Saxophone improvise

It's All in the Timing

Kelly Leonard
Executive Director, Second City

Editor's Note: Ahem. I’ve been a professional comedian, improv teacher, behavioral science writer and mediocre jazz saxophonist. This is about all of those things.

"Brevity is the soul of wit” so I’ll be brief: I love this piece, I love Kelly and I can’t wait to see how this area of inquiry grows.


One of the cool things about having a full time job focused on finding the connection points between improvisational pedagogy and cutting edge scientific insight, is that you end up having a lot of fascinating conversations.

The literature on improvisation in organizations is not vast, by any means. One of the few academics who has made this specific area a focus of their work is Colin M. Fisher, who earned his PhD in Organizational Behavior and MA in Social Psychology from Harvard University. He’s now at University College in London.

Colin also plays the trumpet. Jazz trumpet. He’s a musical improviser.

Improvisers love to talk about timing. It is as important to musical improvisers as it is to theatrical improvisers. Since so much comedy is created through improvisation, timing  as most of us know  is often the single most crucial element in successful comedy.

Improvisers do this all the time, but is there science behind this?

In a paper he wrote with his colleague Teresa Amabile, Colin relates a story featuring the well-known jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy that talks about timing and the essential difference between composition and improvisation:

"In 1968, I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He answered: ‘In fifteen seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition, you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.’ His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know.”

This comes up all the time in our work when employers are seeking to make their employees more adaptable to change, more risk-oriented and increase their ability to apply divergent thinking to problem solving. Improvisation is a practice in all those things. You build up the skills to make it work in fifteen seconds because you have to. The only way we get good at that  like a jazz musician  is through hours of practice and playing with those who are better than you.

Because we are often tasked with making decisions and developing new ideas in groups, it becomes essential to understand how timing can affect a group’s ability to be open to change. Improvisers do this all the time, but is there science behind this?

It shouldn’t be hard to see how improvisational elements are then applied to work settings.

Colin Fisher also did a study about the timing of formal interventions in decision making groups. His study included 64 three-person groups who were tasked with choosing high level staff members for a new restaurant. Important information on the candidates was randomly assigned to the groups in one of three times: 1) pre-task 2) five minutes after group discussion began 3) at the temporal midpoint of the meeting.

Overwhelmingly, the groups receiving information five minutes after group discussion began made better decisions. They showed significantly lower levels of preference negotiation than the other groups.

When I was talking to Colin about his research, he noted that, “When you wait a few minutes, groups are much more receptive to the same advice, and people share way more information. You get better decisions, even though the difference between the two interventions may just be a few minutes.” He added this line, “All minutes are not created equal.”

Many improvisational formats work in a similar way. Games and exercises are created to have a few minutes at the start that allow for a kind of theatrical table-setting  a period where the actors can adjust to the stage, the audience and to each other. At five minutes in, they are ready to start improvising. Or, framed another way, they are ready to receive new information that they will then need to discover and co-construct a performance from  creating characters, narrative and games along the way that make sense to the group and the audience.  

It shouldn’t be hard to see how improvisational elements are then applied to work settings. When we task groups to make decisions or solve problems, they will do their best work when they are applying generous listening; when they work from a “Yes, And” mindset; and when they can collaborate effectively within an ever-changing environment that has to adapt as new information is brought into the mix.

I co-lead an initiative called The Second Science Project at the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business with Heather Caruso, who is a behavioral scientist. Heather talks about our work as “practice in being unpracticed.”

I love that. Improvisation is something we all do everyday  simply by getting up in the morning. We are mostly working without scripts. And when we do have scripts, those scripts are prone to change quickly and repeatedly.

A more science-based understanding of timing matched with practice in collaborative work can only lead to better outcomes. And better timing.

Kelly Leonard
Executive Director, Second City


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