Last week I experienced my first foray into improvisational comedy. The meetup I help facilitate, Design Thinking Nashville, hosted an improv workshop and welcomed an instructor from LOL Nashville to teach us some basics of the comedy craft. The taste I got was definitely enough to make me want to keep going.
Why care about improv? Improv techniques are growing increasingly popular in business spheres as they provide much needed creative thrust. They train the brain to overcome inhibitions, to react quickly and fluidly to change, and to work well with others. Even just playing improv games for an hour made me feel invigorated, empowered, and less judgmental of myself and others. I left wishing I had something major and difficult to tackle that day; my brain was ready for anything.
There were three main takeaways from this experience. I hope they encourage you to think differently and maybe try out an improv class of your own!
- YES, AND…
Improv and Design Thinking both operate on the principle that groups develop better ideas through what improv artists call the “Yes, And…” approach. This means accepting one person’s ideas and building on it collaboratively as a group. Does that mean you need to think it was a perfect idea? Not at all. It means that you are opening your mind to exploring possibilities. Nothing is held sacred, but neither is anything outright denounced. The alternative approach, with which many of us are infinitely more familiar, is to squash ideas the instant a fault is found. This crushes morale, reinforces hierarchical divisions within a group, and infringes on the potential for reaching better ideas by engaging openly in the process. Improv comedians must respond with “Yes, And…” to what ever gets thrown at them. There is no time to edit, no opportunity to critique. And who wants to watch that anyway? It is all about the fluid exchange of ideas, and this applies directly into any collaborative challenge, on stage or otherwise. My friend Tony said that the “Yes, And…”exercises revolutionized the make-believe he plays with his young daughter. It restrains him from questioning the premise of the imaginative play and instead go with the flow, which not only leads to better ideas but is also way more fun.
- ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIP
One of the games we played involved an interesting caveat: we had, within the exchange of three statements, to establish a specific relationship between two people in a scene. It was a tricky thing to do, coming up not only with something to say but enough of a backstory for the audience to guess at a likely relationship between the two characters in front of them. Extrapolating from this exercise makes me think about how important it is to consider backstories and contexts when we engage in collaborative work. Where is my coworker coming from with this idea? How might this idea work with our audience even if I don’t agree with it? What was the train of thought that led to this idea? This quick imaginative exercise frames problem solving such that we keep sight of the context and consider solutions from multiple angles.
- CONFIDENCE AND VULNERABILITY
One of the paradoxes of the universe is that we humans (many of us, anyway) spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid embarrassment when simultaneously admiring most the people willing to make fools of themselves. There is an emotional and interpersonal intelligence we associate with people confident enough to exhibit occasional silliness. Improv lessons are a great reminder of this truth because you get to see people liberated from their usual inhibiting boundaries of decorum. I watched, and was among, people making outlandish noises while wiggling about, and we are all totally accepting of our mutual vulnerabilities. The environment was safe enough for us all to participate and, what’s more, emerge with both more confidence in ourselves and more respect for the other participants. Imagine a work environment safe enough for people to explore ideas beyond their inhibition—this is a leadership goal worthy of serious attention.