Improv as a Team Building Exercise


ImprovAs a Fool whose job is it to focus on Collaboration, I’m constantly looking at new ways to get people working together in a fun, creative setting.  One big success I’ve had over the years is through teaching workshops in improvisational comedy.

It might sound a bit crazy, teaching the Finance team how to bray like donkeys or having the Marketing group perform a scene about pirate toddlers, but the skills a successful improviser uses are actually quite similar to those of a successful professional in the workplace.

There aren’t many “rules” of improv. In fact, many people like to think that there are no rules.  However, there are several guidelines which tend to make for great improv scenes.  Such as:

  • Listening
  • Having a “Yes” attitude
  • Keeping an open mind
  • Focusing on the task at hand
  • Making bold choices and not worrying about failure

Performing improv successfully is all about being in the moment, and reacting to the environment in a natural and unselfish way.  Two fundamental words which I preach are “Yes and…,” which basically means “That’s a good idea AND I’m going to enhance your idea by offering THIS.”  When you’re making it up on stage, you need to be open-minded and willing to go along with anything.  Contradiction, selfishness, and denial are the enemies of improv.  And also business, I would think.

So you might be wondering, “What exactly happens in a particular improv workshop?”

I start off by doing 15 minutes of reaction-based circle warmups, which are designed to lighten the mood and let people slowly release whatever mental baggage they’ve brought into the room.  Eventually people soon start to realize that they’re going to look a little bit silly and that’s perfectly okay.  Usually people are already laughing and getting along great after just a couple of minutes, despite whatever inhibitions they’ve brought into the room.

The next 30 minutes or so is all about accepting another person’s offer. Too often in the business world it’s all about “This is MY idea” and “We have to do it THIS way.”  In my workshop, employees learn to say “Yes, And”—to take someone else’s idea and roll with it.  So we throw lines of dialogue at each other and see how people react.  If I was to look at a participant and say “Your hair is filled with Jello,” I’d hope to hear back something like “Ewwww… call 911, it’s starting to seep into my brain.”  I would not want to hear, “I don’t have Jello in my hair.  Now let’s build that canoe,” because that’s basically saying, “Fellow performer, I don’t trust you, so I’m going to do what I want instead.”

Hopefully, you can see how this might relate to working well with others in the business world.

By the end of the workshop, we perform improvised scenes together, where the employees are actually making plot choices, choosing characters, and, along the way, having a whole lot of fun.  Usually several people are laughing so hard, they hurt.  And it’s not the mean sort of laughter that comes when a kid drops his tray in high school.  It’s much more like “Wow… I work with this person every day, and I had no idea they could do this.”

After it’s all over, the results are usually very positive.  At best, people learned to break out of their shells, were more accepting of ideas, and listened more intently.  And at worst, they had a fun two hours laughing with their teammates.  And that’s always a good thing.

The Great Foolapalooza Hunt (Part 2)

Foolapalooza Game

Foolapalooza Game

So the idea was approved, albeit with some concern, naturally. Would people really want to spend two to three hours solving puzzles? When the plan was announced, a common response was, “Do I really have to do this scavenger thing?” (I knew it wasn’t really anything like a scavenger hunt, but there was really no way to explain it to people, until they experienced it themselves.)

So for the next month and a half, I worked with a team of dedicated Fools to put together a truly memorable event. Here’s how it worked:

Fools were divided into teams of five people each. In my experience, this is the ideal number for maximizing involvement and productivity. Fewer than that and you’re not taking full advantage of the “wisdom of crowds.” And larger than that? Well, some people start tuning out and you start to see inefficiencies creep in.

Teams started by receiving a set of company cards, each with the name of a fictitious company, such as Tickerwaster or Wahoo!  Teams had to trade companies with other teams in order to build the highest value portfolio. The catch was that they didn’t know all of the rules of the game. However, they could trade rules with other teams in order to learn all the different ways that portfolios were scored.

Teams also received a map with the locations to five puzzles. When they solved a puzzle, they received additional cards and rules. And so on.  At the end of the event, the team that turned in the most valuable 10-card portfolio was the winner.

And the puzzles? Well, I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but here are some highlights:

  • A real-live Shakespearean troupe performing versions of popular financially themed movies (Wall Street, Slumdog Millionaire, Trading Places, etc.).
  • Building a sandwich out of ingredients printed on transparencies (which when stacked correctly revealed a secret message).
  • Matching 10 bandanna pieces according to clues printed on the edges (which then formed a recognizable shape).
  • And so on.

And the teams absolutely loved it. So many people told me later they were skeptical about the event, but once they got into it, they had a great time. Of course, I was elated.

It was clear that everybody had a good time. But it was also clear that people got a lot out of it. They bonded with co-workers. They overcame initial fears of feeling stupid, and ended up feeling much smarter as a result. And they learned to work efficiently and productively with a group of fellow Fools that they didn’t really know that well – which was my hope from the beginning.

The Great Foolapalooza Hunt (Part 1)

Foolapalooza team figuring out a puzzle

Foolapalooza team figuring out a puzzle

My very first task as the newly appointed chief collaboration Fool was to run a big team-building event at our annual company meeting – what we loving call “Foolapalooza”.

This came as no surprise to me. In fact, it was my idea.

For a long time, I’ve been a fan of real-world treasure hunts. The kind you see in the movie National Treasure, where you solve a clue that leads to a new location, at which point you find another clue, and so on … until you reach your final treasure. At least that’s the hope.

Traditionally, the first afternoon of Foolapalooza had been reserved for group outings and activities such as softball, canoeing, paintball, wine-tasting, etc.  And this was very popular. So it was with a little trepidation that I proposed we abandon this plan and instead have the entire company participate in a custom puzzle hunt of my creation.

Why change? Well, I thought there was some real value in conquering challenges as a team and on top of that, doing so with a group of people you normally didn’t get to work with. I also felt like I had the chance to have them experience something they had never done before.

When I pitched the idea to the planning committee, I figured what better way to demonstrate the kind of puzzles I was talking about than to have them solve one. And that’s what I did.

I handed them nine cartoon drawings of marine life: fish, crabs, whales, etc. A number and an English word were written on each animal:








8. CUD


The instructions? Well, the only thing I told the group was that this puzzle had a single phrase as its answer. And that was it. They had to figure out what to do.

At first the team looked at the words and tried to scramble them into other things or identify the fish and so on, but there wasn’t much success. But then they had their first “aha!” moment.

“SCRIMP is very close to SHRIMP. In fact, it’s one letter different.” To which somebody else added, “Yeah! And TUBA could be TUNA!” And so on until the team had identified nine ocean-related animals:








8. COD


“Is that the answer?” they asked?

I shook my head no.

They studied the fish again. Finally, somebody said, “Well, wait, what if we look at the letters that changed?” Slowly they began to unearth a message. O-C-E-A … OCEAN! B-L-U … BLUE. OCEAN BLUE?


The group members high-fived each other, happy in their success. I then explained to them that in the Foolapalooza hunt teams would solve five or six challenges more elaborate than this, many of them Fool-themed. And in the process, they would have to think outside the box, listen to each other, be open-minded, deal with failure, and hopefully ultimately succeed.

And that was how the first ever Great Foolapalooza Hunt was green-lighted.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2, where I explain the structure of The Great Foolapalooza Hunt!



Collaboration Leadership

_Stand Up Meeting

_Stand Up MeetingMy name is Todd, and I write games for a bunch of Fools.

Sounds cool … but what’s your real job?

Well, actually that is my real job. For the past year and a half, my job at the Fool has been to foster collaboration among our employees. As we continue to grow, the need to maintain that feel of a “small company” becomes increasingly important.

And that’s where I fit in. My job is to make sure Fools not only know each other but are comfortable working with almost anyone at the company. The Motley Fool’s structure and hierarchy (Something we avoid like the plague) are constantly, intentionally changing, and over the course of a Fool’s tenure, he or she will work with a wide variety of other Fools. Logically, then, the more everyone knows each other (and feels comfortable around each other), the easier job transitions will be and the more quickly teams can reach a level of high productivity.

So how exactly do I accomplish this? Well, it’s not really limited to one specific thing, but a common theme is challenging employees with tasks that require creative thinking, insight, and open-mindedness. Some examples include regular pub trivia contests, puzzle-themed treasure hunts, team-building creative exercises, and improvisational workshops, to name a few.

In most of these offerings, I try to put people just a little bit out of their comfort zones. When people can comfortably confront and embrace the unknown, they can achieve far more than they thought was possible. And I hope you can see the business value in that. For instance, many of my puzzles and exercises don’t contain rules. Instead, the solver must use insight and teamwork to figure out how to reach the right answer. At first, people find this slightly scary. But eventually, they learn that in order to reach the right answer, they must open up their minds, come up with possible ideas, and explore them to their eventual success or failure.

In the short time I’ve held this position, the feedback has been very positive. Common reactions are: “I did things I never thought I could do,” “I loved the excitement of having that one big insight,” and “Thanks for giving me quality time with X or Y. I’ve never met them, but I really feel like I now know their strengths and talents.”

In future posts, I will give some more specific examples. For now, if you don’t have a Chief Collaboration Officer at your company you should consider it – maybe it is you!