• How improv fits into the creative process of a workplace

Improv is an excellent method for quickly innovating and creating hundreds of new ideas from scratch. Improvisers suspend criticism and judgement in order to share ideas and then build on them in order to come up with new concepts.

Later on, we can deliberately put back in criticism and judgement in order to use the team members intellect and experience to pick the best ideas. But this comes later in the process, not at the start as is so often the case when collaboration goes wrong.

In our improv for business workshops, we take participants through the full creative process. So they are left with a thorough understanding of how improv, playfulness and spontaneity can be used in the workplace, and where it stands in the overall creative process. Fundamentally, it involves building an ensemble that collaborates effectively and is able to suspend their individual agenda to forward the group agenda.

There are four improv for business principles that allow teams to collaborate well to improve innovation:

  1. Listening
  2. Saying “Yes And”
  3. Making your Teammate Look Good
  4. Trust

1. Listening and awareness

Everything we say or do contains “offers”. In improv, the word “offer” is used to describe an opportunity to develop an idea. It’s a bit of information, a notion, a phrase, that acts like a launching pad for a brilliant idea.

Often these offers are deliberate. But sometimes they are accidental: we unintentionally say something that someone else finds interesting and runs with. Big Ideas come from developing small these small offers step by step from acorn to oak tree. But you can’t develop an offer if you haven’t heard it first.

So far so obvious. The trouble is most of us are actually bad listeners. And we don’t realise it. It’s very easy not to listen properly. For example, say you are going to a creative meeting about a certain issue. You think you’ve got the answer. So, the meeting essentially turns into a waiting game whilst you politely “listen” to others take their turn to present their idea. But are essentially just passing time until you can say your piece. You aren’t interested in developing other people’s ideas, you are barely taking in any of the information. You are stuck in your head, obsessing about your idea instead.

Often in brainstorms-for example- we stop becoming listeners and become salesmen instead. Trying to control the conversation stops the exploration and this is not a productive route to creativity or effective communication.

So, what’s the solution? Well, in happy, productive teams, team members feel heard and understood. This requires individuals to listen fully to their fellow team members so they can hear their ideas, understand their concerns, and empathise with their unique needs.

Most communication problems stem from poor listening: we miss verbal and non-verbal clues about how our colleagues and clients think and feel. This leads them to feel that we haven’t understood them and eventually this leads to dysfunctional relationships.

In our improv for business workshops, we train active listening skills. Good listening starts from a position of openness humility. It’s about accepting that great ideas are produced by great teams working well. Great individuals thrive in great teams, but ego can stop us listening and collaborating well.

The secret to avoiding the natural human disposition to listen poorly is firstly, self-awareness, and secondly, to train the skill of active-listening and listening without judgement, that is to be entirely present as you listen and not stuck in your own head. Improv offers a brilliant framework to achieve these two objectives.

2. Saying “Yes, and…”

But it’s not enough to just listen to another person’s idea. Hearing offers is just the start. Your colleagues must feel supported too. They require us to hear them and then to say “yes, and…”. That is, to accept their idea and attempt to build on it in some way. These skills are the two building blocks of improv.

When team-members speak up with an idea, they want to feel heard, understood, valued, and supported. How do we achieve this?

  • We show we have listened to, understood, and appreciated their idea by first being positive about it: saying “yes”.
  • We support their idea by building on it: saying “and”.

The opposite to saying “yes, and” is to say “yes, but”, thus blocking a team member’s idea. And stopping it in its tracks. This is obviously hugely disheartening. And it creates an unhelpful culture which is not conducive to collaboration. But not only that, it’s also very wasteful: that is an idea that could have made you money.

Further, it’s not just about accepting someone’s offer, but how you accept it. Accepting enthusiastically creates an atmosphere of collaboration. Imagine if you came back from work and your partner had made you a lovely lasagne, and you replied “great” in a monotone. Suddenly that doesn’t feel like saying “yes” at all.

One reason why people “block” is that they get the creative process in the wrong order. Improvisation teaches the importance of the suspension of judgement. Criticism should be the last step in the process, not the first. Too often we jump straight into analysis in the workplace.

We’re often disadvantaged when it comes to generating good ideas because we think too fast: our analytical brains shut off new ideas before they have fully emerged, in order to keep us safe and resist change. Too often we dismiss situations as problems, or as flawed, instead of twisting it, and re framing it as an unexpected opportunity. Think like an improviser: don’t kill an idea before it’s fully formed!

3. Making your colleague look good

In improv we are taught to make each other look good. On stage, you support your scene partner in what they say, and they in turn support you, as you build the scene or story together, piece by piece. Every player knows that their colleagues have got their back, which builds trust.

We believe in Group Mind. Which says that the collective intelligence of the ensemble working together is far greater than the intelligence of one individual member. Great work is produced by great teams. Star individuals are not sufficient for star teams, but they do thrive in them. If everyone leaves their ego at the door and takes responsibility for making their partners look good, you have the positive atmosphere that creates a culture of collaboration.

4. Trust

Improv is based on collaboration not competition, in an atmosphere of safety, trust and support.

Individuals from any background learn to be present with the group and work offer by offer towards a clear shared goal. Every team member is heard and able to contribute without fear of status, criticism or judgement.

In improv you learn that trust is not something you take. It is something you give.

Conclusion

Improv looks complicated, but we’ve shown that it’s actually based around just two simple skills. You have to listen to offers, and then accept and build off them. But although these skills are simple, they are not easy. And here lies the rub. In order to excel at these two simple skills, we need to overcome our fear of uncertainty, and also drop our need to be in control of our ideas. But if you can do that, the rewards our tangible. If you practice these two straight forward skills your life will be more creative, less stressful and more productive. Ready to start? It all begins with ‘yes, and.’

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