Improv and the Art of Diagnosis

“How long do I pay you to figure this out?”

This month, my Triumph Bonneville suffered an intermittent starting problem. The darn electrical issue plagued me for weeks; I spent hours on forums and eventually paid for hours with a mechanic. Six hours later, the shop had not found the issue.

So I paid them $115 an hour for their efforts, rolled the bike to a stall and sighed.

While I Ubered home with my helmet, I thought about the volatility of the cost of diagnosis across industries. We see it in medicine when we get second opinions on puzzling symptoms. We also see it in software – every programmer knows it can take anywhere between 30 seconds and 30 hours to get to the bottom of a bug.

Putting a price on diagnosis time is a tough spot for both customers and professionals. Other industries have it easy! Could you imagine walking into McDonald’s and ordering a Big Mac, only to hear:

“That’ll be either $3 or $300.”

“What? How?”

“We’re not sure if we can get the burger together in time. Or if it’s even a burger that you need.”

“I need a burger. When will it be ready?”

“Either tomorrow or this Fall.”

The hard skills behind making an accurate, timely diagnosis are well documented in the blogosphere. Ignore extraneous information. Focus on cause and effect. Don’t mix two separate issues.

But soft skills, those that I learned through improv, are comparably important: Focus. Just listen. Don’t freak out!

Ignore the pressure of the customer, boss, patient or the consequences of messing up. That won’t help you find the root cause any quicker.

In improv, we have the luxury of writing the script on the fly. An improv scene is problem solving in reverse, exposed bare: improvisers create the consequences, even the logic, and the audience judges them on their ability to follow their own rules.

When the scene ends, the audience asks themselves, “Did that make sense? Were the characters true to themselves? Was that scene believable given the context established?”

Remember those math problems in school where the teacher would give you credit if you showed your work, even if you didn’t arrive at the correct answer? In an improv scene, there usually is no “one correct answer” – the audience gives full credit for showing your work.

What does that mean for diagnosis? Of course, we need to find the correct answer in the professional world. But improv helps us focus on the process of diagnosis rather than getting caught up on a result. It prevents us from the pitfall of jumping to conclusions while ignoring a key data point or before knowing all the facts.

And very importantly, it helps us articulate the logic in our minds to an audience to get our customers on board. How many times have you had a mechanic or physician explain what they plan to do instead of first telling you why they plan to do it? As a customer, I’m much more willing to keep paying a professional when he or she can bring me into their logic.

My favorite, fun improv scene games that address these logical steps are Creation Myth, where the improvisers have to fabricate the “Aha!” moment of a famous invention, or Commercial, where improvisers pose as a creative agency to come up with a marketing campaign on the fly. Both games shift focus away from the result and onto the logical steps that get us there.

Chris Severn delivers corporate trainings through improv comedy techniques for organizations in the Bay Area. Visit  or email to schedule an introductory class.