‘Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work’, by Max Dickins

Comedy improvisation is not an obvious work tool to many employees, especially those who tend to be more introverted or have no experience of any artistic performance, such as theatre.

According to Max Dickins, a stand-up comedian and director of Hoopla, an improvisation training school, there is much to be gained from it that will benefit our working lives, whether it be to boost creativity, overcome conflict or make us more influential. He believes it is like yoga for your soft skills: “If yoga makes your body more flexible, then improvisation makes your thinking, your behaviours and your communication more agile.”

While the author makes his living from stand-up, he ventured along to one of Hoopla’s improv classes in east London one day because he wanted to feel more confident in his everyday life. Dickins says that stand-up for most people is the epitome of swagger and spontaneity, but “anyone who has done stand-up will tell you that ‘confidence’ and ‘spontaneity’ are con tricks”. 

Stand-up acts are pre-planned, so “the laughs I got were affirmation of my self-worth,” he writes. “On stage I was King. But I wanted to feel confident for more than twenty minutes a day. I felt that improv might help me feel it offstage too.”

The author is keen to point out that improvisation is not about being good at “bullshit” or simply “making it up as you go along”. The point is to improvise at the point where the necessary preparation and expertise become irrelevant and it is particularly useful when trying to solve very complex problems.

There are six chapters, which include how to rediscover your imagination, kill your inner critic, and provide hacks to come up with lots of ideas, fast. A chapter on agility is particularly apt amid the global pandemic as it aims to teach how to see the possibility in change and how to effectively harness feedback. 

Case studies also help readers to understand what others who tried their hand at improv, gained from it in a work context. “We all improvise every single day,” writes Dickins. “We just don’t realise it.”

‘Unreasonable Success and How to Achieve It’, by Richard Koch

Can anyone be unreasonably successful? Richard Koch believes so. “It’s now time to unfurl the map of success,” he says in the introduction to his latest self-help guide. “Soon you can start your journey towards a new, unreasonably successful future.”

Koch has achieved a significant amount himself as an entrepreneur and investor, backing companies such as Filofax and Betfair, the online gaming company, which is presumably why he feels justified in writing this book. He is also fascinated in what was behind other, more famous, successful people.

Unreasonable success by Koch’s definition covers those world-changing successes that set a person apart as a unique talent; they go beyond what a person’s skills appear to warrant; they stem from inexplicable leaps of intuition; and they seem unimaginable when compared to what that person was when he or she was young.

There is a route to this kind of success, according to Koch, encompassing nine landmarks. The book is a series of stories about 20 people, who in Koch’s opinion achieved unreasonable success, and did so by passing through these nine points — such as displaying self-belief, thriving on setbacks and leaving established paths to plough your own furrow.

The bulk of the writing is the stories of the people that Koch considers to be those who achieved unreasonable success: from Madonna to St Paul, and Margaret Thatcher to Vladimir Lenin.

You might not learn a lot that is new about these leaders, but Koch is good at knitting these tales with his nine characteristics of unreasonable success alongside some practical tips.

‘On Board: The Insider's Guide to Surviving Life in the Boardroom’, by Sir John Tusa

“Serving on a board is a responsibility and a privilege,” writes Sir John Tusa. “The high points are very high, the low points properly chastening.” In his book, the radio and television journalist who has served on the boards of institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum reveals the successes and failures of governance.

Whether it be a parish council, school or multinational corporation, the non-executive board, he writes, plays a critical part in their success: “They do not run it; they watch over it, they supervise it. The ultimate responsibility for an organization is theirs but they should not interfere in the way it is managed. This is the central paradox of the activity of ‘governance’.”

This book highlights the issues faced by the boards he has sat on — British, American and European — and board members he has worked with. Among colleagues were lawyers, bankers, artists, academics and administrators. Interviews include contemporary artist Grayson Perry, who Tusa worked with on the board of the University of the Arts London. Perry now serves as the UAL’s chancellor. We also hear from former chief executive of BP Lord Browne, who was a trustee of the British Museum for 10 years from 1995.

Tusa reveals squabbles between board members and financial crises — no board he sat on was ever “made-up of stupid people”, Tusa says, “yet almost everyone made at least one significant mistake” — but the stories show how divisions and chaos are surmountable. 

For more than 30 years Tusa has sat on boards that have been established for centuries, others newly created and he believes only two things have ever been certain: “The unpredictability of events in the world of governance and the fact that frequently, board membership will be a time of personal learning that is painfully acquired.”

‘Jam Cultures: Inclusion — Having a Seat at the Table, a Voice and a Vote’, by Jitske Kramer, translated by Mischa Hoyinck and Robert Chesal

We don’t often review management and leadership books that are not written in English, the dominant language of business — which makes Jam Cultures, translated from Dutch, an interesting and inclusive prospect in itself.

The “jam cultures” of the title are the author’s way of comparing active efforts to create diverse and inclusive workplaces (and beyond) with musical jam sessions: “Where we are all trying to find our own voice, summoning the courage to make it heard, and tuning in to each other to create a better sound”.

If that sounds cheesy, prepare yourself. The book has lots of inspirational asides from the author, but get past those and there is a lot that is valuable — and very different — to take in here.

The non-Anglocentric focus of this book allows readers a glimpse into a different range of academics. Kramer is an anthropologist — it’s useful and non stigmatising to see the evidence of how hard inclusion can be to enact properly, by respecting people’s individuality rather than asking them to assimilate or change. Kramer cites the work of Dutch anthropology professor Gloria Wekker, for example, on what she calls our “cultural archive, an unacknowledged reservoir of knowledge and emotions, based on 400 years of colonial domination, which continually informs our feelings, thoughts and actions without us even realizing it”.

Kramer sets out a clear path for any group or organisation that really wants to have difficult conversations and listen to everyone’s contribution. Her chapters are clearly laid out, with exercises and advice — but this is no quick-fix guide. We are still in the very early days of working out how to talk about diversity and inclusion, and Kramer uses her experiences in helping to embed democratic conversations in South Africa, among other places, as a blueprint to guide us towards better understanding — and more inclusive cultures.

‘One Step Ahead: Mastering the Art and Science of Negotiation’, by David Sally

The desire among people in business to learn how to negotiate better has driven an industry in teaching and books on the subject. How to Win Friends and Influence People, written by Dale Carnegie and published in 1936 is one of the best-selling books of all time. But there are clearly gaps in the market, and demand for further reading matter on the subject.

David Sally, a behavioural economist who teaches negotiation classes at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, shares some of the insights he has gained from over a quarter of a century of getting MBA students and executives to think more scientifically about how to strike deals.

His highly readable self-help guide takes us from Machiavelli to Darwin, as well as some slightly less well-known academic authorities, in order to show when and how — and when not — to negotiate.

The book’s title comes from the thinking that the most successful negotiators are those that dig deepest into every element of the negotiation — the alternatives, the social pressures, the biases and the numbers involved.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sally proposes that good negotiators do not learn everything they know from self-help books like this one: they read novels and watch movies and they analyse the behaviours of people they meet to better understand how people interact. So, while this book may help you get so far on the subject of negotiation, even the author believes that good negotiators need to do more.

‘The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of Our Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time’, by Shasta Nelson

The starting point for Shasta Nelson’s exploration of the benefits — personally and for an organisation — of staff having friends at work is the phrase we’ve all heard many times: “I am not here to make friends”. Almost 30 per cent of people are not sure that it is a good idea to or appropriate to have a best friend at work. And that, as Nelson goes on to demonstrate in her fun, easy to digest guide, is a shame for us all.

If we have (or have had) a best friend at work we are far more likely to be convinced of its benefits (nearly 90 per cent are convinced it is a good thing). Why does this matter? Nelson’s chapters go through an array of arguments bolstering our need for intimacy in work just as much as in any other part of our lives. And she defines loneliness as “wanting more belonging than we are currently experiencing” — a reframing that is helpful for the workplace, where inclusion is now top of many managers’ agendas.

So how do we go about making friends at work? There are chapters here on the science of all friendships (and relationships more widely) and setting healthy goals and expectations for the kinds of friendships we may seek in a workplace. There’s also advice on “unwanted romantic bonding” — when things go beyond friendship.

At a time when so many people are missing the interactions in a physical workplace, Nelson’s book reminds us that we need connections, and that it is fine — indeed, healthy — to have close friends in a place of work.

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