How to Run Your Company Like an Improv Group, by Twitter CEO Dick Costolo

Photograph by Jake Stangel for Bloomberg Businessweek

When I first got to Chicago and was doing improvisational comedy, there was a group of folks from Ivy League schools, like Rachel Dratch, who graduated from Dartmouth. There was another group from Midwestern universities, the Chris Farley types, who were like, “We are going to swear onstage and take our shirts off.” There was a fascinating balance there. It created a great blend of intellectual comedy and slapstick.

That’s exactly the mix you want to foster in a company. On one hand, you have your innovators. These are your dropouts and visionaries. They say, “I need the freedom to think about this problem outside the limits of whatever constraints other people might operate under.” They tend to think holistically about solutions. Then there are your Stanford graduates with a 4.0 grade point average. They’re disciplined. They think in terms of measuring themselves and everyone around them with data. You want both to make it all work.

A fundamental principle of improv is listening and accepting any initiation that’s made on the stage. If you start improvising that you’re washing the dishes, and a minute later I walk over and turn on the TV where the sink is supposed to be, the audience feels the scene’s been ruined. Similarly, I want my managers to listen and respond to their employees’ perceptions, not ignore them. Managers have to be open to accepting any kind of initiation. When they deny there’s an issue and reflexively defend the status quo, it creates misery for people. — As told to Brad Stone

Costolo is CEO of Twitter.