Finding the Parallels Between Improv Comedy and Product Management

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“No, it’s not possible. There are a million reasons why we can’t build that feature you want. The tech stack doesn’t support it and it’s just not doable.”

As product managers, we’ve all heard or said this. When an idea comes along, whether it be through marketing, design, product, etc., it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying no and saying why something won’t work. We’re trained to do it: to protect our team’s time, to defend our prioritized roadmaps, and to avoid another headache of scrambling in the weeds.

Why is this bad?

By saying no, you may be ignoring a great idea or a missing a deeper understanding of a user’s true needs. You might not hear an idea that could save your product feature from flopping. It’s usually better to listen first and explore ideas around the theme. It doesn’t mean you should build and ship every idea anyone has, but it does mean you have to be open to different ideas and new ways of thinking.

Tell me about improv.

Improv is a form of comedy and theater. The performers don’t know what will happen in their show until they are onstage. At the start of their show, they ask the audience for a word or prompt that the show will be based on. They will then begin the show with that prompt, working together to improvise a story as the show continues. While everything is made up in the moment, there is one main principle all good improv is based on — the most important rule of improv — Yes, and. The rule means that performers must accept whatever their scene partners do or say as part of the reality of the scene and then build on it with their own contributions. They must be present in the moment, listen carefully, and contribute freely.

For example, in improv, say someone initiates a scene with, “Mother, it is such a lovely day to be working in the garden with you”. If you go into that scene and say, “No, you’re not my mother and we’re actually in a haunted house” the scene ends and the audience is confused. By not saying yes, and, you miss out on creating a unified story with your scene partner.

How does it connect to my work as a product manager?

In a job like product management, adaptability is vital. Requirements change, stakeholders express different opinions, that feature you thought you’d be able to build was killed off due to new regulations. Thinking in a yes and framework doesn’t mean you need to say yes to every request that comes your way (that would be disastrous for any type of long-term planning), but it means keeping an open mind to ideas that can come from anywhere. Being open to alternate ways of thinking and being adaptable is particularly useful when a big part of your job is being open to change.

I started doing improv about two years ago after one of my managers told me that one of the most important things you can do as a product manager is listen. I was also nervous about public speaking, and trying out improv would be a way to work on that fear. I signed up for a class at The People’s Improv Theater in New York City, and since then, I’ve taken many other classes at different improv schools, am on an Indie Improv team, and have performed at an Improv festival.

Active Listening + Empathy

I still keep my old manager’s advice in mind whenever I go into a product meeting. In any meeting, and in product development in general, if you’re not listening, whether it be to your customers or your stakeholders, your end product will reflect that. Your role as product manager should require some product instincts, but the end result of what you are working on should be a collaborative effort between your stakeholders, your team, and your users.

In our last improv show, one of my scene partners gave some backstory on how their character was made fun of in school for reading instead of playing outside during recess. It was my role in the scene to listen, empathize, and build on it. Instead of focusing on my own character and their storyline, I took on the role of her teacher and talked about how reading would help her grow more intellectually.

In product management, your customers are often not right in front of you. Their input can come from a variety of channels ranging from Twitter, email, or customer support calls. Part of your role as product manager is to take in their comments, let them sink in, and then make your decision based off that. To build something great requires taking input from everyone and creating something that inspires and delights from it.

Creativity + Collaboration

Improv is also a creative form, so keeping your mind open and being able to create something great off of someone else’s idea comes innately. In product, you don’t want to have a rigid mindset, particularly in the brainstorming and concepting phases. If someone suggests something in a brainstorm that isn’t feasible, the brainstorm is not the time to determine that.

I remember an improv scene where the first thing my scene partner did was dig an imaginary hole. The collaboration aspect allowed me to turn this into a scene about us farming, and then my partner expanded the scene into how we loved the farm subsidies. The initial idea, digging a hole, could be explored in a different creative way and only by being open to that will you see its value.

In my role as a product manager, we once had a brainstorm about our K-12 educational products. Much of the team was focused on enabling more filtering for content, but when an idea came up about integrating VR into our education products, we were open to it and able to move forward and collaborate on this creative idea.

Being open to new ideas, and building upon them helps to create a shared sense of ownership of a project. This is key to having a mission-focused team and deliver impactful results.

Building Confidence + Trust

Improv also helps with confidence and trust in your coworkers because a big part of improv is being able to depend on your team to support you and always being there to support them. If you’re unclear about something in an improv scene, a good improv partner will do their best to clarify it to you in a way that will allow you to continue the scene.

In improv, there is something called a “walk-on”, which is when someone who is not a primary character in the scene enters to clarify a location, a relationship, or to heighten the stakes of the scene. For example, if the two primary characters in a scene are sitting down eating, the audience may not know if they are eating at home or in a restaurant. A “walk-on” person can come in as the waiter to clarify that they are in a restaurant.

In product, if you’re struggling to communicate a specific design feature in a presentation, you should be able to depend on your designer or other teammates to support you or help clarify. In the same vein, if your teammate is sharing something with a stakeholder, you need to be ready to back them up and help clarify any questions they may not know the answer to. There’s no need to try and do everything yourself when you have clear confidence and trust with your team.

Thinking in the Moment

Jeff Bezos said in this year’s stakeholder letter, “Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had.” When you need to make a decision, it helps to be able to work with a limited amount of information. In an improv scene, everything is made up based off of what was previously said, so you need to take that and act on it to keep the scene going. We had a scene on my team where Pac-Man and Pac-Woman were having some serious relationship issues. We didn’t know the extent of their relationship issues just yet, but it gave us enough information to have some other teammates come into the scene as the Ghosts from Pac-Man to console the fraught couple and continue moving the scene forward. We moved forward without having 100% of the details.

In product, if you don’t make a decision, the product is often unable to move forward. Improv helps to embrace the unknown, and makes you feel comfortable moving forward because you know you are making the best decision based off of your active listening. A good product manager does well working within ambiguity and figuring out what the next step should be based off of the information available to them.

In Short

Communicating effectively, reacting in the moment, collaborating and trusting your teammates, and actively listening are just some of the ways that improv and product management intersect. The best improvisers and product managers leave room for risk and uncertainty, and are always listening to make sure they’re not missing the key idea 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. If you get the chance, try it!

Finding the Parallels Between Improv Comedy and Product Management was originally published in Times Open on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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