Learning How to Improvise When Your Plans Change

Below is a new weekly series posting content from one of the most innovative content sources in the church world: SUMS Remix Book Summaries for church leaders. SUMS Remix takes a practical problem in the church and looks at it with three solutions; and each solution is taken from a different book. As a church leader you get to scan relevant books based on practical tools and solutions to real ministry problems, not just by the cover of the book. Each post will have the edition number which shows the year and what number it is in the overall sequence. (SUMS provides 26 issues per year, delivered every other week to your inbox). 

We do not always respond well when the plans change.

As a leader in your church, you are responsible for the planning and execution of a large number of events or activities on a regular, recurring basis. On some occasions, you may be planning a very large, once-a-year type of event. Hundreds of hours of planning and work by dozens of volunteers lead up to the big day – but things don’t go as planned.

What happens next?

Even though all leaders intellectually know that things often don’t go as planned, they are typically not ready that possibility becomes a reality. In this excerpt from SUMS Remix 24, we will explore how to integrate improvisational skills in your reactions to those times when “things didn’t turn out like we planned.” The book this information comes from is Yes, And by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton.

Solution #1: Integrate improvisational skills in your reactions


The rules for leadership and teamwork have changed, and the skills that got professionals ahead a generation ago don’t work anymore. Famed improvisational comedy troupe, The Second City, provides a new toolkit individuals and organizations can use to thrive in a world increasingly shaped by speed, social communication, and decentralization.

Based on eight principles of comedic improvisation, Yes, And helps to develop these skills and foster them in high-potential leaders and their teams, including:

  • Mastering the ability to co-create in an ensemble
  • Fostering a “yes, and” approach to work
  • Embracing failure to accelerate high performance
  • Leading by listening and by learning to follow
  • Innovating by making something out of nothing


If you are facing another sudden change in plans, maybe it’s time to learn from comedians – especially those who excel at improvisational comedy. The skills and techniques of improvisational comedy can be readily applied to leaders in any organization – even the church. The comedian who performs onstage without a script has to be innovative at a moment’s notice and to think on his feet to solve urgent problems. Doesn’t that sound like a situation most church leaders go through on a regular basis?

An improvisational comedy show might seem like a strange place to learn church leadership skills, but there may be more than meets the eye in a fast-paced, creative, and funny show. Seasoned comedians use an essential set of tools to prepare themselves to deliver seemingly off-the-cuff remarks; in reality, those remarks are anything but off-the-cuff.

The individual who is armed with an improvisational tool kit has an instantaneous advantage in dealing with all manner of difficult situations that naturally arise in the course of one’s career.

Improvisation, at its most basic level, lets you respond more quickly in real time. While there’s nothing wrong with the quantitative, strategic and analytical skills traditionally taught at B-schools, those alone do not guarantee success in business and organizational life, where things tend to be messier and more fluid, and where success often rests on the ability to form winning coalitions that will back a good idea.

The seven elements of improvisation introduce a whole new skill set for invention and innovation for today’s leaders.

Yes, And – these two words for the bedrock of all improvisation. Organizational cultures that embrace Yes, And are more inventive, quicker to solve problems, and more likely to have engaged team members than organizations where ideas are judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly. Incorporating Yes, And into every aspect of your organization becomes the ground zero to creativity and innovation.

Ensemble – the ensemble is the preeminent focus of improvisation, and it is also a vital ingredient in almost any organization’s growth and competitiveness. Good ensembles yield great performance by creating an environment where the group’s goals trump the individual’s.

Co-Creation – dialogues push stories further than monologues. The sum of co-creation is greater than its parts. And in our increasingly connected world, co-creation is fast becoming a fact of life.

Authenticity – rather than pretend that problems and failures don’t exist, strong leaders and organizations acknowledge what’s not working. By allowing team members to air grievances or highlight problems, leaders are better able to learn and grow.

Failure – the biggest threat to creativity is the fear of failure. By deflating the negative power of failure, you erode fear and allow creativity to flourish. There are ways to look at failure as a given, and a vital part of the creative process.

Follow the follower – leadership is more about understanding status than about maintaining status. It’s about recognizing the great power that comes in giving up the role of top dog on occasion.

Listening – the care and feeding of our listening muscle is an absolute priority for anyone who wished to create, communicate, lead, or manage effectively.

Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, Yes, And


Learning from the fast-paced and always changing environment of improvisational comedy can help your team learn how to become creative and collaborative “on-the-fly” – exactly the situations you face on a regular basis at your church.

Prior to your next leadership team meeting, print and distribute this SUMS Remix. Ask you team prepared to discuss a recent event in the life of your church where plans had to change at the last minute. Instruct your team to be familiar with the seven elements of improvisation listed above.

At your next leadership team meeting, set aside one hour and a half to use the seven elements of improvisation to develop alternative courses of action to a recent change of plans. Assign team members to each of the seven elements. Give each of the resulting seven teams fifteen minutes to develop an alternative plan using their assigned improvisational skill. Each team will have three minutes to report back to the group, using that skill to deliver their alternative plan.

After listening to all teams make their recommendations, as a group decide on which action you would choose if these methods had been available. Discuss why the group chose this method, and how it might be useful in future situations where plans change at the last minute.

As a closing exercise, go around the room and ask each leader which of the seven improvisational skills intrigue them the most, and that they are likely to use in their own leadership settings in the future.

At future team meetings, take a few minutes to ask if anyone has had a chance to use one of the seven skills recently. Have that member share briefly about the situation and how they used improvisational skills to react to change.

To learn more about being involved in your leading when things don’t go like you planned, start a conversation with the Auxano team today.

Taken from SUMS Remix 24-1, published September 2015

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Bob Adams is Auxano's Vision Room Curator. His background includes over 23 years as an associate/executive pastor as well as 8 years as the Lead Consultant for a church design build company. He joined Auxano in 2012.

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