MIT Brings Improv to the MBA Classroom

Posted by: Alison Damast on December 14, 2010

A group of MBA students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management tossed aside their briefcases and book bags this month to flex their creative muscles, doing everything from playing an imaginary game of soccer to inventing office conflicts. The second-year MBA students were participating in a leadership class called “Improvisational Leadership: In the Moment Leadership Skills,” according to a release from the Sloan School. The acting class is the latest step by a leading business school to integrate creative arts and drama into the business school curriculum. It’s a trend that has been brewing for several years at a small but growing number of business schools, as I wrote about in an article a few years back.

Most of the business schools I focused on in that story offered acting classes, but the Sloan School (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile) appears to be one of the first business schools to bring improvisational acting into the classroom. Daena Giardella, a professional actress, director and leadership coach, teaches the class and guides the students through experiential exercises, interactive improvisations and real-life simulations. The financial crisis and shaky economy has heightened the need for this type of training, which brings lessons from psychology and theater to business education, said Giardella, in the release. Students are asked to examine their habits and default responses and come up with new ways to approach the situation, without a script in hand, she said.

“We need these skills so we can adapt to new circumstances to come up with new fixes,” Giardella said. “If there has ever been a time when there is a need for great spontaneous communicators who can be in the moment, embrace change, and make things happen, it’s now.”

The three-hour, once-a-week class has some readings and two required papers, but the majority of the class grade comes from class participation and scenes and monologues that students are expected to enact on the spot. For example, in one scene a student played a boss who was annoyed with an employee who didn't respond to e-mails. In another, students banded together to form a corporate team that was frustrated when a member who was planning to leave hadn't yet told the team leader.

"I always take it back to a professional and business setting, so they can apply the improvisational skills to leadership and influence situations," Giardella said.

MIT's improv class is yet another example of business schools choosing to pay more attention to the so-called "soft skills" that recruiters say they are looking for in MBA candidates. For example, the Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile) recently announced that it be focusing more attention on oral and written communication in their curriculum overhaul. Other schools have added classes and workshops in public speaking. Sloan is perhaps taking an unusual approach to teaching these skills, but it might be onto something.

Readers, what do you think about Sloan's approach to teaching leadership skills?

Reader Comments

lido balboa

December 14, 2010 5:27 PM

when will the pathetic loser who run these frauds grow up and find real jobs? MBA? for what? the crooked markets?


December 14, 2010 6:00 PM

We did this in middle school.

jim stockwell

December 14, 2010 6:03 PM

Con artists are great actors, we dont need better con artists in business like we already have in politics and on wall street. We need serious people who dont spin the facts with great acting and lies.


December 15, 2010 12:27 PM

Improv is not about being a con artist, but rather about being more hyperaware, in the moment and flexible to change. Through improv training, people can re-train their brains to be better active listeners and observers of non-verbal communication. Through this people ultimately become better leaders and communicators.

Shane S

December 15, 2010 1:21 PM

Bitter much?

MIT Student

December 15, 2010 6:06 PM

This class was one of the most helpful I took whilst at MIT Sloan.

This class does not teach students how to act with the intent to mislead but teaches students the skills to think quickly, on their feet in difficult and challenging scenarios.


December 17, 2010 10:43 AM

I took the class as well, and it wasn't about acting at all. For me as an individual, the class provided a way to identify and attempt to overcome unproductive gut reflexes. For example, aggressive people often bring out the worst in me.

For you, how would you go about changing your base-line reaction to whichever personality types or situational triggers set you off?

A standard, lecture- or case-based format would not have worked for this type of "personal" growth.

As Daena Giardella described in the article, "Students are asked to examine their habits and default responses and come up with new ways to approach the situation, without a script in hand."


December 17, 2010 4:45 PM

Yeah, I went to Sloan and I have to say I'm a little embrassed. Not denying the importance of soft skills, but that ain't for the classroom, it should be extra-curricular.


December 20, 2010 1:56 PM

This is nonsense. If ppl want to learn improv, they can probably find a class in their city for $50 a month. In terms of thinking on their feet, aren't these students in their late-20s/early-30s?? If they haven't learned some form of this already in their prior work experiences, how did they ever get into MIT in the first place?

Business IS NOT that uncertain. Human relationships can be but you don't need to do an MBA to figure that out.

David Alger

December 29, 2010 7:34 PM

We give improv workshops for businesses all the time at Pan Theater.

As someone that worked in consulting, I found the basic ideas of improv added to my training in business school.

The idea of saying yes, building with a team, taking chances and the ability to be okay with failure.

Improv classes typically run $100 to $150 per month.

Many people also make friends and business connections in there improv classes.

We're in Oakland, but I know the Comedy Sportz league in San Jose seems to do a great job in getting corporate workshops.

David Alger
Pan Theater


January 13, 2011 2:55 PM

Pathetic attempt from Sloan to boost its ranks. boo Sloanie boo! Pls dont publish such articles and waste space and time.... a school grader would do this


January 15, 2011 4:27 AM

Not to burst MIT's innovative bubble, but Duke Fuqua School of Business have been incorporating improv in the curriculum for awhile now.


January 27, 2011 10:46 PM

If you think that improvisation doesn't belong in a business curriculum, you have a very limited, theoretical, and impoverished understanding of entrepreneurship. Innovation is always about focused, purposeful improvisation. That's how you explore new possibilities without spending a lot of time, money, and energy on solutions that turn-out to be dead-ends. This is especially true of innovations that directly change the customer experience. This is true for both corporate strategy (that is better informed by deeper, more meaningful customer insight) and product/service development.

If it sounds foreign to you (and even frivolous), this is an indication of why business and business schools have been such poor innovators (except for some notable, more open exceptions).

As others have noted, this may be new to Sloan but it's not new to other business programs. Ours, for example, has been doing this from its start:

Fred Talbott

February 14, 2011 6:40 PM

Kudos to MIT! And Wharton!
Teaching at Vanderbilt from 1993-2009, I helped each student master professional speaking and advocacy. Even invented a great way to end stage fright and transfer the resulting energy into advocacy. Worked for more than 3,000 students from 80+ nations.
The final, required speech was original stand-up comedy. It's the most challenging of all talks, and they had to get a laugh. They loved it, and shared amazing creativity. Also learned to laugh at themselves.
Communication is the core of any enterprise. Thanks to every school now sharing communication excellence.

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