Michelle James explores the fascinating connections between adhering to the principles of improvisational theater in a performance and being able to adapt, create and improvise effectively in the work place.

I am in an improvisational theater performing group. We improvise full-length plays with nothing planned in advance. No structure. No outline. No character or plot development. Nothing, except for 2 locations we get from the audience at the beginning of the play. The play is then titled, “The Space Station and the Bathroom” or whatever locations we get from the audience. Two of us then run on stage and start interacting, and thus the play begins.

When the play goes well, the audience says, “That HAD to be scripted. At least some part of it had to be scripted. It looked too easy.” It was easy. When the performance does not go so well, the audience says, “That looked hard.” It was hard.

I became fascinated by what makes it work. What creates peak level creativity in our group? What allows a complex, coherent, sense-making structure to emerge from nothing but a simple location? What is the “magic formula” that allows a fully formed, organized play – with believable characters and plot – to emerge before the audience’s (and our own) eyes? And what gets in the way? Why does it work seamlessly sometimes and not so well other times? I became a serious student of improv theory – reading the seminal books in the field and observing the patterns in my group and other groups.

I soon recognized the connections between adhering to the principles of improvisational theater in a performance and being able to adapt, create and improvise effectively in the work place – and in any social system. The same principles that allow a performing group to improvise a 90-minute play out of nothing but a location are the same principles that allow groups, teams, and organizations to solve problems in new ways and reach peak levels of creativity and innovative thinking. The principles form the “container” that allows the group to self-organize to emerge what’s next.

Improv and complex, adaptive systems

Around that same time, I began exploring complexity sciences theory in creativity and could not help but recognize the stark similarities between improvisation and complex adaptive systems such as emergence, self-organization, interdependence, pattern making, increasing complexity, dense local connectivity, coherence emerging out of disorder. Both are open, inclusive, non-linear, dynamic systems that use interactive agents, feedback loops and multiple variables. Both require resilience, collaboration, structure and flow, spontaneity, and engaging the unknown. Both result in a surprising emergence.

Once you allow yourself the freedom to explore and play; set the initial conditions; and then get out of the way, creativity can develop and unify all kinds of things that otherwise would seem impossible.

In our troupe, we don’t go on stage with a pre-formed notion of our characters, plot, conflict, challenge or situation. We just let them emerge based on our interactions, actions and reactions. The “magic formula” is the adherence to the basic improv principles. When we adhere to the principles of improvisation, something emerges that is more intelligent and creative – and intelligently organized – than any one of us could have planned. As with any good emergence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By adhering to the principles, a play unfolds that is so original and unpredictable, that you have a sense of being entirely in flow – getting to fully experience the adventure as you create it.

The principles that allow this to happen are simple, yet profound. They seem easy, but in practice, they are almost the exactly opposite of the ways in which we navigate our everyday work lives. They take re-learning. I say that because we were born natural improvisers and then got “educated” and “civilized” out of the playful aspects of our own improvisational complexity.

The following are 7 basic improv principles – all of which I believe tie in to complexity theory. There are others, but I have found these to be essential.

1. Yes and. Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each performer (agent) interacts with what is offered and offer a unique contribution.

2. Make everyone else look good. That means you do not have to be defending or justifying yourself or your position – others who will do that for you and you do that for others. Without the burden of defensiveness or competition, everyone is free to create. Complex characters can form that enable unpredictable complex actions and direction to emerge.

3. Be changed by what is said and what happens. At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next. You adapt as one structure dissipates and re-organizes into a new structure that expands, yet includes, what was before.

4. Co-create a shared “agenda.” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. You are co-creating the agenda in real-time. In order to keep the play going, you respond to the moment and an “agenda” co-emerges that is more inclusive than anything that could have been planned. It is no consensus, which reduces. It is co-creative, which expands.

5. Mistakes are invitations. In improv, mistakes are embraced – they are the stimulating anomalies that invite the performers into a new level of creativity. By using improv techniques such as justifying any mistake can be transformed into surprising plot point or dialogue that never would have happened in following a conventional pattern. In improv, justifying creates order out of chaos. Mistakes break patterns and allow new ones to emerge.

6. Keep the energy going. No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Someone forgot something important – justify it and move on. You’re lost or confused –make something up and trust the process. Just keep moving. The system is not static – it is alive and dynamic.

7. Serve the good of the whole. Always carry the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” and then you have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support your fellow performers and how to best support the scene. By focusing away from how you will look into serving the larger good – the aliveness of the system – you have more creative impulses and resources available to you at any moment. And the choices you make are more in alignment with the higher levels of creative integration that form a coherent play.

What doesn’t work?

So, what make it “look hard” when it is not working so well? Simple: any violation of the principles. If one of us tries to orchestrate, or worse impose, our own agenda or plot on the piece. If one of us tries to be the “star” and take too much focus. If even one of us is not present to what is unfolding, moment-by-moment. If one of us worries about the plot, and starts to figure out how to “save” it. If we expect someone to should respond in a certain way. In short, anything that gets out of the moment and what is emerging – and into our controlling heads.

The rules are simple – the application can be challenging, requiring conscious effort. One of the paradoxes of improv is that you practice being spontaneous until it comes naturally. By staying present to each moment, getting out of thinking and planning and into being, you have a wellspring options and choices in each moment that you otherwise would miss. With positive intention, active engagement, presence and yes-anding, you can’t do anything but be co-generative!

The truth is, in each performance we have some magic moments and some more effortful ones – some that work and some that fall flat. But by adhering to the improv principles we significantly increase the magic and decrease the efforting. A creative – and surprisingly logical – play can then emerge through that fresh and alive energy. We, and the audience, then get to experience the real-time excitement of riding the flow of a creative emergence. 

I first put my Improvisation and Complexity Matrix into action at the Plexus DC Fractal. Participants were led through a series of improv activities that we then tied in to complexity science principles and discussed how they played out in organizations and other complex adaptive systems. Everyone agreed that, although framed differently, the small number of laws that can generate complex systems are embedded in the small number of laws that can generate full-length improvised plays.


Improv takes you to the edge of chaos – the inflection point – filled with fertile creative potential. We are natural meaning makers, and left to our own devices, our brains naturally seek to evolve order, coherence and meaning. Once you allow yourself the freedom to explore and play; set the initial conditions; and then get out of the way, creativity can develop and unify all kinds of things that otherwise would seem impossible.

The principles of improvisation serve a much larger purpose than performance – they have the ability to create the life-giving container for cognitive, personal, organizational, social, political, and spiritual transformation. I see them as rules of engagement for a more peaceful, co-generative, co-creative, sustainable world.

Michelle James is a business creativity catalyst and CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence.