New textbook from professor Gary Shields and actor Rico Bruce Wade teaches how improv can improve business accumen

Textbook Cover for Improv(e) BusinessFor the last four years, MBA students could opt into the weekend course “Improv in Business,” taught by assistant professor of teaching Gary Shields, along with actor and improviser Rico Bruce Wade. Now, they have co-authored a book along with Kari Goetz based on their decades of acting and teaching experience to help business students learn how to use improv skills to improve their business acumen.  

Improv(e) Business: Developing Skills for Personal and Professional Success” teaches students improv abilities that will help them navigate business situations that require fast thinking, creative problem solving, and strong communication skills. 

“We’re always improvising, every day. In business the realization is that with emerging technology, with pandemics and with customer and employee changes everything in business changes so quickly you must be agile and nimble,” Shields explains. “You have to think on your feet and be able to change. So we postulate that improvisation is a tool to help you be creative and innovate.” 

Starting with a general scaffolding of foundational skills and ideas, students in the course then learn how to use these foundations in unique ways. The book provides an experience like what you can expect from a class with Wade and Shields, and while reading a book about improv and practicing improv are two different things, anyone picking up their new textbook will learn skills applicable to their professional life.  

“It’s a safe environment, the students have the opportunity to take risks, they have the opportunity to fail and try again, and they have the opportunity to make novel choices,” explains Wade. “For some of our MBA students, that’s not necessarily encouraged in their work life.” 

The lessons in their textbook come directly from years of teaching acting and improv, not only to MBA students but to highschoolers and future actors. These lessons came to the Ilitch School when former dean Bob Forsythe wanted to help business students with their communication skills. 

“He [Forsythe] heard from employers that Wayne State students were smart, good, hard workers, but the one thing they could use is better verbal skills, communications skills, more confidence, and being able to think on their feet,” says Wade. “One of the reasons Forsythe wanted us to do the workshops with freshman initially was to give them some way to improve their communication skills.” 

Communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to build on and try new ideas are central to theater and improv, and to business too.  

“In improv we say ‘yes and,’ it’s this whole idea of building on what other people say and do,” explains Shields. “Many people get into the business world and start thinking in my company this is never going to work, it’s going to cost too much, I don’t want to do it because my department’s going to be eliminated, it’s too risky, but that is not a culture that bodes well for long term success.  

“We give them some advice and some games, tools, and exercises they can do to help turn the culture and the ship around.” 

The textbook “Improv(e) Business: Developing Skills for Personal and Professional Success” is now available through the Kendall Hunt publishing company.

-Patrick Bernas, Information Officer III 

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