What Planners Can Learn From Improv

In her 2011 book, Bossypants, Tina Fey devotes several pages to the Rules of Improvisation. As I read them, I couldn’t help but see the many ways that the practice of planning is like one giant improv scene.

Whether it’s working with clients or developers, presenting in front of City Council, and certainly in public meetings — the ability to keep an open mind (and think quickly on your feet) can be a powerful tool for planners. Her first rule is the Rule of Agreement. She explains:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvisation scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

…the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

The idea of starting with a yes may feel uncomfortable but I think it is liberating. The word “no” is more commonly associated the field: planners are often viewed as saying “no” when interpreting code or reviewing new development proposals. Planners also frequently hear “no” when proposing new ideas or initiatives. Applying the Rules of Improv means pivoting to starting with “yes” in order to see where common ground can be achieved. I believe this can have a profound impact for those of us responsible for creating and managing change in a very public way.

Tina’s second rule is to, “not only say YES but YES, AND”:

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

Planners by nature are a rather humble bunch. We certainly did not choose this field for fame or fortune and a reminder of the value of our contributions is always welcome. Approaching our work with a YES, AND attitude exemplifies the diplomacy and “can-do” spirit necessary for the work we do.

For young planners in particular, this YES, AND attitude has benefits in many situations.  For example, when considering a first (or any new) job, saying YES, AND means you understand that the perceived risks will be worth it. My personal philosophy (and experience) is that you can survive anywhere for a year or two and there is no such thing as the “wrong path.”

Additionally, research shows that the stigma of “job-hopping” is largely a thing of the past. YES, AND on the job helps you show your value to your employer. Two easy ways to do this are to anticipate needs before they arise and initiate solutions.

The final lesson from Tina Fey’s rules is the one that has the most potential for planners:

There are no mistakes, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. … In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Approaching things with an open mind, seeing opportunities rather than mistakes, and above all, maintaining a sense of humor are important lessons planners can learn from the world of improv.

This post first appeared on the American Planning Association’s website.