Innovation as Improvisation: An interview with training expert Izzy Gesell

Izzy Gesell, of Izzy G & Company, is an organizational alchemist who helps individuals in organizations transform their thinking from common place to extraordinary. He is the author of “Playing Along, Group Learning Activities Borrowed from Improvisational Theatre” and co-author of “Humor Me, America’s Funniest Humorists on the Power of Laughter,” as well as a contributor of a chapter on Improvisation as a Facilitation Tool in the “IAF Group Facilitator’s Handbook.

T/D: Today’s topic is Innovation as Improvisation. Your premise is that the skills that make improvisers successful can make us all successful. How can that be? I’ve seen improvisers and those folks are amazing. They make up stuff so quickly and they’re so creative. I myself am unable to do that; how could that concept be useful to me?

IG: I think the fact is that you can do that. It’s interesting for me to hear when people describe their improv watching experience, they seem to think it’s almost like magic. How do they do that or they must have known the answers in advance. I think that people improvise all the time. Unless of course someone writes a script for you and leaves it on your nightstand, a good part of our day is improvised.

What I’ve come to understand is that we do it but, because we’re not aware of what skills these improvisers have, we don’t see ourselves in the same situation. Truly it’s a practice that you can learn and the more you do it, the more adept at it you become. It’s not about perfection; it’s actually just about being comfortable with taking a risk and not knowing the outcome and going through the process.

T/D: Excellent! Thanks for the encouragement. You use improv theatre games in your facilitated workshops to help people self-discover their impediments to success. Can you explain how that works?

IG: The skills that improvisers have translate certain qualities . Those are the qualities that actually help all of us personally and professionally. When you look at them, what you’re seeing are people who understand the power of presence. In other words, they stay in the moment; they have the understanding of acceptance versus agreement and they accept reality and what they’re given, even if they don’t agree with it or they don’t like it.

And a third quality is trust. What improvisers do is, they trust a process. In other words, they’re okay with not knowing the outcome, but feeling comfortable that they have a way of moving forward. And because usually they’re with someone else or more than one person, it’s a procreation, so no one is by themselves and those qualities, I think, are useful for all of us; presence, being in the moment, acceptance, dealing with reality, dealing with trust, and letting go of the need to know the outcome and judge too quickly.

T/D:      That’s an excellent point; presence, acceptance, trust. Could you tell us a bit more about those three concepts and how it works in improv?

IG: I’ll tell you how it works in improv and then the quick connections to how I think it works for all of us. I’ll use myself as an example. I don’t have this down pat but I am learning some tools. In presence, improvisers have to stay in the moment; in other words, if they’re thinking about what the future will bring, they get off track. If they worry about what happened before or go into the past, they’re not able to be in the present. The idea of presence is that they stay in the moment. The way they are taught presence is through a technique called the “Point of Concentration” and that point of concentration idea is really helpful.

“The Point of Concentration” essentially means “what small bit of information do I have to focus on in order to be successful?” An example is volleyball. What do you think the “Point of Concentration” is in volleyball?

T/D: You have to get the ball over the net and have your opponent miss the ball.

IG: Exactly, the point is it doesn’t matter what else is going on, what other people are doing, as long as you know your area, all you need to do is focus on the ball. And the “Point of Concentration” for improv might be making up a story one word at a time or stepping in and taking over somebody’s actions, but it’s a small bit of information that they can act on in the moment.

The skill of “Point of Concentration” leads to focus. And you know from our busy life, it’s very easy to be distracted, focus helps us move forward. Presence comes from focus, and the skill is this point of concentration.

The second quality that we talked about was acceptance. Improvisers understand the difference of acceptance and agreement. Essentially, acceptance is acknowledging the facts. If they’re given a story title and they don’t like it or they don’t feel comfortable playing the game, they accept the fact that this is what they have to do and they keep moving forward.

That’s what makes improv seem so quick. People go “how do they do it so fast?” Well, they stay grounded in the moment and they just keep moving forward. People think improv is about thinking fast and being funny, it’s actually more about acting in the moment and being real, not trying to protect yourself for all possible negative outcomes, but moving forward.

The technique that improvisers use to learn acceptance is something called “Yes, and”.

“Yes, and” means yes, I’ll take what you give me and I’ll move it forward. Notice how different this is from the concept that most of us are familiar with, which is “Yes, but.” “Yes, but” really is a false agreement. “Yes, and” is building on something. “Yes, but” is zero sum game if one of us has to win this part of the conversation. So the cooperative nature of improv is enhanced by this “yes, and” as opposed to “yes, but.”

The third quality as mentioned earlier, is trust and improvisers trust process. Therefore, they’re able to let go of the need to be in the future and to determine the outcome, because we all know you can’t really predict the future. I think it was John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans,” and that’s sort of the thing that improvisers understand. If you’re making other plans, things are going to go right by you.

So they learn to trust process and thereby the outcome is that they become confident in not knowing, and it’s this ability to be confident and not knowing in the moment and moving forward that helps all of us in things like dealing with change, dealing with stress, trying to foster relationships. It has a pretty wide usability factor.

T/D: Can trainers who don’t have any improv or theatre experience learn to use improv effectively in their training?

IG: Yes they can. You as the trainer, the consultant, the facilitator, anybody that works with groups, can use these games just by putting yourself in the same position as you put your audience or your participants that you don’t need to know the outcome; you just need to be part of the process.

The more trainers do that, the more vibrant their presentations become because they are putting themselves on the same level as their participants. It’s not that they know the answers; it’s that they’re opening up a discussion, a way for people to look at themselves in terms of risk, cooperation, creativity, etc.

T/D: I think a lot of trainers can really use that imagery in their training, thank you. Do you have any last tips or nuggets of advice that you’d like to share?

IG: The key to the improv philosophy is that it’s not about being perfect; it’s about constantly reminding yourself of the basic principles. Stay in the moment, what can I do now? Deal with the reality rather than what you wish was reality, and trust the process and be a little more comfortable with not knowing the outcome. The more you do this, I think the more confident and enjoyable life becomes.

It’s like with change, people talk about managing change, I think we need to master “changing” because change happens all the time and if you see it as an anomaly, then you have to get your defenses up. If you see it as an ongoing process, as part of your life, you become adaptable to it.

If you’d like more information on Izzy, please visit his website at