Improv Wisdom

How can the principles of improvisation help us adapt in an unpredictable world?

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Tried and Tested
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Purpose for Students
Get Equipped
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

Improv Wisdom, a wonderful book by Patricia Ryan Madson is about how to apply the principles of improvisation to work and everyday life. Madson first began teaching at Stanford in 1977, and developed the improvisation program in the Drama Department. She founded and coached the Stanford Improvisors (of which I was a member while a graduate student at Stanford!) and taught beginning and advanced level courses in improvisation for many years.




This book has long been used as required reading in Stanford's theater class "TAPS 103: Beginning Improvising."  I was introduced to it when I was a student, and the outlook on life it propose has now become a foundation for how I live my life. Obviously, I apply the 13 "maxims" of improvisation that Madson lays out on stage as a theatrical improvisor. But more importantly, I use them at work and to foster stronger relationships. By reminding myself to "Enjoy the ride" or "Pay attention" I become a more present, easy going, adaptive colleague and partner.

In 2014 I started a company with a group of improvisors from Stanford based on the idea that the principles of improvisation can make teams at work collaborate better. We have since seen these principles applied in startups, large corporations, non-profits, and government offices.




I use the principles in this book literally every day. I say "Yes, and!" to new ideas to see where they will take me, I embrace failure as a gift of learning, and I worry less about having a perfect plan and more about being prepared to adapt to whatever comes my way.

Design Abilities Used

Learn from others: Ambiguity is often a perception. If we look carefully and pay better attention the situation might not be as complex as it first appeared to be.

Synthesize information: Improvisors think on their feet and have developed a capacity to quickly process information and use it to move the story forward.


Submitted by:

Erik Olesund
Erik Olesund
Senior Experience Researcher, Thumbtack + Occasional Lecturer, Stanford

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Synthesize Information
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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