Improv and the Surgeon: The Practical Side of the Woo-Woo Art Form (Part 5 of 5)

Ali Davis
April 25, 2020
Dr. William Tseng

This is the final segment of improv teacher Ali Davis’s talk with Dr. William Tseng, an internationally recognized expert in liposarcoma surgery, on how the principles of improvisation apply to his work.

React to what’s there, not to what you expected to be there.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my talk with Tseng was when I explained the concept of steamrolling. That’s when an improviser, usually a newer one, walks onstage with an idea (Good!) and then can’t or won’t let go of it (Way less good!) when other players move the scene in a new direction. Steamrolling produces an unsatisfying scene for the other players, who are having their ideas shoved aside, as well as for the audience, who are stuck watching a scene that keeps getting jerked away from its natural flow.

Tseng was horrified by the very idea. “In my position, steamrolling could be disastrous,” He explained. “I have to go in assuming change every time. If you keep moving ahead with what you expected to do, you could harm a major vessel with disastrous results. I always have to be ready to pull back and find a new approach.”

Far too many companies steamroll when they should stay nimble and keep checking in on what the situation really is right now. I have friends who worked for a major health insurer while the Congressional debate over the Affordable Care Act was going on. Instead of working on plans to handle different possible outcomes, the C suite spent weeks insisting on moving forward as though the legislation would not be passed. When it finally was, they had to scramble to release rates, plans, and brochures at the last minute – and nobody had checked in with the creative staff to see if they could even manage it in so short a time. A major health insurance company risked missing the crucial open enrollment period because they were too busy steamrolling toward what they wanted reality to be.

Don’t be that company, and don’t be that boss. You risk damaging a major vessel.

I have to be honest: Even as an evangelist for improv techniques, I was surprised by how directly they apply to something as concrete as a surgical practice. Keeping them in mind can help almost any group improve communication and creativity. So warm up, check in with your team, flatten that hierarchy, and go get ‘em.