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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Improv

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Tat-Seng Chiam, who recently joined Zinc VC's Mission 2 as a Founder.

I'm currently a third of the way into the Zinc Mission 2 business incubator programme, with this year's mission focused on unlocking new opportunities for people in places hard-hit by globalisation and automation.

All 50 of the Zinc entrepreneurs come into the programme pre-idea and pre-team, and aim to find both over the first few months of the incubator - as you can imagine, this structure further increases the level of ambiguity inherent in starting a business!

A few years ago, I took some improvisation performance classes and going through Zinc has brought home to me a lot of the parallels between improv and entrepreneurship, which I thought I'd reflect on for this blog entry:

1. The importance of "Yes, and..."

"Yes, and..." is one of the most critical phases in the improv world, and refers to the principle that a participant should accept the core legitimacy or reality of what another participant has said ("Yes,"), and that they should expand on the core of what the other participant has offered ("and").

For instance, if a fellow team member suggests that user research might be an important task to complete, "Yes, and..." means that I should try to accept that there is something legitimate in the idea of user research, and then make a contribution of my own; for instance, I could propose a reason for why the user research is important, or I could suggest a specific way we could conduct user research (e.g. online survey? Face-to-face interview?)

There's a couple of interesting implications of this principle - one is the fundamental belief that everyone in the team has the ability to make unique and important contributions to the group's work. And another of course is the importance of listening - and listening really well to ensure that you've grasped what the core idea/suggestion is that another participant is making.

2. Mistakes are opportunities

Now of course there will be several instances where exploration of an initial offer will ultimately lead nowhere. And in both improv and entrepreneurship, there are many times where mistakes, especially those committed in public settings, will feel horribly embarrassing - you forget a witty line you had on an improv stage, or in a business pitch, and it's hard to not want to cringe at yourself.

However, an improv mindset flips the view of mistakes and embraces them as intriguing anomalies or outliers that invite performers to attain a higher level of creativity. Mistakes break stale patterns and mentalities and just might allow for the new billion-dollar idea to emerge. Some of the most successful businesses on the planet today emerged from dramatic pivots, that originated from what could have been viewed as "mistakes". Did you know that YouTube started off as a video-based dating service, where users could upload short videos describing their ideal partner?

3. Make everyone else look good

Both improv and entrepreneurship can feel like wild emotional rollercoasters where, one minute you're forensically dissecting your perceived failures, and the next minute you're the champion of the world. In those latter moments, it's still critical to bear in mind that both types of creative endeavour rely on a huge amount of cooperation to achieve maximum scale. Sometimes the occasion will call on you to really step up and perform, and to be the star who attracts attention. And there'll be many other moments when the right thing for you to do is to give away focus to others, step back and figure out how best to support your fellow performers/entrepreneurs. And in all cases, you need to figure out how you can best serve the greater good and make everyone - not just you - look amazing.

After all, if you don't believe in the potential of those you're working with, why are you teaming up with them in the first place? All else being equal, I would rather claim 50%, or even less of a brilliant venture, than 100% of a mediocre one. 

-- Both improv and entrepreneurship are activities that carry a degree of risk, but also present huge upside, with lots of opportunities for personal growth along the way. Neither is for everyone, but both are for more people than you might assume! 

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