“Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, and transformation can take place.”
Viola Spolin

As I finished reading Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, I came to a realization.

We often don’t give comedians enough credit for their business smarts, and Tina Fey is no exception.

As I read her “humor/biography” book, I wasn’t expecting to come away with too many things I could apply at work…but I was wrong.

You see, Tina Fey has come from the biggest business training school on the planet.  Show Business.

Sure, a lot of her book was about her life, her take on the world, and what got her where she is today, but one section in particular caught my attention for this blog.

It was her reflections on improvisation and the workplace.

Tina Fey’s Rules For Improv…And the Workplace

via metal sucks

Rule #1.  Agree

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.

When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.

But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

The Lesson:  Respect What Your Partner has Created

Tina Fey obviously doesn’t think you’ll agree with everything you hear, but the real lesson is in “respecting what your partner has created.”   The benefit of “agreement” is an open mind, an environment where ideas can thrive and innovation is welcome.

We all know what it’s like working with the guy who breaks rule #1.  You’ve heard him, he’s the guy who says, “No, it won’t work,” “That’s impossible,”  “Nope, we can’t do that.”  Not so much fun working with them, is it?

via Matt’s Movie Reviews

Rule #2.  Not Only Say Yes…Say Yes And

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.

But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

The Lesson:  Contribute Something

So how does this apply to work?

When Tina Fey says, “Say yes and” it means to contribute.  Don’t be that guy in the office who sits in meetings with nothing to add to the conversation.

Take what your team has created and add something to it.

via purepeople.com

Rule #3.  Make Statements

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers

We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.

Lesson:  Don’t Ask Questions All the Time

Statements are about confidence.  Asking nothing but questions is draining.  It’s excluding yourself from being part of the solution, it’s building obstacles instead of bridges, it’s throwing the ox in the mire and stealing the plow to get him out.

via 11even

Rule #4.  There Are No Mistakes…Only Opportunities

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?

Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Lesson: Stay Positive, Learn to Adapt

If you do work of any meaning, mistakes are going to happen.  Imagine the difference one simple change in attitude like this can make on having a positive work environment.

Just like improv, not every project will go as planned.  You can take the amateur approach; stop the scene, destroy the momentum, and start over.  Or you can be a pro; adapt to the change, make it your own, and do something greater.

Work is a Stage

As I close, I can’t help thinking work has more in common with improv than I even first realized.

We all have behavior that comes naturally to us.  We might like to take things slow, mingle with friends, or have alone time.

And it’s not always advantageous to behave this way at work.  So we adapt.

We play some improv.

We accept things that come our way…even though we don’t like it.

We add our personal touch as projects come our way…to make work more enjoyable.

We make mistakes…and learn to roll with it.

In business, it pays to have the qualities of an improvisationist. Respect. Create. Contribute. Adapt.

image courtesy of listal

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38 thoughts on “Tina Fey's Rules For Improv…And the WorkPlace

  1. Oh wow, I should definitely get a copy of her book. I love Tina Fey. Thanks for sharing this, well written :) I look forward to more posts!! Rochelle.

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Rochelle,

      I enjoyed her book, even without being her core audience. I actually listened to her audio book while I worked around the house and it was hilarious.

      Appreciate you stopping by,m

      Bryce

  2. Very interesting tips when it comes to our attitude in the workplace, Bryce. I’m with you on show business being the best business school. One day, you’re the best thing since sliced bread. But one false move, and your reputation is ruined forever.

    I’d like to add that there are limits when you agree. Although Lisa’s got a point to agree with your colleagues and be supportive, there are instances when you need to draw the line and make a stand (hence making a statement like you suggested).

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Adeline,

      Show business is tough and I had no idea all the facets involved before reading her book.

      Agreeing is something I found unconventional as well, but I can see both sides of this argument. Everything in moderation is typically good advice.

      Maybe that’s why the statement section comes right afterwards. Making that statement allows you to take on what you agreed, but on some terms your establishing.

      Great thoughts Adeline,

      Bryce

  3. This is the second time, i heard this statement today – ‘There are opportunities in your mistakes’. The other one was in my audio book that I am listening by Robert Ludlum.

    I think these are all great thoughts, thanks for sharing Bryce.

    • Hey Praveen,

      Good to see you again. It’s a good theme to have in your day. I’m the optimistic type and sometimes it can be to my own detriment, but I’m perfectly fine with having this kind of attitude when it comes to mistakes.

      In a time of work where many of us working guys are doing the work that several people used to do, mistakes are bound to happen.

      I couldn’t survive if I killed myself over the mistakes I’ve made.

      Appreciate your visit,

      Bryce

  4. Fantastic lessons for us all, Bryce.

    I think we can all use a dose of all four skills and lessons you have squeezed out of Tina’s book. I especially like the improvisation ones and statement making skill. Many people always enter an improvisation and creative stage with too many preconceived ideas and mindsets. I witness this a lot in meeting rooms. I think it is the leader’s job to free people from this bondage and let every thought or idea be good.

    Similarly, in meetings, we hear too many questions. People are simply not enough to make statements to state their position. It is always a political game of cowering behind the right back.

    • Hey Jimmy,

      I loved this, “Many people always enter an improvisation and creative stage with too many preconceived ideas and mindsets”

      Sometimes our preconceived ideas prevent us from seeing even better success.

      Great input Jimmy!

      Bryce

  5. Cool post Bryce. I have to agree with the constant asking questions because they are indeed draining.

    I have always been a Tina Fey fan but I like her even more after reading this.

    • Hi Justin,

      I knew we’d see eye to eye on this ;)

      When I picture a room full of questions it makes me anxious and uncomfortable. Especially if you’re the one presenting.

      I appreciate your support on this.

      Bryce

  6. I don’t follow a lot of her work but I have heard that she’s one heck of a smart lady. She may be a comedian and people mostly look at her as funny but that woman has got one heck of a brain. I bet that’s a really good book.

    Thanks for sharing these tips Bryce. Might be worth the read.

    ~Adrienne

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Adrienne,

      She certainly is rather business smart. She works her butt off and it shows in every project she takes on.

      I learned a lot from her and enjoyed her sense of humor as well.

      Hope your holidays are going well.

      Bryce

  7. Great stuff Bryce,

    I am a huge fan of Tina Fey. I think she’s one of the funniest ladies in comedy today. She’s the “I love Lucy”. :D

    It was also great to see a different side of her; I had no idea she had a book out, but I will definitely be checking it out.

    The tips and lessons you’ve supplied here can certainly be applied to many aspects of life, and not just work.

    My favorite was the last one, “There are no mistakes… only opportunities”. That’s golden! Loved that! :)

    • Bryce Christiansen

      I have to say she is the funniest lady I’ve seen in a long time as well.

      Her business smarts and humor were very rewarding to listen to.

      I hope you enjoy the book as well if you get the chance.

      Bryce

  8. Hi Bryce,

    Enjoyed your post and I also enjoyed Tina’s book. She is hilarious and she seems like a genuine person which is refreshing. I liked Rule #2. Not Only Say Yes…Say Yes And. How true to be open to something new, as well as jumping in and giving back, be it ideas, or a new way of looking at something. It is just important to contribute in some way.
    Thanks for sharing Tina’s fun book!

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Hi Cathy,

      I think of all the lessons I agreed with #2 the most as well.

      Work is tough enough as it is. Even if it is just a little feedback, it helps A TON!

      Brainstorming, writing, and creating content like we do takes significant amounts of energy. It always makes me feel much better when my team mates help me with ideas for the blog.

      I hope to remember this rule for the rest of my career.

      Bryce

  9. Anna

    She seems to be a very smart woman. She is truly inspiring and giving us very good advices, but surely it must be a bit difficult to remember to live up to them…every single day.

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Hi Anna,

      I was impressed by her book. I’m sure she didn’t write the book as an informative novel, but I still learned a few more things about myself along the way.

      Bryce

  10. I clicked over from Adrienne Smith’s blog and I’m so glad I did! Thank you for this overview of Tina Fey’s rules for improv and the workplace.

    This was an enjoyable and applicable read for me, and I love that I learned a few new things I hadn’t previously considered.

    I haven’t given much thought to how often I ask questions versus making statements, but off the cuff I’d say I probably ask more questions than make statements. I had a bit of an ah-ha moment reading this and the point that questions can be draining rang true.

    Thanks again for sharing this! I may have to pick up a copy for myself. :)

    Chrysta

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Chrysta,

      Welcome to the blog. I’m glad you came over from Adrienne’s.

      This post was a joy to write and I’m glad others are finding it useful as well.

      I hope to see you again in the future.

      Bryce

  11. Hi Bryce,

    Guess i am going to have to check out Tina’s book. I love humor. Questions can become old and we all need to learn to add to a conversations whether at work or being social.

    It is always good to share ideas. Thank you for sharing your opinion of her book.
    Blessing always,
    Debbie

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Debbie,

      I hope your holidays are going well. Let me know what you think of the book if you end up picking it up.

      Bryce

  12. Bryce, very well written article. I took notes on the 4 rules as I was reading through. I’m actually going to apply this to my marriage and try to be more agreeable. I know I can be stubborn and hard headed once in a while. Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend.

    • Bryce Christiansen

      That’s a great point.

      These rules can really be applied toward our relationships as well.

      I’m glad I was able to share something that was unique and useful to you.

      Bryce

  13. Wow, great post, Bryce! You have convinced me to get her book, which wasn’t too much of a stretch because I’m a big fan, but I hadn’t considered getting her book.

    I always thought of Tina Fey as very smart. Having watched her for years, I knew she was well-educated and brilliantly funny. But I never knew she was in improv. Improv fascinates me. I don’t know how those comedians manage to think so quickly on their feet and be funny at the same time!

    She single-handedly brought down Sarah Palin with her spot-on impression of her. Palin tried to go along with the joke, but flopped.

    I think agreeing is not only important but an effective tool. If you’re in a meeting and vehemently disagreeing with someone, let him have his say and see if you can find something to agree with (chances are there’s at least one thing). Start your retort with what you agree with and then move on to your point of disagreement. He will be disarmed, reveling in the glow of your affirmation, not realizing you’re about to take him down with your eloquent rebuttal. Ha!

    That’s right, agree to disagree. It works!

    Hope you’re having a great weekend, Bryce!

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Hi Carolyn,

      I certainly enjoyed her book and am no where near her target market. You’ll have to let me know what you thought if you end up checking it out.

      As for agreeing I concur :) If you are creative enough you can find the similarities, and then build from there. That’s the art of improv and I don’t see the harm in doing the same at work.

      Thanks for the support,

      Have a great holiday season,

      Bryce

  14. Mike

    If you like this, I strongly recommend “Improv Wisdom” by Patricia Ryan Madson. It is wise, it is “Yes”, it is about connecting in a powerful way.

  15. Wow! That’s really amazing! I never would have made the connections she does, but it seems so obvious after reading them. I’m not a big-office-type-business-person, but I do my own work in my writing of fiction, and a lot of these things apply to that as well.

    Great article Bryce!

    • Bryce Christiansen

      Thanks Darci,

      Good to see you here, long time since we were chair buddies in Com 101.

      You are absolutely right about this applying not just to the office people. If you deal with other people, these rules still apply.

      People still like hearing “Yes” rather than “No!” Having others do their part and respect their work.

      Glad you made that point.

      Hope to have you back,

      Bryce

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  18. Cheryl

    Love all of these points. My take on “agree” is not necessarily to go along 100% with what another person is proposing, but to not just say no automatically. You can take what they’re offering, respect it , as she says, and then with your statement you can shift it toward a direction that ends up feeling more collaborative than saying, “No, I disagree, I think we should do this….” More like, yes, that’s an excellent point. And if we did such and such, I can really see it happening (such and such perhaps being something that leaves the other person’s idea a little by the wayside). A bit of semantics, I guess.

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