Bringing Improv to Work & Life with Doug Burke

doug burke

Yes, we’re biased, we love improvisation (improv). We have found our niche helping others connect with humor in our classes and team-building workshops. We had the opportunity to interview Doug Burke, President & Cofounder of Cognitive Medical Systems, Inc. to find out what brought this software entrepreneur to improv and how he uses improv in his business and his life.

Tell us about yourself and how improv came in:

DB: I’m a serial entrepreneur and I run software companies. And, at one of my software companies a long time ago, as a team-building event, we hired someone to show us improv. And it was super fun.  This was about 15 years ago. But I didn’t do or see improv again until my wife got us tickets about two years ago to a Second City Show here in San Diego. And that was amazing and we had a really good time. I had heard about Finest City Improv in the context of date night ideas…. we’re big believers in date night. So, I set up a date night for that introductory two-hour session.  We had Jesse as our instructor. After two hours we were hooked and so we signed up for a Level One class.

Why did you continue after Level One?

DB: For me in running companies, most often what I do is sell. I’m always selling something whether I’m selling to employees or customers or investors.  Improv is a lot like selling. You’re often walking into situations you have no idea what it is, and you just have to go with the flow and “yes and” things and figure out what the prospect’s problems are. And oftentimes you’ve never met these people. So, I saw improv as a fun way to hone my social selling and networking skills. And it’s worked great for that.

So where else did improv help?

DB: Life situations, going into any environment where you don’t know people or aren’t comfortable or it feels unnatural. I think it works really well to go with the flow, getting out of your head, or at least getting out of my head ‘what did they think about what I said, what do they think about what I’m going to say next’, and just getting out of many layers of over-analytical stuff. Improv helps me get out of my head and talk and interact with people and play off what other people say.

What made you decide to bring Finest City into your workplace?

Every year we bring our remote employees here them in for a week and during the week we work together, have a company picnic and do a variety of team-building exercises. So, for this last year’s event, I suggested to my VP of Operations that we bring Finest City in to do a team-building event. I knew that FCI offered that so it was very perfect. I think I had been on stage with Amy once but never really worked with her before as an instructor. Amy was great, she was fantastic and it was exactly I thought it would be, and what we wanted and everyone loved it.

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.  

Doug Burke

How did it help?

It was a subset of our employees it helped break down some of our barriers in communicating. Making it okay to have fun. It’s not that we don’t have fun, we have fun all the time. It was just a different way of engaging.

Where are you at in your improv journey now?

We took classes through Level 6. That was great. And, now my wife and I are currently taking musical improv level one with Kevin. And we took also Seamus’s hip hop class. We’ll continue with these types of classes and workshops. A lot of our classmates formed teams or are on house teams and that’s cool. But, being on teams takes a lot of time and commitment and we’re more interested in continuing to learn about the art form

Doug on stage at Finest City Improv

We find more and more people doing improv for fun and enrichment, they don’t want to be performers all the time, it’s a life-enhancing thing and not a profession.

DB: Yes, the improv games and everything, forcing yourself to get out of your comfort zone, at least for me, is a lot of fun. Now in musical improv, my wife is very musical and sings really well, but I am not at all.  So, it’s tough for me. But for some of the other classes in improv, it was tougher for her and easier for me.  We’re both always learning which is fun.

What advice would you give someone thinking about taking an improv class?

DB: Go to that free two-hour introduction to improv. I think it’s a wonderful way to see what it’s about. I think people have misconceptions about improv. When I tell them I’m learning about improv  ‘oh you want to be a standup comedian,’ and I’m like ‘No, I have no desire to do that.’ I think that a lot of people have perceptions about what improv is, even when going and seeing a show. The intro two hours and free on a Saturday or a Sunday, doing that or as a date night thing, or come out to one of the FCI shows on a weekend.

Why would someone want to bring FCI into their workplace for team building?

DB: In one aspect, I think it’s about breaking down social barriers between each other or different teams. I think it’s about getting to know your coworkers better. It’s about playing. It’s a lot of games, and they’re fun and I think people need to play more at work. Yes, there’s a time to be serious. But, there’s a time for play as well.

That playing is what builds team camaraderie like in sports teams, so it’s connecting without breaking a bone.

DB:  There’s also a little bit about being vulnerable with your colleague that’s also valuable for team building. There’s that piece that really connects and that whole idea about having your back.  I think we could all learn from more improv in our lives.

Learn how improv can help in your life and try a free class!


This article is part of the Community Spotlight Series highlighting our amazing students, teachers, and performers.

Are you an FCI student or graduate that has a great story to share? We’d love to feature you! Let us know.

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