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.