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When The Art Of The Deal Includes Improv Training

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Some top-tier business schools are offering more than just finance and marketing these days: Duke, UCLA, MIT and Stanford are all teaching improv. Professors say these techniques help students increase collaboration, creativity and risk taking.

In an improvisational leadership class at MIT's Sloan School of Management, instructor Daena Giardella coaches a scene where a hospital administrator is firing surgeons after a horribly botched operation.

Giardella, who does professional improv, boils it down to a rule known as "yes, and."

"Yes, and" means that any idea offered must be accepted.

"You generously give the offer, and then you try to bring something else to the table so that you're building a scenario together, and no one person is totally responsible for that," she tells the class.

Something like: "Hey, you know, I'm really excited about this launch we are going to be doing. It's so great to be working together at NASA."

But students must be prepared for a block: "Huh? I don't work at NASA. Or: What do you mean? What launch?"

Giardella says idea blocking happens all the time in the business world. And one of the most common blocks is the "yes, but."

"Even though you say, 'Yes,' the but says, 'Yeah, but that's not really valid because here is the better point.' "

The "yes, but" lesson is one that Giardella's second-year student, Lauren Kaplan, takes to heart.

"And now I notice it every time that I do it. And I am trying and practicing to not do that and to be more flexible and to note the way that it changes a conversation," Kaplan says.

Getting MBA students comfortable with improv can take time.

Kaplan was worried at first about letting loose. "Will I come off as silly? Or how might some of the things we are doing affect my professional reputation with my classmates who, in some ways, when you are in an MBA program, you consider your classmates to also be colleagues." she says.

Jeff Guan took the improv class a few years ago while at MIT. He now works in wealth management for Citibank in New York. "I was nervous because I was chosen on the first day to dance on the stage," he remembers.

Guan started out shy, but he stuck with it.

"Some people quit right after the first class because they couldn't handle it," says Guan. "They thought this should be an uptight professional environment."

Dancing is not the only curveball Giardella throws at her students. She wants these overachievers to learn — and to fail.

"And as soon as I say that, usually I get so many eyebrows going up, because of course in a business environment and certainly an academic environment, use the word fail and people take notice," Giardella says. "But as an improviser, you gotta know how to rebound. It's not about whether you make the perfect offer, it's about how you rebound if you don't."

Cristiane Oliver, one of her former students, now lives in Miami and is a senior director at Burger King Corp. She was recently trying to present a performance improvement plan. The team included folks from finance, marketing and operations. She saw each of them as a piece of a puzzle — but apparently they didn't.

"I saw in their eyes, in their face, I could read the others — they are not understanding at all," Oliver says.

Realizing she was in trouble, she asked herself what she could do to not lose the audience. She backed up. And, using personal examples, she took the time to really illustrate how each of them fit together.

And then she went on to sell her plan.

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