Innovative Teaching | Improv for future leaders

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It turns out improv skills aren’t just useful for would-be comedians. Adjunct professor Andrew Chen has taken his improv experience with the Canadian Improv Games and translated it into a dynamic learning opportunity for students at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

Chen says business schools do a great job of teaching students how to build strategies and execute them, but courses are also evolving to help students better navigate the uncertainties thrown at them in today’s business world. That’s where improv comes in; it gives students the ability to be more aware of their environment and create something with only the information at hand.

Why is improv suited to the business world?

Students obviously need a strong business acumen to succeed, but sometimes this can overshadow other important job skills like listening, collaboration and creativity. Leading corporations like Google and Pepsi Co. have already begun to recognize that improv is a great way to teach these “soft skills,” so professionals are better equipped to deal with the diverse audiences and unplanned situations that crop up in their day-to-day work life. In addition to my undergrad class, UBC Sauder can also offer Executive Education courses in improv for local organizations interested in applying the benefits to their daily operations.


It’s amazing how many students take my course thinking they’re already a great listener or a great team player—only to discover during an improv exercise that they still have a lot of room to grow.

Knowing some key improv skills is never a substitute for proper preparation, but they’re a great way to help students hone their active listening and presentation skills. When a professional has the ability to thoughtfully listen and respond to colleagues, or to contribute ideas in a progressive way, he or she is on the way to becoming a stronger and more effective leader.

What improv skills do you teach that can be applied to business?

In corporate brainstorming sessions, there’s often a tendency for people to blurt out their ideas—but does anyone really listen to these ideas and build on them? One of the key tenets of improv is the concept of “Yes, and.” That means accepting what your colleagues say and building on these ideas to create something that couldn’t happen in isolation. By learning how to say “Yes, and”, students learn how to listen to their colleagues and be inspired by their thoughts and ideas. In the business world, this translates to more effective connections and collaborations with peers because judgment is suspended.


What is the biggest challenge in teaching business students improvisation?

Some students lack confidence or feel anxious when they’re put on the spot and asked to think creatively, while other students are overly confident, which leads them to miss some key perspectives from their colleagues. Mistakes are part of the improv process, but they’re never punished because failure is a great teacher and a learning opportunity. My ultimate goal is help UBC Sauder students become more versatile and adaptive to the various environments they may face in their careers, because this will help them become more confident leaders.


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