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Improv at Work

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity

Great leaders are always looking for the 3 Cs in their teams: Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity.

Robin Williams, Steve Carrell, and Tina Fey, all have one thing in common (besides amazing talent): they’re all trained improvisational actors. And, while they’re probably not looking for a gig at your company, they are great examples of accomplishing the 3 Cs in their work.

But how can we translate what they do with communication, collaboration, and creativity to our business?

(Moment of silence for the great Robin Williams)

Improvisation Training to the rescue!

Robert Kulhan, Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and CEO of Business Improvisations, has said, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting—being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.” As well as teaching people to listen, react and adapt, he further explains that improvisational training can teach creativity, innovation, communication, teamwork and leadership.

This is exactly why several big companies have begun touting the wonders of improv training, including Forbes, Slate, Fast Company, NPR, CNN, New York Post, and The Chicago Tribune.

Major facilitators have included:

  • The Washington Improv Theater, offering “the area’s most experienced facilitators of improv-based training.”

  • Chicago-based troupe, Second City, is working with CEOs in need of team training exercises.

  • Improv Asylum in Boston has been running sessions with Twitter’s Boston campus, Google, Fidelity, Raytheon, and Harvard Business School. They are also building a corporate training group based in Dublin to offer workshops for the many multinationals headquartered working with European-based companies including Jägermeister, Carl Zeiss, and Nokia.

Communication & Collaboration: The Three Rules of Improv

As Tina Fey explains in her book, Bossypants, there are three rules strictly adhered to in improv theatre.

1. Always agree with a Yes, and…

This methodology keeps the story flowing and allows performers to experience a “fear-free zone.” Boston’s Improv Asylum co-founder, Chet Harding, spoke to the power of Yes in the Slate article:

“There’s a lot of power around yes versus no. If I say no, I might get a laugh at your expense. But it stops the idea. And it creates a bad culture, both on stage and in an office setting. Next time, you might wait for me to start so that you can rip the rug out from under me, as opposed to a relationship where we’re trying to advance shared ideas and make each other look good.”

This philosophy translates nicely into any project that requires collaboration and team skills. Yes, and…requires that all team members practice active listening, and they’ll learn to support each other. In turn, every team member feels like they’ve been heard, and the response is positive.

2. Make a statement

Some folks love talking. It might be because we love the sound of our own voice or it might be because we are really good at verbal vomit. Making a statement using the and… keeps team members accountable to having a well thought out statement that is relevant to the conversation (on the stage and in the workplace).

An example is “Yes, and the car has stealth mode enabled!”

3. There are no mistakes

Again, we’re building a fear-free zone. People naturally self-edit because they are scared to make mistakes. If you eliminate the fear of criticism and negative responses, you open up the channels of communication and allow team members to let their creativity flow—rather than shut-down.

Creativity: Trying improv training in your workplace

If you want to give improv a try to see how it can benefit your team, check out these quick exercises.

(Caution: it is hard for folks not to feel silly or childish when doing these exercises, so be prepared to overcome some attitude adjustments.)


EXERCISE 1: Zip, Zap, Zop

Competencies: Active Listening, Teamwork, Focus

EXERCISE 2: Create a Team Story

Competencies: Active Listening, Teamwork, Every Voice Matters

EXERCISE 3: Yes and,

Competencies: Active Listening, Responding

EXERCISE 4: Problem and Solution

Competencies: Supporting each other, Gratefulness

Don’t forget to have fun! There is no right or wrong in these exercises so make sure your group knows that!



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