At the heart of improv, there's collaboration – a small group of people who are in it together, and under pressure to perform. If you're older than 22, you're probably familiar with meetings. And if you're familiar with meetings, you know that meetings are where creativity and motivation go to die.
Boring meetings are fertile ground for bad attitudes and soul crushing work environments. But it doesn't have to be this way. A team who is trained to use improv skills in their work can improve communication, respect, and cohesion. Your company can be more than the sum of its parts, but the people inside the company need to learn how to listen to and build on each others' ideas. Developing improv skills can help your team outperform your competitors, and have fun doing it.
A Sad Story
I once led a marketing team for a health company in Southern California. We decided to hire an outside sales person to help us gain customers in the local area. After interviewing several candidates, we landed on the person we all thought was a great fit for the position. She was energetic, positive, and self-motivated. She had experience in our field and she was excited to get to work. We knew she would bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm to our team.
When she arrived, I watched as my team (and I indict myself too) systematically worked to shut down her enthusiasm and creativity. She was the new person. She didn't know how we did things. She was rocking our boats, and if we ran with her ideas it would mean that we would have to work harder and allow ourselves to be pushed out of our comfort zones in our daily grind. So we politely worked to stop her from thinking too big.
With each idea that she presented we responded by saying, "That's a good idea, but we tried that last year and it didn't work." Or, "Yeah, but who's going to get all of the data entered?" Or, "I know that worked at your last company, but our company is different, I don't see that happening here."
We blocked, we barricaded, we put up as many obstacles for her as possible until we finally wore her down and she became one of us – disengaged, somewhat bored, and generally uninspired by her work. This was the corporate culture that we created for ourselves. But it didn't have to be.
Improv is a great tool (a tool, mind you – not a magic potion) for breaking this cycle and developing a culture of collaboration and cooperation centered around common goals. Improv can be a tool to remind your team that you're in this together.
Stages of Idea Creation
There are a lot of ways to define the stages of creating and implementing good strategic ideas. With each stage there are some proven rules to follow that improve the effectiveness of the process.
1. Problem Identification and Exploration
This is a time for figuring out the critical issues that need to be addressed, the goals that the team can all agree to work toward, and the resources available to throw at the problem. This is not the time to start pitching ideas on how to solve the problem.
2. Idea Generation
This is the stage where improv principles are the most useful. This is the point at which my team and I fell down when we hired our new sales person.
Rule 1: Think Yes And – This isn't the time to be critical of the ideas that are coming from the other people in the room. It's not the time to poke holes in assumptions. It's the time to say "Yes, that's a workable idea, and..." The 'and' part is critical because it forces everyone to move the idea forward. Follow it to it's conclusion. Contribute positively. When the idea runs out of steam, then follow another idea until you have a number of different alternative strategies to bring into the final stage.
Rule 2: Be Changed – At each moment, new information is an invitation to think differently about the situation. Don't resist it. Allow yourself to change your mind and your perspective as new ideas are introduced. Yes, you should contribute positively from your own experience, but it's a mistake to walk into this process with a fixed outlook and set of solutions for the problem. You shouldn't know how this is all going to end. You're writing the story with your teammates as you go.
Rule 3: Make Others Look Good – No one likes to feel stupid, discouraged, or unsupported. So work to make everyone in the room look and feel good about their contribution. Don't be cheesy or patronizing, but understand that you succeed or fail with the rest of your team. So it's all for one, and one for all in business improv.
This is still not the time to judge ideas as good or bad. It's the time to say Yes and.
3. Action Planning
Finally, the stage we're all good at. Now it's time to look at the ideas that were generated in the previous stage and select the ones that are most likely to help you achieve your goals. At this point, we want to identify the assumptions that are inherent in each idea, assess their risk of failure, and either work around them, or select a different idea to follow.
It's important to note that improv rules, when they become a habit or way of thinking with your team, should still apply in this stage. You still want to make others look good, and you still want to allow yourself to be changed by what's unfolding in your discussion.
Practicing improv in your business will reveal employees who are active saboteurs or drains to building an innovative team. But done right, improv principles can help groups of people learn to trust, understand, look out for, and have fun with each other, knowing that they are all in this together.
Learning to use improv in your business can help you engage your team more fully. And five fully engaged people will beat ten semi engaged people on solving a problem any day. Which team would you rather have on your side?
Be sure to check out our Improv for Business Workshop to begin building improv principles into your business.