Resilient like an Improviser: Working through the setbacks you never saw coming

I’m an improviser. Once a week for or the last 20 years, I’ve gotten up on stage in front of crowds to create a show live without a script, props, or a director. When I’m improvising on stage, whatever I think is going to happen almost never does. If I enter a scene thinking I’ll be a forest ranger at Yellowstone, the next line of dialogue will have me baking cookies in Baltimore. As a team of performers, our reality on stage is changing so rapidly with every word spoken, trying to accurately predict what will happen next is impossible. Instead, we practice building up our resilience to change. A great improviser is able navigate that uncertainty with confidence and have a great time doing it.

I see our clients, across geography and industry, in the same situation I face on stage every weekend. According to Credit Suisse, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is down from 60 years in the 1950s, to less than 20 years today. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2020, one third of the skills you need to do your job will have changed, regardless of industry. The Age of Acceleration, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, VUCA, whatever you call it, our actions in response to these drastic and rapid market shifts can’t be business as usual.

One common response I see from clients is to become better predictors, to re-cast themselves as Forecasters and Futurists. They assign more people to spend more time intaking more data, finding more experts, thinking through more outcomes, and creating more contingency plans. It gets expensive. There is a very real point of diminishing returns for predicting the future. New, disruptive information appears suddenly and dissolves our plans completely. When those setbacks arise, we need to be better not just at reducing uncertainty, but at effectively leading when you have no idea what will happen next.

We need to be better improvisers.

Improvisers adapt to uncertainty by not trying to control the outcome, but rather by trusting in our team, accepting our reality and making strong choices within it. You should still be trying to predict the future. Improvisers predict the future in shows all the time. We also see all our predictions immediately destroyed in front of us over and over and over again. Our response, no matter how many times our great ideas about the future are crushed, is still to trust in the team, accept the new reality and make strong choices. Great improvisers work through this sequence so quickly, it’s tough to notice they were set back in the first place. That’s our definition of resilience. I can promise that the more you practice this mindset on your team, the more quickly you’ll be able to get past sudden setbacks and back in a place of agency and action. You may even have some fun while you do.


By: Matt Newman 

2019 AAM Summit Pre-Conference Post 

Make sure to check out Nate’s Summit Session at AICPA ENGAGE 2019: AAM19001 – Curiosity: How to Stay Calm Amid Uncertainty


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