Change is constant. By now, we all know that. Organizations today must remain flexible to adapt to global markets, respond to 24-hour news cycles, and appease an always-watching audience. Inside organizations, programs grow, workplace cultures emerge and evolve, departments get restructured, processes and policies change, leaders come and go, work flow increases and decreases, environmental circumstances create barriers, and an endless number of potential changes always lurk around the next corner. Much organizational change is unwanted, and organizations that are not prepared to adapt will remain rigid and immobile in the face of a fast world prepared to leave them behind in the dust. Developing a workplace culture of adaptability to change can be supported by an unlikely profession, improvisational comedy.
Improvisational comedians bring the absurd to life in hilarious ways, and while it might seem like they create humor out of nothing, improvisers rely on a shared vernacular to generate funny scenes in the moment. Two phrases developed by Upright Citizens Brigade and commonly used in improv are uniquely applicable to organizational adaptability: “the first unusual thing” and “if this unusual thing is true, then what else must be true?”
The first unusual thing is typically discovered after the basic elements of an improv scene (who, where, what) have been established. For example, suppose an improv skit starts with two people in a grocery store, one playing the customer, and the other the cashier. The “where” is the grocery store, the “who” is a customer and cashier, and the “what” is checking out after shopping. There is nothing particularly unusual about this scene. Now imagine that the cashier pantomimes scanning an item and says to the customer, “Sir, your total today comes to four thousand dollars for the bunch of bananas.” This is the first unusual thing.
Obviously, a bunch of bananas would never cost such a high sum, but in the world of improv, the unusual becomes the norm. If the improviser acting in the role of the customer is well-practiced, rather than rejecting the premise as unrealistic, they will instead go along with the premise as if it is true and then add to the narrative in a way that furthers the comedy. In this situation, the customer might respond in any number of ways.
a) “I think I have a coupon for $500.00 off.”
b) “It’s getting more and more expensive to eat healthy these days.”
c) “What a deal! Last week they were $5,000!”
In each of these scenarios, the improviser accepts the reality of the situation, that they are being asked to pay an extraordinary amount of money for an almost valueless item. Then, they also add detail that helps create a richer, fuller world, by asking the question, “if this unusual thing is true, then what else must be true?” Each successive scenario asserts that if a bunch of bananas does cost $4,000, then it must be true that they could be sold at a discount using coupons, that it must be true that the price of healthier foods is simply rising at an alarming yet somehow tolerable rate, and that it must be true that the price is really a bargain compared to earlier prices.
In organizational life, employees are continuously met with challenges that, for them, must seem unusual. Employees are often primed to reject or fight against the changes. Employees declare, “The new director won’t last long.” “We already have enough on our plate. There is no way we can take on more.” “The people in our field office just don’t think like we do.” Organizations can remain a lot nimbler in response to change if they can borrow from improv and adopt the strategy of “if this unusual thing is true, then what else must be true?” Take the following case study:
A team of fifteen employees was the victim of a recent restructuring when three of their highest performers were moved to another department, and another two employees were laid off. The organization was on a temporary hiring freeze, so the remaining ten employees were required to share the duties abandoned by their former team members. Immediately, employees began to individually raise complaints with the senior director about their increased workload. Each remaining team member was fearful that if they successfully performed the added duties, they would be assigned to them as permanent duties. Subsequently, team members prioritized their standard duties under strict deadlines, and the new shared duties were frequently left incomplete. Although the shared duties were critical to the team’s overall operation, and although each person had a responsibility for completing a part of them, each team member blamed others for the failure.
This team observed the unwanted change and possibly made the following assumptions:
• If we have been asked to do more work, it must be because it isn’t fair.
• If we have been asked to do more work, it must be because our director assumed we were willing to do it.
• If we have been asked to do more work, it must be because someone is trying to permanently increase my workload.
None of these assumptions embraces the new reality. They all find a way of rejecting it and fighting against it, and as a result of those assumptions, the team members are powerless to resolve the situation in a meaningful way.
Now imagine that this team adopts the strategy of, “If this thing is true, then what else must be true?” in a way that embraces the new reality. Rather than disregard their shared responsibility, ignore organizational directives, or rebel against their new reality, they will instead embrace the change and assume that a new context has also been created for them. Remember that the improvisor does not fight against the new reality, but instead seeks context to uphold it.
The remaining ten employees were required to share the duties abandoned by their former team members. Immediately, employees began to identify untapped resources to mitigate the impact of the increased workload, and they lobbied their senior director to enlist available administrative staff to support smaller tasks. The team looked for ways to streamline their work processes and they collaborated on a work schedule to organize their collective work, abandoning some of their previous tasks that were less impactful and prioritizing some of the duties they had recently taken on. They wanted to be sure that their senior director was aware of the impact the increased workload would have on them, so they developed a brief report that demonstrated 1) how they had amended their process to accommodate the increased workload, 2) what they had to deprioritize so critical duties would be completed, and 3) how much time it took to complete each task compared to how much time they had available.
Notice that this team made different assumptions, ones that embraced the new reality.
• If we have been asked to do more work, there must also be resources available to do it.
• If we have been asked to do more work, it must be because we have not clearly articulated how much we are already doing.
• If we have been asked to do more work, it must be because we have the capacity to better streamline our work processes.
Each of these assumptions upholds the new reality and empowers the team members to act in a way that either mitigates the impact of the new unusual thing, adapts to it, or prevents future unusual things from occurring.
The next time your organization faces an unwanted challenge work through the following to more quickly embrace the new reality and more effectively adapt to the change.
1. Rather than framing the change as a problem, reframe it as an unusual thing.
a. What is the unusual thing?
b. What is the impact of the unusual thing?
2. Embrace the new reality by upholding it.
a. If this unusual thing is true, what else must be true?
b. How are we upholding the new reality?
c. What do we need to stop doing so we are no longer rejecting or fighting against the change?
Director of Programs