By Will Hines

Success doesn't mean making fewer mistakes. It just means recovering more quickly. The term I like to use is 'agility.'  Improv teaches you that mistakes are nothing to fear as long as you have the agility to adjust yourself quickly. Agile brands and professionals understand and deftly recover from 'mistakes.'

I put 'mistakes' in quotes because something that was initially a mistake will end up being helpful, given enough adjustments. But let's say a mistake is something that at least temporarily stops the scene or company from moving forward. These happen all the time. A rookie will be so dismayed that they impeded their scene or damaged their brand that they'll freeze up. The veteran knows the way out of a problem is to move THROUGH it.

In 2011, Netflix tried to separate its service of streaming movies away as a separate brand called 'Qwikster.' However, the decision was met with criticism and mockery and many industry blogs declared the move a mistake. After a week, the CEO cancelled the new brand and simply introduced a new pricing plan for the streaming service. So was 'Qwikster' a mistake? Probably. But because of a quick correction, there was no lasting harm done; Netflix is currently the most-watched 'cable network' in America.

My favorite improv example of overcoming a mistake comes from a graduation performance of a class I taught. After a few scenes, a student came out and started flapping his arms to indicate he was a bird. Normally, another student would join and the two would do a scene. But for some reason, no one stepped out. The first student was out there alone, silently flapping his arms, looking nervous and abandoned. A few people in the crowd tittered; they could tell something was going wrong. After a full minute of silence, another ran across the stage, which is the agreed upon signal that the scene was over. Then, two OTHER people stepped out to do a new scene. 

This was a HUGE failure on the class' part. To abandon a fellow classmate and then to just end the scene without addressing it was as big a 'mistake' as I could imagine. I sat in the audience mortified that I had taught this class. Then after a few scenes, the same student stepped out AGAIN and flapped his arms. AGAIN, NO ONE JOINED HIM. He stood there in silence and flapped his arms. Except this time, the audience started giggling. It was becoming a pattern, and patterns are funny. A few of his classmates exchanged looks with each other as they thought about joining him. Instead, someone simply ran across the stage and ended the scene again. The audience laughed moderately and a few people applauded.  A few more scenes went by.

For a THIRD TIME, the student came out and flapped his arms. This time, a few students joined him, then a few more - each flapping his/her arms. Soon they had formed a 'V' of birds on the stage. The initial student looked to his left and right and saw that everyone had joined him and they all simultaneously "flapped" off the stage together. The audience exploded in applause.

Afterwards, I overheard someone saying 'How did they know to not go out the first two times?' They didn't know. They made a mistake. But they adjusted, and so everything was fine.

The point is: there is no point in being scared of mistakes. Just be ready to adjust.

fear improv mistakes Will Hines ucbworkplace agility


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