragons”
Person A: “My parents won’t let me go out.”
Person B: “Yes, and they never will if you don’t finish painting the fence, Tom.”
Person A: “Pizzas tastes better with pineapple”
Person B: “(Yes and) Here’s the biggest pineapple pizza the world has known”.
In each scene, you’re acknowledging the reality your scene partner is painting and adding your own strokes to it.
Sidebar: Does this mean that you can’t use “Yes, but” or “No, and” in improv? It’s certainly not black and white but I use “Yes, and” as a rule of thumb to create an elegant, comedic scene out of nothing. You’re simply less likely to make a cohesive (and comedic) scene if you’re taking the scene one place and your partners another.
“Rather than simply disqualifying new ideas, receive them, acknowledge them, build upon them”
Product managers love to say no. It’s how we make sure we build a focused, usable product and not a five eyed, 10-armed monster on a unicycle. Saying no is a valuable skill for PMs, but there are also many situations where you should say yes.
Next time someone suggests a new idea, rather than defaulting to no, try saying “Yes, and” instead. It’s much easier to think of all the ways something couldn’t work rather than see ways that it could. The cold hard world of prioritization means that product managers are predisposed to cut ideas down, before they even get time to grow or before we’re able to build on them.
Just like when you’re on stage, it’s crucial to stay open minded to different ideas and different ways of thinking. Say “Yes, and” to feature requests from customers, divergent design thinking or engineering driven ideas before shutting them down. For example:
Design: “Could we squeeze in changes to our error modals while we’re looking at the integration?”
PM: “Yes we could – that would delay working on some technical product health. Let’s explicitly prioritize between the two.”
Engineering: “Slack just released a new Block Kit UI we could play around with.”
PM: “Yes, I think it could make our current integration much easier to use. Let’s look at the feedback we get on the integration and see if that’s a problem worth solving.”
Team: “We think gamifying this experience could really help drive engagement.”
PM: “Yes, it’s a proven tactic with apps like Duolingo. Perhaps we could build an experiment for this.”
This doesn’t mean you commit to every idea that comes your way. This is more of a mindset shift. Rather than simply disqualifying new ideas, receive them, acknowledge them, build upon them and subsequently prioritize or deprioritize, leaving reasonable space for true innovation to grow.
Getting comfortable with taking risks
I’ve taken part in countless scenes where everything seems to be going well, only to crumble when I go in for the punchline that doesn’t land. And that’s okay.
The inherent uncertainties associated with doing improv mean even the most experienced improvisers don’t always have a great show. The biggest mistake an improviser can make is to go on stage and second guess themselves for every action and dialogue. What’s most important is that my scene partners and I get comfortable and open to failing. Trust stage partners, keep exploring the horizons of the scene and as they say in improv, “follow the fun”.
When you’re driving product, it’s important to get comfortable with gnarly problems, unknowns and, of course, mistakes.
Resistance to act due to fear of the unknown or more specifically, fear of making a mistake, is a natural tendency for product managers. In an ideal world, we would have copious resources to sweat the details over every decision and become certain before making the call.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, and we often need to make decisions with incomplete information or with a possibility that things could go wrong. The reality is that most (dare I say, all) product decisions are reversible and rarely (dare I say, never) are they capable of causing critical damage. Trust the team, plunge into the unknown and remember that wrong decisions are all a part of innovating.
➡️ Be specific about the right things
“It’s within this specificity of the framework coupled with uncertainty of content where the best scenes come from”
Specificity is improv gold. When doing a scene, if I say I’m at a restaurant, every single audience member could have a different image of where that scene takes place. One person might think fast food, another might think fine dining.
But if I say “Thanks for meeting me at Johnny Rockets,” the audience and my partners now have a much clearer picture in their mind. They can visualize me sitting at diner set in the 1950s, and build from there.
That doesn’t mean you have a narrative laid out right away. It’s within this specificity of the framework coupled with uncertainty of content where the best scenes come from.
When rallying a team to build product, it’s important to be specific about the right things, and leave the rest open ended.
Imagine a product team working with fixed inputs, fixed process and a fixed definition of the output. For example, say you’ve got very detailed requirements to build a specific feature laid out following discussions with a few large customers. In these cases, the intended narrative plays out but it doesn’t leave room for autonomy and innovation.
To empower a great team to build great product and give them true ownership, it’s important to be specific about the right things and leave the rest for the team to establish themselves. Rather than dictating a solution, extract out the key customer problems, the key business goals and if possible, the key metrics that should drive the team and then give them the space to autonomously explore.
The pinnacle of improv performance is referred to as “group mind”. When a team of improvisers pays close attention to each other, hearing and remembering everything and engaging with all that they hear, a “group mind” forms. It’s a tricky concept to explain unless you’ve seen an improv show, but it is a lot like being able to finish your best friends sentences.
For example, I was once in a scene where the apocalypse was nigh but while pacing on stage, I accidentally tripped. “Group mind” was when all my scene partners made eye contact and collectively joined me on the ground. When you and your stage partners learn to work with each other so well, you just collectively know what’s top of mind for everyone and how you can work together, regardless of what situation you’re thrown into.
Thanks to concepts like “group think”, shared consensus amongst a team often takes on a negative connotation, implying everyone thinks alike and will follow each other over a perilous cliff like lemmings.
However, establishing a “group mind” based on customer empathy and business direction helps create a team that can see it’s path ahead well before anyone outside the team. It’s far too easy to be so busy in our day to day execution that we forget that, as product managers, a key part of our job is to enable. As we jump from one major pain or opportunity to another, we can be swamped with a spectrum of high and low level details. It’s at these points that it’s important to leverage the most powerful resource we have in the team – our teammates. Nurture group mind and enable your team to be empowered to make decisions themselves.
There are many improv fundamentals that you can apply to your day to day responsibilities as a product manager. The best improvisers and product managers leave room for risk and uncertainty and are always listening to build on additional ideas that will make their product a success. They depend on their teammates for support, and take turns leading and following conversations, working together to guide a team to developing something great for an audience. And hopefully, have a few laughs along the way.