Book review by Pete Markey: The art of making sh*t up

Using the Principles of Improv to Become an Unstoppable Powerhouse by Norm Laviolette

The title of this book has huge appeal for me personally, given that I’ve been learning the art of improvised comedy for the past 7 months and have been actively working to apply this to my home life and my day job too. 

Now critically it is important to understand that improv is not stand up (people keep asking to see my routine and there isn’t one!). In improv you are literally improvising using a variety of techniques and there is no script and no safety net. It is literally performance on a knife’s edge...

The author sets out what is a compelling and easy read and whether you have experience of improv or not there are learnings across the board that are practical and easy to apply. He also deserves listening too given he’s created Improv Asylum, a multi million dollar business from scratch that delivers innovation and new business ideas using many improv techniques.

It's a bold claim that “making shit up is the apex of creative and intellectual freedom” but the author, Norm Laviotte goes to great lengths to convincingly get across that this is indeed the case both from insightful learnings and his own personal anecdotes.

There is a great chapter on listening and the need to talk “with” each other rather than “at” each other. This forces us to think and to better build on others ideas rather than waiting for a pause to push forward our own ideas ahead of someone else’s. Laviolette builds on this further with tips on building off other people’s ideas including “yes and” which as a technique forces you to focus on building up an idea even if it’s not one you put forward yourself.

There are great insights too on overcoming the fear of looking stupid, one of the major blockers in life and in our careers from moving forwards and both pitching in and developing new and innovative ideas. As Laviolette notes, the fear of looking stupid is “100% in our control” and “you can’t accidentally slip or fall or poison yourself or sever a limb by looking stupid” so what are we worried about?

In improv as in life too you need to accept that you might be wrong and you might need to be wrong to be right as “failure is an undeniable pat of any creative process.” Rather than chase perfection, this book rightly gets across the importance of accepting that failures will come and building resilience to fear of failure is key. Improvisers “fail” on stage regularly, we can run with some sketches that just don’t illicit any laughs or fail to energise an audience. In the same way as an improviser you have to overcome the fear of failure, the same is true in business too or things just will not progress or move forward.

There are other great techniques in the book like “heightening” to see the extreme of where an idea can go. As a leader, there are also compelling lessons on how to get the best teams that can use improv as a key set of tools for how the team functions and performs. Bravely, Laviolette puts forward that to have a high performing team you need to “fire the assholes” (as they create a toxic environment where people no longer want to express ideas) and the “cult factor” where people follow passion and energy over just ideas. 

As one of life’s least patient people, I found the chapter “Be patiently impatient” one of the best noting the need to pace yourself as a leader to drive change and not exhaust your team by driving change at the right pace but not settling for second best. There are sobering lessons too on environmental factors with Laviolette concluding powerfully that “a healthy culture is ultimately the responsibility of leadership” and “if you want your team to reach new heights look at the culture.”

Overall, this is a great book. It’s easy to read and the chapters are short and well-paced with clear learnings throughout. Even if you have no experience of improv this book is reader friendly and takes you on a journey that will give you all the insights and techniques you need without ever attending a lesson. Or when you read it you may like me be hungry for more and want to see what all the fuss about improv is really about....

Some key learnings from the book:

  • Listening is vital
  • Build on others ideas and see how far they can go
  • Continually work to overcome fear of failure and fear of being wrong
  • Culture is your responsibility as a leader
  • People follow passion and energy not just ideas 
  • Be patiently impatient
  • If you want a great team, “fire the assholes”....
    By Pete Markey, Chief Marketing Officer at TSB Bank

    You can purchase The Art of Making Sh!t Up: Using the Principles of Improv to Become an Unstoppable Powerhouse by Norm Laviolette through the Wiley website here


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