Oops to Eureka! Turning the Unexpected into an Advantage

A yellow warning sign with the text 'OOPS!' against blue sky.
A yellow warning sign with the text 'OOPS!' against blue sky.

Most people believe the improvisational skill is something you are either born with or not. But guess what? You do improvise. When your boss calls you into her office and asks you to work on a project you know nothing about, that sounds completely scary, and you say, "Sure, I'd be happy to work on that," -- you're improvising.

One aspect of improvisation that is so helpful to leaders is the ability to deal with the unexpected -- with mistakes -- with surprises. The unexpected is an improviser's stock in trade! We never know what will happen from moment to moment, and we're making it up as we go along. I'm sure that sounds like a lot of your days at work! That flexibility and the sense that anything can happen, keeps us on our toes and ready for anything. It's a critical skill in an ever-evolving, global professional world.

"The model for management that we have is the opera. The conductor has a very large number of different groups that he has to pull together. The soloists, the ballet, the orchestra, all have to come together - but they have a common score. What we are talking about today are diversified groups that have to write the score while they perform. What you need now is a good jazz group." - Peter Drucker

Three steps to dealing with the unexpected:
  1. First, you've got to see it and say it. When the unexpected occurs, many try to sweep it under the rug. Act like nothing went wrong and perhaps no one will notice. All that does is breed an elephant in the room. It's the big, uncomfortable thing that everyone really does know about, but that no one will talk about. In improv, we have to acknowledge everything on stage. What that does is takes the power away from the event and gives it back to the people. By acknowledging an event, even if it's ugly, you regain control.
  2. Next, it's time to flip it. It's often a mental moment. You train your brain to see something as an opportunity rather than a problem. Going to Plan B is not always our preference. Having the discipline to say to your team, "The unexpected has happened. We feel pretty unhappy right now, and that's understandable. Let's take some time to consider how we can flip this. How can this be an opportunity for us?" Penicillin and Post-Its both began as huge failures. It was the ability of scientists to look beyond the "mistake" to see that something great was underneath.
  3. Finally, you must use it. On the improv stage, if a troupe has a train wreck (the common term for a scene going completely wrong) we had to use it. By moving on or ignoring it, we lose the audience. When we're able to use the incident for a better scene, a new character, a plot twist -- the audience is wowed and the show is a success.

Case study
The CFO of a mid-size advertising firm made a million-dollar mistake. The day it happened, she visited me, almost physically ill. She knew she'd have to fire people, beg vendors for extra pay time, and make it right for the client. It might ultimately mean her own job as well. She said, "In the 15 years I've worked at this firm, I've never made such a mistake." I let her have a moment of silence and answered, "And the way you deal with it will define your next 15 years at the firm."

We spent some time talking about all the things she had always wanted to improve, change, turn around at the firm. Why couldn't this stressful event be the catalyst for re-examining all their processes? She began to nod, dug in, and put together a plan for the CEO the next day. It was bold, not only managing the event at hand, but addressing several other looming issues for the firm. Her example helped them leverage a very difficult third quarter into a record-breaking fourth quarter.

Oops to Eureka!
By coming to an issue with an improviser's mindset, a scientist's mindset, you can transform how you and your team manage the unexpected and reap the benefits.

Karen Hough is the CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author and contributor to the Huffington Post. Her second, award winning book published by Berrett-Koehler, "Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over" is available. She is the recipient of the Stevie International Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a Yale graduate and international speaker.