Work and play are used to describe the same thing under different circumstances.
— Mark Twain

As adults and busy professionals, we rarely take the opportunity to play.   Improv offers a  safe space to step back into “make believe” play, while also teaching  valuable and relevant concepts for teamwork, innovation and leadership.

This past week, I had the opportunity to take a two-hour workshop with Taren Starry, communications coach and founder of Improv on the Job.   I had taken a 6-week Improv class with her previously, and so thoroughly enjoyed the experience I went back for more.

I love the rush of standing before an audience and being asked to speak on a topic, which I could not have ever anticipated.  I love the mental acuity and focus, which Improv games like Zip Zap Zop require.  At every turn, you have to listen extremely carefully and build on the narrative, while adhering to the specific rules of the game.  I love how Improv exercises ask you to step out of your comfort zone and take on a persona that might not feel comfortable in “real” life, but which could actually be beneficial to access in different professional or personal situations.  Finally, I love that Improv forces you to get very present and embrace the uncomfortable and unforeseen circumstance.

Below are a few of the “rules” of Improv which I think can be successfully applied and leveraged to enhance collaboration, innovation and engagement in teams and the broader organizational culture.

1. Yes, and.  This is the first and most central tenant of Improv.  Yes, and is about accepting and building on what is expressed by your fellow actor; it  is also about  playing with whatever ideas are put forward.  At work, it is not uncommon for well meaning colleagues, managers and leaders to shut down good ideas and possibilities without fully hearing or considering what is being said (e.g., Yes, but, That won’t work, We have tried that, There’s not enough time or money).  Having been part of an Organizational Development team that took an Improv class together, it was amazing to see a subtle and positive change in the dialogue at team meetings.  Team members would explicitly refer to the concept of Yes, and in communicating on a topic. This not only created an element of fun and levity, but it also led to more creative solutions and approaches in several cases.

 

2. Your Partner Is a Genius.  Related to the concept of Yes, and, is the notion that your fellow Improv actors have valuable contributions to make and their ideas should be lauded and accepted with great enthusiasm.   This very attitude of acceptance and appreciation brings out creativity in all of us.   Similarly, at work, we often do our best working for someone that has great confidence and trust in our abilities.    When we  have faith in those we work with, we allow them to  stretch and achieve more than they thought possible.  As a wise mentor and boss once told me, her default way of managing people is to anticipate great results and create a positive self fulfilling prophecy.

 

3. Mistakes are a-okay.  In Improv, mistakes are natural and something that can be worked with. There is no judgment and no stopping in Improv.  You need to be able to professionally and skillfully react and move forward from a mistake and not allow that mistake to derail the show or the scene.  The audience is rooting for you and wants to see you recover smoothly and confidently.  Mistakes are natural and inevitable, and are always opportunities for growth and change.  Thus, we all could benefit to learn a more accepting attitude of our and others’ failures at work.  As long as we and our colleagues are learning and adjusting from our mistakes, we should be willing to have greater tolerance and support for risk taking.