How improv can make your team more creative

At its best, creativity is about spontaneity, creativity, and collaboration. There are few places where we can all of these on display more easily than with improvisational comedy groups but what can they show us about how to improve our creative process and our teams? In this episode, we will look at what happens with improv that lets the creativity flow, what everyone can learn from it and how it can help your team and its culture.

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One of my favorite TV shows of all time is ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’. It was hysterical and was always amazed at how people like Robin Williams and Wayne Brady would could think so fast, react so quickly and be so funny while they did it. But the interesting thing is that the show has been on for so long that as my career evolved and I continued to watch it I saw it in a totally different way – it was raw creativity on display.

What I first saw as just funny I then started to see as people who were in complete control of their creative process and had refined it to the point where they could summon creativity like it was a fire hose. I became fascinated with this and actually went to take improv classes. It was amazed at how it helped my creative process and public speaking. Since then I have sent multiple people from multiple teams to improv classes for everything from helping them to becoming a better leader, be a better presenter or become a more active member of their team. In this episode, we will look at why improv is so important to creativity, what everyone can learn from it and how it can help your teams culture.

Why improv?

When you break it down and study it, improv is improvisation which is all about spontaneity, creativity and collaboration. Those same skills are desperately needed by leaders and teams for every creative project.

I work with a lot of different creative teams yet even through all that diversity of people and industries you see the same problems over and over again. Leaders often don’t listen, don’t trust their teams. dominate conversations, and shut down other people’s ideas. Teams are then often repressed, afraid, or simply too bored or disengaged to contribute their own ideas or feedback that the work desperately needs. This is why I think improv can be so important and its concepts so needed because it welcomes and values everyone’s contributions. Improv is also never done alone as participants have to collaborate and support each another as they work toward a common goal. I think this style of work is critical because of how it can also help with design imposter syndrome which happens because the more we feel that others value our contributions, the more likely we are to engage, trust and share our ideas.

The parts of improv you can use

I would HIGHLY recommend that if this sounds like something you teams needs or something you need that you go out and take an improv class. They can always be found at a local theater or college and it is a very worth while investment. But since you aren’t going to be able to do that right this second, let’s pull out four key concepts that make improv so powerful to improving creativity.

• Active listening
• Not having all the answers
• Deferring judgment
• Psychological safety

Active listening

I want you to think about your last meeting. I’ve spoken about this before but as other people were talking, were you actually listening or were you getting ready to talk about your idea or feedback? We all know the answer was that the vast majority of people, if they are really honest, we’re just getting to say what they wanted to. In improv, paying careful attention to what other people are saying is a core principle. You have to listen fully to them and not speaking until they are finished. That’s because your goal isn’t to plan what you’ll say next; it’s to respond in the moment to what other people say. That is only possible if you are actively listening and are tuned in to the emotions and rhythm other people are giving you. Having to wait until someone has finished speaking helps us be fully present and absorb what they’re saying. There was a version of this in the 7 rules from brainstorming I shared in Episode 18 with ‘build on the ideas of others’.

Listening games

Improv is done through games where the participants are challenged in different ways. There are some games that were created specifically to help performers become better listeners. I think one of the best is called “Last Word Response,” where you respond to your partner by using the last word they said. If your partner said, “I was thinking yesterday about why Hawaii has an interstate highway” you would need to come up with a sentence that starts with “highway.” The game teaches people to listen fully instead of jumping in or silently planning their response before their partner is done speaking. You can try a version of this game with your team. After someone finishes speaking, the next person should begin their response with that person’s final word or idea. Leaders also have to make sure to follow the rules like everyone else.

Another variant you can use that is more applicable all the time is called ‘yes, and”. Here again, it means listening to what someone else says and building upon it but this can be used in every conversation and every moment. I think this is important because it teaches people to strengthen each other but also because In business there’s a lot of ‘no’. It is also important because you don’t have the luxury of sitting back and over thinking it. You have to, for better or worse, put an idea out there. All of this build confidence in the process, yourself and your team which is the heart of great work.

Not having all the answers

In episode 76 on cognitive bias, we talked about The Anchoring Effect where once people have an idea they like, moving away from it is really hard, even when evidence suggests the initial idea or insight was wrong. This mean we all have difficulty staying open-minded. Improv is important because it’s foundation mechanic is that everything is a team effort, multiple people contribute and they can take the narrative in different directions. You have to read and respond t what is going on, being present in the moment and just playing to what is in front of you. I think this is important because too many of us can be blinded by what we like, want to have control over everything and be right. But we can also get too caught up in the past. We pine for ideas that didn’t work, we want possibilities that are not possible, and have a hard time letting them go. This concept of creating in the present moment with what is going on around you can is key so you can read and react to reality.

Deferring judgment

Another huge problem for too many teams is they when they work on new ideas the people they work with and even the people on their own team shoot down anything new immediately. This happens for a lot of reasons. But it is probably the single biggest killer of innovation in most companies and stops design teams from breaking through. Here again, this is in the 7 rules from brainstorming I shared in Episode 18 with ‘defer judgment’. But in improv you are so in the moment, working with your team, and trying to make the best of what is going on that you don’t have time to judge. You trust each other, you trust the process and trust you will figure it out. We need this approach and this thinking in more companies and as a part of more teams.

Psychological safety

Finally and maybe most importantly is in improv there is an unspoken support system that makes all of this possible. You are expected to try to new things, to push boundaries, to fail, to work with each other and to be selfless in the way you create. You feel psychologically safe to do all of these things. That happens because everyone understands the rules, expectations, and they have the right mindset to do it. WHY don’t we do this with our teams and our companies? Why do we let politics and personal agenda’s screw all this up?

Final thought

By applying these improv techniques in their teams, leaders can help everyone have more fun and encourage more creative ideas. Everyone will feel heard — and believe that working on a team is better than going it alone.

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