Brian McCarthy

Improvisational Leadership and the WHO response to the Covid 19 Pandemic — Speed trumps Perfection.

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Leaders spend years being trained to develop plans and “execute” them. They become expert critical thinkers — they collect data, reflect, make a plan, execute and then asses the success/failure of the plan.

However, how much of our lives actually go according to a plan? How many times do make plans, only to see them rejected or the context changed to such an extent that they are no longer valid. Just like what is happening now — we are facing a health and economic crisis the likes of which has not been seen for since the Second World War.

There is so much doubt and uncertainty. The pressure is building, and we need to act. In such circumstances, there is a risk that we will fall back on familiar responses, such as blame or denial. Most often we simply work harder, as if effort were the answer to every predicament. These responses come all too easily, particularly when we are under stress.

It takes a special type of training and learning to prepare for these situations. There is no binder of material that can teach you how to be react quickly as a leader in emergency situations.

Dr. Michael Ryan, in just one minute in the this video from today’s WHO daily press briefing on COVID 19, in response to a question he wasn’t even expecting, nails the answer. He is asked by a journalist, “What are the biggest lessons that the world can learn from fighting Ebola in fighting the Covid 19 epidemic?”. His answer is:

“You need to act quickly…..The lessons I’ve learned for so many Ebola outbreaks in my career are be fast, have no regrets, you must be the first mover….If you need to be right before you move, you will never win, perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergence management

Speed trumps perfection.

The greatest error is not to move, the greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

For some years now some of the most famous schools and institutions working in leadership (MIT, Stanford, UCLA) have looked to the theatre to find ways of helping leaders deal with these situations. In particular, they have taken the methodology of improvisation developed in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, in the theatre company The Second City, and applied it to leadership training. Improvisation in the theatre, where actors perform and create scenes with no script, has existed for centuries. However, Second City developed a methodology that trained some of the most famous actors and actresses working in cinema and TV today, and this caught the attention of the Ivy League Universities.

Before moving to Spain and beginning my career as a professor and consultant in leadership, innovation and communication, I was a professional theatre director and acting teacher in Ireland. I taught improvisation and used it to develop new ideas and rehearse theatre plays. In 2015, my company Performing Ideas developed the Improvisational Leadership Program for Telefonica’s Corporate University (Universitas) in Barcelona, and since then I’ve delivered over 20 editions of the workshop there. It is one of the most highly evaluated courses run at the Universitas. I’ve also delivered this workshop for top level executives at several other leading multinational organisations.

What can Improvisational Leadership teach us about leading in exceptional times such as the ones we are living in these months? Here are the main take-aways that you can start implementing now:

1. Manage anxiety: Suddenly finding yourself with no plan, but requiring to act, generates anxiety in everyone, even professional improvisers. There is no way to escape this anxiety; however, it is possible to manage it. Here it is essential to get out of a “right or wrong” and “success or fail” mentality. We need to turn off our critical faculties and turn on our creativity. It is not possible to be creative and critical at the same time.

2. Listen with body and mind to what is going on around you: Often, people and especially leaders have a tendency to retreat inside themselves or fall back on old habits when they need to make decisions quickly but with no plan at hand. However, improvisation requires that you listen carefully in this critical moment to what people are saying and to what your own creative voices are telling you. You also need to “listen” to other people’s body language, and your own, not just to the words they are saying. Communication happens at many level, not just verbally.

3. Commit 100% to improvise: You cannot half improvise and half stick to the old broken plan. You need to let the plan go and dive into the improvisation.

4. Be flexible with your status: Even though you are the leader, this doesn’t mean you need to always have a higher status than the rest of your team. Most leaders recognise this important fact but forget about it when the pressure is on, and decisions need to be made quickly. When improvising, we need to be capable of changing our status and working as an ensemble, where leadership can be shared and passed among the members of the team.

5. Rely on your intuition: We are usually told not to rely on our intuition, particularly in crisis settings. However, when we are in a situation where we have to lead and make decisions quickly, but there is no plan, we need to rely on our intuition as thinking critically can be too slow in this exceptional context.

6. Replying to offers with “yes, and…..”: the golden rule of improvisation is to accept “offers” and build on them. “Offers” are ideas from others or from our own intuition. Accept does not mean agreeing to something you think is wrong, it merely means accepting and building on the ideas of others for a short period to see where they take you. Every idea deserves at least one minute of life.

Improvisation asks something different of you. It encourages you to engage as a whole person, not just a rational mind, in an intuitive way. It welcomes all of you to the game. It recognises and values information that is gathered via feel, bodily sensation, posture and movement. It values speed, responsiveness and fit, over accuracy, precision or regularity. It gives precedence to creating a flow of ideas and energy rather than arriving at answers. It selects ideas and actions through evolution rather than evaluation. It demonstrates that we can exert influence and impart direction without control. It emphasises practice over theory and action over conclusions.

As one of the participants in our programme said:

”As we moved on from the theatre to other leadership points and to design our action plans, the shared theatre world we had created became a turning point in our shared learning. We had a common experience of adversity, effort, some change and plenty of frustration. We referred to scenes to which we had all been witnesses. We used examples of situations and feelings that were enacted. We had been through something real (regardless of its fiction) together, and this served as a point of reference, of bonding, of change in our dynamics and in our learning. The depth of our learning through an afternoon of theatre surprised me. It was stronger, more real, more relevant and lasting than I could have imagined.” (participant at Telefonica Universitas)

Learning and practicing the skills of Improvisational Leadership are not only important now while the crisis is reaching its pinnacle, but also when we eventually start going back to work and facing a new world where our old plans are no longer relevant.