What is impro? Well, your typical definition is “a form of live theatre where everything is made up spontaneously.”
But for me, impro is a life skill and mindset.
The World Economic Forum lists creativity as one of the Top 10 Skills of 2025. Workplaces are hiring for it, schools are teaching it, communities are calling for it to help solve tomorrow’s problems today.
Really, they should just enrol people in an impro course.
Impro is based on a philosophy that captures a child’s natural orientation toward play and collaboration. It takes this philosophy and reframes it into shared language and formats that adults can use to build and strengthen their creativity and growth mindsets.
It is oddly amusing to reflect that as six-year-olds we were all quite capable of playing make-believe without the impro classes, formats, techniques, and Keith Johnstone books that we apparently require to do so as adults. It’s as though we commenced life with impro skills, lost these in the face of adolescent peer group scrutiny and institutionalised learning, and now as adults must invest time and money relearning what we once instinctively knew: how to engage collaboratively in imaginative play.
Indeed, research by Professor George Land (check out his TEDx talk) found a 98% differential in creativity scores between 5-year-olds and adults. That’s right, people: we un-learn creativity across our life. Unless of course, we’re lucky enough to be introduced to the world of impro!
Here are three foundational impro skills to which I was first introduced as a teenager. For me, these have – alongside other life experiences and learning – morphed into a skillset that I now apply and teach regularly in my work as a business psychologist.
“I did it!” celebrated my client Laura, a Chief Marketing Officer who’s working with me on her leadership influence and reach. “Every time [insert annoying person’s name] opened his mouth this week, I responded with ‘yes, and…’. I’m amazed; he’s less defensive, he’s stopped shutting everyone down, and he’s started asking others for input!”
Anytime I work with someone who’s struggling with combative, defensive, or pessimistic people (including themselves!), I teach them a version of ‘yes, and…’. It’s such a beautifully simple tool, easily implemented, with the power to create healthy shifts in both the psychology of an individual and the interpersonal dynamics of a team. (For those interested in the science of why this is, google positive psychology and the principle of positive deviance).
Oh, if I had a dime for every time a CEO has bemoaned the lack of innovation and creativity in their company culture! My go-to advice when asked to help build innovative cultures: start celebrating offers, not outcomes.
In impro, we practice having a go (otherwise known as making an offer). We win simply by showing up and participating. The bigger and riskier our offers, the more happily we fail! Why? Because it is delightful to watch and boosts player confidence.
When I audit a company culture for the interrelated qualities of innovation, trust, and creativity, I first look to what forums and habits teams have for practising. Most companies have systems designed to monitor and assess performance. But without space to practice, the stakes are too high for people to fail safely. This destroys trust, which limits creativity, which discourages innovative behaviour. (For my fellow geeks, this time you’ll want to google innovative work behaviour and trust).
Make your partner look good
Imagine what our experience of the world would be if everyone was focused on making everyone else look good in context of a shared purpose that benefited a broader community. Just marvel at that utopian concept for one moment! Then crash back to the reality of personal insecurities, workplace politics, and the emotionally unhelpful human instinct to seek success via comparison to others.
Improvisors practice making our partners look good, so that we stay out of our own heads and remain alert to offers for collective play. When our attention is outward, our focus is on supporting the collective success of our group (versus ourselves). Not only does this lead to better theatre, it also leads to increased social connection, improved empathy, enhanced emotional well-being, and a longer life-span (I’m not kidding – those who play more, live longer! Google the National Institute of Play or affective neuroscience to learn more).
These three impro skills serve me well both in the impro room and outside of it. I’m grateful for the growth mindset and positive approach they encourage – and I have consistently used these in my work with leaders and organisations to create healthy and progressive workplaces.
As impro guru Keith Johnstone said, “None of us really grow up. All we ever do is learn how to behave in public.” So, here’s to honouring the child in all of us, by nurturing the essential life skill that is impro!
Dr Kelly Windle is a workplace psychologist, author, and speaker. She helps leaders prepare themselves and their businesses for the future. www.drkellywindle.com