There is a saying in improv: “What you are about to see has never been seen before and will never be seen again…” The same is true of project management. When managing a complex project, you’re reacting and adapting to new pieces of information thrown at you. Project managers are faced with thousands of small decisions to keep the “ship” on course. Ask any successful PM, and they’ll tell you people management skills are as important as project management skills. Just like stepping on stage in improv, PMs have to know how to work with different personalities and communication styles for their team to succeed.
Understanding the “science” of project management is necessary to do what we do. To be great at our job, project managers must embody a deep understanding of people, not just frameworks and methodologies. The same foundational concepts that help imrpov actors be successful can help project managers be better at what they do.
Improv is the art of accepting what is thrown at you and working with it. “Yes, and…” is a key concept in improv that reminds us to build on ideas instead of being dismissive of them. Saying “yes, and…” sounds simple, but it’s harder than you think. As a project manager, I liberate others on the team by saying “yes.” When we’re trying to solve problems, it’s important for us to create an environment where we build off other’s ideas. I do this by facilitating conversation, listening to my team, and encouraging them to bring new ideas to the table. It’s liberating for the team when everyone is saying yes to new ideas, thinking “this is a great idea, what else can we add onto it?”
When you step on stage, you have to trust your partner. In improv, you can’t predict what is going to happen. You have to be open to ideas. To succeed in improv, it’s crucial to be in tune with yourself as well as your scene partners. As a project manager, I need my team to trust me. Trust leads to openness, and openness helps me solve problems. But establishing trust takes time. On my latest project, we were under a tight deadline and I noticed one of my designers had a few late nights that week. I told him I’d speak to the account leads and he could come in late that Friday. The designer appreciated that I was looking out for him, and it strengthened our relationship.
In improv and in life, things can go off the rails, and sometimes the result is failure. In improv, when a failure happens, you yell “I failed!” and everyone claps for you. We call it the failure bow, and it helps remind us there’s no room for ego and insecurity on stage. Unfortunately, failure and mistakes can be more serious and have more consequences in project management, but the principle remains the same: I want failure to be an option for my team. We learn much more from failures than successes. If we’re open about our failures, team members will come to me with issues or roadblocks they’re experiencing because trust is established. Having a safe environment to acknowledge failures helps me to forgive myself much quicker for missteps. That way, I can dust myself off and move on to get back to the problem-solving.
An article in the Washington Post titled “Art In An Instant: The Secrets Of Improvisation” described Improv like this:
I apply this same philosophy to my work as a project manager. By being open to possibilities, listening and trusting my team, and not being scared of failure, we can create magical results no one has seen before.