Coaching vs. Directing - How Does Improv Theater Suggest You Should Lead Your Team


An age old battle in improv that I believe resonates well with challenges we experience in the business world is the question of whether a team should have a coach or a director (in which case it should be called an ensemble). In addition there's the third option of the self coached team, which I will call committee from here on forward.

- Director: - "Mold" to vision.
- Coach: - "Catalyst", bring out what is there.
- Committee: Rotation, everybody takes turn coaching the team.

- Director: Clear vision, outside perspective, result orientation
- Coach: Most common, improve individual skills, goal defined by team.
- Committee: Cost effective, everyone has skin in the game.

- Director: More restrictive, more static, "done" when objective achieved.
- Coach: No "stretch goal".
- Committee: Cements status quo, high frustration potential.

Well suited when
- Director: Production quality ("broadway material"), time of fundamental change.
- Coach: Always (even in parallel with director), experimenting with new ideas, time of continuous change.
- Committee: Familiar format with experienced cast.

I see strong parallels here with projects I have worked on. There are projects where the very detailed and methodology driven approach is appropriate. In other cases, the more laid back, catalyst type project manager will be more successful. (My experience suggests to consider the self managed approach only in cases of low complexity with an experienced team.)

Let me talk a little bit about one term I used upstairs, which I believe is instrumental: vision. This is a term that you will find in management literature on "leadership", usually in combination with another term: voice. The leader has a vision and he has a voice to inspire others to follow his vision. This is what the director does. Often still in a collaborative way (remember we are still talking about improv, so when the rubber hits the road the team is on its own!). Take Second City, the famous Chicago Theater that gave us the likes of John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Gilda Radner, and many more. At Second City the director will come to rehearsals with a vision, but the cast comes up with the content. (It is still "their show".)

A coach on the other hand is best defined as in Timothy Callway's "the inner game of tennis" - he helps bring out what is already there, by helping others to find their voice. This is as noble as it is difficult, especially when dealing with an entire cast of actors (or professionals for that matter). While I believe I fall in the second category (don't most of us? Think that - I mean) I can fall back on methodology and process when necessary. I think that especially in times of great uncertainty people hunger for clear guidance. If it is not provided, then the most insecure, the most risk averse, those that can worst handle uncertainty and change, will assume leadership roles. Because they think they have to (compare dog training literature!)

One exception: In times of paradigm shifts - for example a team moving from short form to long form improv or moving into more sketch like formats - a director may be called for. If (s)he knows the territory! Beware of providing structure for its own sake! It is quite easy to fall into this trap. Humans love structure, the more uncertain, the more unfamiliar the situation the stronger that urge. Yet, as Peter Drucker, the great management thinker, correctly observes - we live in the day of the knowledge worker. The boss does in all likelihood not know better what needs to be done than the knowledge worker.

There is one more observation about coaching I want to talk about. In Improv, there is a monster called the "rules of improvisation": don't ask questions, don't block, don't play children, don't play old people, don't make jokes. I could go on for pages. You get the idea. Anything you observe about these? Right. They all begin with a don't. In my experience "don't's" are a bad instrument for coaching. A coach should help an individual or team discover what works. Help them find it out by themselves. (For extra credit: what would a director do? Right, the director should come prepared with a set of "do's".) Don'ts do not tell you what to do but that what you have been doing doesn't work. Nice, so now you're paralyzed. You stand on stage thinking "I should not talk about this", and "shouldn't I be making stuff up instead of thinking what not to do?". Or even "did this other actor just ask me a question, man this scene sucks"- From there on your scene will spiral on downward because you are "in your head" and worrying instead of acting in the scene.

In conclusion, there is no one answer, but some observations to be made:
- Provide the appropriate level of leadership for your objective
- Provide a little more if you are going through great changes
- Make your advice actionable and positive
- Help team members (and the team) find their own voice


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