Good leaders are always looking for the 3 C’s in their teams: collaboration, creativity and communication.

Robin Williams, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, and Sacha Baron Cohen all have one thing in common (besides their huge talent): they’re all trained improvisational actors. 


(Moment of silence for the great Robin Williams)

And, while they’re probably not looking for a gig at your company, there are so many lessons we can learn from them. 

Improv 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.

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 bad at being concise and 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.  

Ready to try 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’s hard for folks to not feel silly or childish when doing these exercises, so be prepared to overcome some attitude adjustments.)

EXERCISE 1: The Counting Game

Gather your team into a circle and have everyone look at the ground and close their eyes. The goal of the exercise is to count to 20 as a team. The challenge is, not that the whole groups counts in unison, but that each number needs to be said by a different individual and if two people say a number at the same time, the group has to start back at 1.

Tips: Everyone needs to participate. The exercise doesn’t work if it is the same 2-3 people saying numbers.  Also, it is very easy to get frustrated in the beginning when your team has to keep going back to 1. Always make sure to have everyone take a deep breath between each go. Finally, don’t force the team to make it to 20; see how high they can get each day and celebrate that success.

Competencies Mastered: Active Listening, Teamwork

EXERCISE 2: Create a Team Story

Gather your team into a circle again. Pick 1 person to start and a direction you will go in the circle. Then, one word at a time, go around the circle and try to create a story.

Example: Team Member 1 says “Once;” Team Member 2 says “upon;” Team Member 3 says “a,” and Team Member 4 says “time.”

Tips: When starting out with this exercise, it is recommended that you pick a well-known fairytale to start, such as Little Red Riding Hood. This keeps team members on task with a goal of telling an existing story and getting the hang of the exercise. As the team builds confidence in creating a beginning, middle and end, you can get creative, give them a theme and let them create a brand new story (but be prepared for some silliness!). Also, make sure you highlight that the word “a” or “and” is just as important as all of the other words. Without them, the story would be incomplete.

Competencies Mastered: Active Listening, Teamwork, All Voices are Important

EXERCISE 3: Follow the Follower

This is a No Talking exercise. Your team will make a circle facing each other. As a group, you must “sense” a leader among you and begin to mimic that person’s physical movements. The team will all need to follow this leader’s physical movements until a transfer of leadership to another person occurs and is accepted by the team—which will begin to follow the new leader’s movements.

Tips: When explaining this exercise to the team, highlight the importance of fluid movements and that everyone needs to have a chance to be the “leader” before the exercise can end.  As the team becomes comfortable with the small movements, encourage them to start moving with their full bodies, break from the circle and move around the whole room. The circle in the beginning promotes eye contact for visual cues, but over time, the team should be able to just sense when a transfer has occurred and to whom.

Competencies Mastered: Identifying a Leader Despite Formal Title, Willingness to Transfer Leadership

EXERCISE 4: 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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