When I started a job as a consultant for a management training company back in 2005, I vividly remember a conversation over dinner with my school friend Cath.

“I don’t know how you could do that. Whenever I go on training courses I spend the whole time petrified that the trainer is going to point at me and tell me to say something in front of everyone.”

That expression of her fear has stayed with me. It made me realise that not everyone wants to be out in front of an audience. The irony I saw at the time was that Cath was working for the BBC as a Communications Officer, regularly meeting national treasures like David Attenborough to interview them for press releases. A job that would have left me utterly tongue-tied. We all hold different fears.

I dread to think what mortal fear Neil Mullarkey’s occupation would inspire in people like Cath. Twice a week, with five colleagues he stands up on a West End stage in front of hundreds of ticket-buying punters who have been promised to be entertained. For three decades this ritual has been taking place in the basement of The Comedy Store in the tourist hubbub of London’s Leicester Square. Script-free, and with little more protection than a handful of parlour games, improvisational comedy is one of the stranger ways to make a living.

In the pokey dressing room that snakes behind the stage at The Comedy Store I was reminded of my dinner time chat with Cath as Neil explained the basics of his craft.

The theory of improv is I listen to what you say, and I use what you give me as an offer, an opening, to move on to something else.

So we pick up each other’s thread. You and I can make a song together, as it were. It’s “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” or even “No”.

So the idea is that we have to listen to the other person so intently that we are looking for things to use in the way that we respond. So you’re giving me a thread, a germ of an idea all of the time, and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m going to take what you give me, gift-wrap it and give it back to you. And you return the favour.

It’s all about the idea of accepting the offer. It doesn’t mean that you agree with everything the other person says, but you still use what they have given you as something, as your starting point.

That’s a highly creative form, and some people say “well, that would be great in brainstorms” and I say “Yeah, it’s great in everyday life as well. Even if you are just chatting about the weather.” If you are picking up the other person’s thread rather than taking it off in your direction then each conversation is an improvised scene. Can we let it go somewhere we didn’t know, somewhere we didn’t expect?

It’s the skill of listening that might be most surprising in all of this. Although being extrovert on stage in front of an audience may appear to be an act of broadcasting, the sensing and receiving are paramount to bring a successful improviser.

And to the outsider, the improvised acts can appear most incredible. At the interval during the show Neil and I spoke about his co-performer Pippa Evans, who alongside the acted work is able to improvise the tunes and words of songs across an incredible range of styles. 

Neilmullarkey.PNGNeil told me about the early days of the Comedy Store Players, and how the troupe would regularly visit a local Italian restaurant after shows. One evening Neil explained to the restaurant owner about what they did. The owner said simply “That’s impossible”. But the reality is that there is enough structure provided through the games that are played, or through musical form, to allow for creativity to happen in a reliable way.

Although making a vaguely drunk West End audience chortle might seem a mile away from the world of “proper” work, part of the audience that evening was a group of workers from a telecoms company who had spent the day working with Neil to understand the basics of improvisation as a development exercise. Mullarkey has made improvisational comedy a serious business, working with big corporates and renowned business schools like Ashridge.

I teach them improv… My big, hairy-arsed goal is that improv must be part of business school, be part of school, in the way that mindfulness now, for example, is in school.

If we all learned this simple thing of “Really listen to the other person, use what they say” then you won’t be stuck for something to say because you’ve got something upon which to build. You’ll feel confident in uncertain situations, and the other person will think “Ooh, they’re listening to me. I’d like to play with them.” That’s really what I teach.

I get people up, and people play the games around the room. Just a couple of improv exercises where they think “Wow, I didn’t think I could improvise but I can.”

But the sorts of fears that Cath had about training events are never far away.

I had one today. One person turned up and said “I can’t turn up not knowing what I’m going to say.”

But there are moments when you can go off the script, or when someone says something that you’re not expecting, So they need to know their script and they need to keep on message. Nevertheless there will be times when, it’s in the canteen or in the corridor, moments where if you take advantage of it something wonderful could happen.

I think some people are scared of performance. They think I’m going to get them to perform. And in some ways I do, but it’s not about being funny. It’s about really playing the game, and the funny comes from the moment and the situation, not about “Knock, knock… Who’s there? Have you heard the one about… ” jokes.


Questions of leadership and authenticity, and the role of acting, are obviously themes that come up frequently in Mullarkey’s business work.

I work quite a lot with Ashridge Business School and they talk about being in charge not being in control. So that sense of leader as vulnerable person which is “I don’t know the answers”. On the other hand there’s a woman called Herminia Ibara from INSEAD and London Business School and her book is called “Act like a leader, Think like a leader.” And it’s that way around.

So she’ll say sometimes if you are put in that position, you’ve sort of got to play a role. You can’t say “I’m rubbish, I’ve got no idea” because for everyone else’s confidence you’ve got to play the role of leader. And after a while being playful with your own personality or your characteristics is helpful because you’ll grow into the thing. So remember who was quite good and how did he do it, how did she do it? Play that. Play with what it is to be a leader. And that through playing a character, you’ll learn the role.

The importance of being able to go off-script is obvious for Neil, or at least it is now.

A good leader encourages failure and (taking) risk whilst also saying “It’s a small enough risk. It’s a manageable risk. What’s the worst that could happen?” I used to say “I don’t want someone doing open heart surgery to improvise” and then I did a cardiologists’ conference and they said

“Well, we have to improvise. We’ve done the scans. We go in and we’ve got to deal with what’s there.”

In the act of improv, there is structure to temper chaos. This is a concept in which has parallels with management thinking about creativity and innovation.

Ralph Stacey from the University of Hertfordshire (talks about how within) any organisation or any team you’ve got a degree of uncertainty and a degree of disagreement. So you’ve got this area – which is… there’s a bit of uncertainty, there’s a bit of disagreement, but that very thing means that new things can happen. And he calls it “Bounded instability”.

But they’ve got enough structure that it’s OK. It’s not just “Go and do stuff”. And they say “Say yes to the mess” – this is a man called Bill Critchley who works with Ralph Stacey – sometimes the creative process is a bit messy. It doesn’t look like you are getting anywhere. And sometimes the leader’s job is to notice when it’s not getting anywhere so to pump in a bit of direction… or to step back and say “It’s OK, I know that they’ll get there in the end”.

The old story was that the Leader knows everything. You’ll learn. And in ten years time maybe you’ll be the leader. So you start off at school, college. You’ll make the tea, do the paperclips, photocopying. After two years maybe do a project. Eventually you’ll run a bit (of the business) and that’s the way…

Nowadays it’s quite different. Nevertheless, how do you provide leadership? We want to feel a bit supported, but feel a bit free as well.

I saw John Cleese once. He said that the best things are limited-time projects with a small team. They’ve got a certain budget, a certain deadline, and they get on with it. Which is not unlike theatre.

The creative industries are often greatly misunderstood by people from outside, who perceive a lack of formality and sometimes a lack of seriousness incorrectly.

I think people think that show business is all darling and luvvie. But we’ve got more precise deadlines than anyone. We’ve got to get out on the first night. Tonight, we start at eight o’clock, we finish at ten, with six people. We know who we are. We know the running order. But once we are on the stage, then we can improvise. We are creating a structure as we go.

So we’re not tending towards chaos, we are tending towards a sense of structure. But even then we have this thing about “Scene’s going pretty well, going pretty well. Hmm…” Before it fades it needs a new impetus. You get this sense of “Oh, we need a new impetus here.”

The Creative Process, however, is anything but linear. By nature it is a series of iterations, peaks and troughs.

I saw on Twitter the other day – The creative process… “Oh, this is quite good. Oh no, it’s shit. Oh I’m rubbish. Maybe it’s not so bad. Let’s keep going. Oh, that wasn’t so bad after all, was it?”

It’s not “this just gets better day by day”. You’ve got to live with the ups and downs. “This isn’t going very well. What I thought was good isn’t so good. Oh, maybe it is OK.” It’s what work looks like. Just because you weren’t wearing a suit doesn’t mean that you weren’t working. If you are chatting to somebody. If you went for a long walk. That’s work.

Just drawing up endless spreadsheets is not work…

And that perception of what is “proper” work is a barrier to innovation that I see in organisations across many different sectors. Play is crucial to innovation, but play is also regarded somehow as distinctly un-work like.

A big thanks to Neil Mullarkey for inviting me to speak with him and watch the Comedy Store Players perform.

I’m currently writing a book about Play. You can find out more about the book here.


4 thoughts on ““And you return the favour”

  1. Lovely piece. @lucidplot is good on the whole ‘Yes, and…’ thing in the workshops he does/ looking at how to do active listening. I now better understand why he also does improv

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