5 Ways Improv Fosters A Culture of Growth

improv for business

There are so many ways to use improv in business from developing more confident and effective leaders to creating teams that are more collaborative and engaged. It’s even being taught in some of the best business schools!

Finest City Improv’s trainers have worked with hundreds of companies and one of the challenges that we find improv to be particularly suited for is helping organizations navigate change and create a culture of adaptability, growth, and spirited collaboration.

Here are the 5 key ways we do this!

Are you a California based business? We have included a bonus at the end of how you can get funding for our workshops!

1 – Active Listening

In improv, we use active listening which means we practice intensely taking in what our scene partner says and confirming what we think we heard. We then build on that to create a spontaneous improv show.

How you can use this in business is to really take in what someone is saying to you, without thinking of your response at the same time. Make eye contact and listen with intention. Take in what is being said and how it is being said to you. When the speaker is finished, repeat back or comment directly on what was just said to you.

“I learned I need to allow myself to listen and be quieter in meetings to allow others to take those leadership roles with the tasks they’re assigned.” 

Workshop Participant General Sheet Metal

Note when you are having difficulty doing this as others in your organization are probably having the same difficulty. Often these are clues to complex issues that lead to communication breakdowns. By practicing active listening, without calculating your response, you can avoid many problems and foster deeper connections and improve communication within your organization.

2 – Develop A Growth Mindset

In improv, we utilize the principle of “Yes! And…” We take whatever idea or action our scene partner brings in and build directly upon that. By doing that, we’re accepting what’s given and using that as a jumping-off tool. This is the improv mindset that is used to rapidly create, connect and evolve.

In business, how many times do we hear “no” or, “Yes, but…”? When leadership tends to respond with either of these phrases, key talent tends to stop speaking up with ideas and contributions. One way to apply improv in business and specifically a ‘Yes! And…’ mindset is when you hear an idea. Even if it’s an idea that you’re completely against, instead of saying ‘no’ or leading with all the reasons it’s “not how we do things”, consider the phrase, “Tell me more about that” to encourage more discussion and idea-sharing.

Even if it’s something that was done before that failed miserably, perhaps it’s something to revisit, recycle or come up with an entirely new idea based on the intention of the old one? Employ active listening and respond with a “Yes! And…” mindset to encourage team members to share more about why they had that idea and the value that would bring to the company. When leadership employs a “Yes! And…” they foster engagement, creativity, and collaboration.

“Redesigning public education in the United States for the current and future world of work requires the ability to create something from scratch.  The learning we engaged with around improvisation amplified our team’s ability to communicate, collaborate, and really get out of our comfort zones. It was a great exercise in team building, but more than that it was the perfect process to help us start moving towards our common vision with purpose and alignment.”

David Miyashiro, Ed.D., Superintendent Cajon Valley Union School District

3 – Expect The Unexpected

Improvisers step onto stage prepared to create under great pressure. They have no sets, props, costumes, scripts, or anything else you’d expect at a play. They do know the basic structure for the show and have practiced active listening, “Yes! And..” and other tools to help them succeed. The shared goal is to create a show that is engaging, funny, and entertaining. As a team they discover the characters, the situation, the setting, and more. They know the process but not the content. The outcome is a show that is created on the spot with the team goal always top of mind.

Imagine not knowing what you are building? That’s a tall order for most teams. And even when we do know what we are building and how to build it, there will always be surprises and challenges along the way.

“The underlying axiom is that curveballs don’t just happen on stage at improv classes; they also happen in the ever-changing business world.”

Vivian Giang Fast Company Article Why Top Companies And MBA Programs Are Teaching Improv

At work, you have a plan and probably a great one. However, even the best plans have a degree of uncertainty and no plan will go exactly as outlined. How do you prepare to improvise in business? Become more comfortable with not having “all the answers” and ready to go “off-script.”

Intolerance to uncertainty results in procrastination and avoidance, refusing to delegate tasks to others, and even micro-management. In a recent study, participants who did improv showed not only an increase in uncertainty tolerance but also “the most significant boost to divergent thinking, which Felsman attributes to the collaborative co-creation[1] When people practice improv, they’re not only getting comfortable with being uncomfortable but finding creative ways to do tasks they normally are uncomfortable with or wouldn’t seek to do collaboratively.

“My company is a software company so we’ve got a number of naturally introverted people and so using improv for team building was perfect for us… It helped break down some of our barriers in communicating…It was just a different way of engaging.”

Doug Burke, President and Co-Founder Cognitive Medical Systems

Take a look at the behaviors above and assess if you’re participating in them, and what you could do differently. If there’s a change that needs to be made, perhaps taking some time to research alternative options to the current model is in order, like having an Improv for Business workshop.

4 – Embrace Mistakes

In improv, we embrace mistakes as a way to encourage growth. When we are pushing ourselves to do better and take risks, we are bound to make mistakes. When we celebrate and learn from them that helps us build rather than discourage. On stage, mistakes become gifts at that moment and we embrace them as part of what we are creating. Often, these “mistakes” are the most delightful creative moments.

In the “real world”, mistakes have real consequences. Money can be lost, products can be shut down, someone may even lose their job. So mistakes should generally be avoided and certainly, failure is never our goal. But not all mistakes are created equal. Sloppy mistakes are certainly not to be celebrated. Stretch mistakes, like we make in improv, should be encouraged to create a culture of risk-taking and growth. But, no one wants to look foolish so most people tend to avoid risk if it will mean making mistakes no matter if they are stretch mistakes.

We use various games in our corporate workshops to create an environment that embraces these mistakes so that we can build upon them. For this application of improv in business, we’re embracing the opportunity that mistakes present to us. Taking time to reflect, embrace the mistake as a learning opportunity and moving forward from there is time well spent to build the culture of growth that your company needs.

5 – Ensure Everyone Plays All In

In improv, our goal is to create something wonderful right away and it takes every member of the team to make this possible. There are no stars in an improv team, the goal each time for each player is to make their scene partner look brilliant and amazing. We spend hours of practice, taking classes, rehearsing and playing with each other to get to the point of that ‘something wonderful’ where everyone succeeds as one.

When it comes to business, fostering a culture of creativity and collaboration takes time and deliberate practice as well. Getting everyone playing at that level is a big investment and one that is well worth it for the rewards that it will provide. And, it’s an ongoing process that is must be recommitted to as teams change, goals shift, and staff come and go. Knowing everyone’s strengths is just one part of the challenge. Everyone knowing how to use those talents in a team and align those with others is what will make the entire team shine (like an improv team).

An improv team deliberately ensures that everyone is contributing to the outcome using all their strengths, talents, and experiences. In business, competition and individual recognition can make this type of teamwork take a backseat. Often, those that are usually first to speak, the most confident, or the least risk-averse can unknowingly dampen the contributions of others, however well-intended they may be.

“… the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues”

Charles Duhigg NY Times Article What Google Learned in its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

In the next meeting you have with your team, encourage those that normally don’t speak up to take a more active role in the meeting. If they struggle with this, have a one-on-one conversation about what is keeping them from participating in those moments. It could be that you need to give them more space by letting them speak first, taking more time to decide how they want to say something, or employing active listening and “Yes! And…” more often when they do speak.

Also, notice if there are people on your team that are typically the first to speak or speak more often than others. Or, if people are responding with “Yes! but…”. Have a conversation about the benefits of a balanced team and find opportunities to practice and cultivate this way of collaborating.

Are You a California Business Owner?

Did you know that the State of California has a fund that assists companies with training expenses? And that our Improv for Business workshops would qualify?

Employment Training Panel is a business and labor supported state agency that funds the costs of vocational training and is funded by the Employment Training Tax paid by California employers, and targets firms threatened by out-of-state competition or who compete in the global economy. Since its inception in 1982, ETP has reimbursed employers well over $1 billion for training workers in more than 80,000 businesses. ETP provides additional incentives to assist small businesses and employers in high unemployment areas of the State.

[1] Drinko Phd, Clay “A Novel Finding: Improv and the Great Unknown” Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/play-your-way-sane/202002/novel-finding-improv-and-the-great-unknown?fbclid=IwAR2pBLwzNKpS9jV17jDuREOG-SIlCj0Hi2gAPOiFZ4coOMWkgU7lkZJ-FCs 2.5.2020