This summer I had the privilege of appearing on stage with a group of fantastic people I had met just 8 weeks earlier, in front of an audience of 70 or so friends and family, and making stuff up on the spot for laughs. I can honestly say it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life to be up there, not knowing what was going to happen next, and reacting to whatever was thrown at us. But it also taught me a lot about one thing in particular: teamwork. Because an improv troupe is the epitome of a perfect team working together, and there is an awful lot the business world can learn from that.
This week’s blogpost is the first in a series about what we can all learn from the discipline of improvised comedy (and I use the word “discipline” deliberately) to get the best out of each other, the teams we work in and our working lives in general. The first topic I’m going to cover is teamwork.
For anyone not familiar with what I am talking about when I say “improvised comedy” (“improv” for short), it’s a group of actors on stage, with no script, acting out scenes based on suggestions provided by the audience. Think Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie on Whose Line is it Anyway. Skilled improvisers make this look entirely effortless. What is hidden from the audience is that the skill is in working so effectively together as a team that the output feels as if it’s been rehearsed a million times. When the audience remember it hasn’t been, it becomes something entirely different and highly impressive. For the improvisers themselves, it becomes almost magical as their minds attune and seem to work as one.
Imagine if your team could work together like this. Imagine if they were so coordinated in their thoughts and actions that every project was executed with seamless dexterity, cooperation and efficiency. Well they can. Improvisers aren’t bestowed with a special gift or psychic ability that enables them to read each other’s minds. They are just highly practiced at three key attributes: listening; supporting; trusting. I say practiced not skilled, because the skill comes with practice, and anyone can practice anything. Here’s how you can practice these things in your team.
The foundation of improv, the basic human function that is employed, is listening. It’s not creativity or imagination. It’s listening, pure and simple. To form an effective team on stage, the troupe have to listen to each other 100% of the time in order that they can be always aware of where their teammates are, what they are doing and how they are feeling. Without this, they could all end up going off in different directions, and what the audience experiences is an incoherent mess on stage. Listening in this sense becomes about more than just using your ears, it’s about a total awareness of what’s going on around you at all times.
How good are your teams at listening to each other, really listening? How attentive are they to what is going on around them at all times? Listening tends to be a skill we all take for granted, particularly at work, and the reason improvisers are so good at it is because they practice it, a lot. Start to notice the conversations and interactions your team have with each other and observe the level of listening that is happening both in terms of what is heard but also what is noticed between team members. Imagine what difference it could make if that listening was improved. How much more effective and efficient could your team be?
Here is a quick exercise that could help you and your team practice your listening skills. If you start every team meeting with a quick round of this, you’ll soon find that the team just naturally start to listen more to each other:
- Repetition exercise: two people have a conversation about anything at all, but the rule is that each person can only say a maximum of two sentences at a time. Pick a topic to start with. Person A starts by saying one sentence. Person B then has to repeat that sentence word for word and add one of his or her own. Person A then repeats the new sentence and adds on a new one, and so on. The rest of the team adjudicate and as soon as a mistake is made, that person is out and a new person is swapped in. Be strict. The aim is to get people used to really listening to each other so any deviation from what was actually said – ums and errs included – needs to be called out. Keep going until everyone in the team has had a go if possible. As you get more practiced, start adding in other things to accurately replicate like tone, body language, gestures etc so that you’re really listening to and noticing everything. Challenge people to keep this going in their heads throughout the day (it’s not recommended to actually do it all day long, unless you want your other colleagues to throw you out of the building!)
So listening is the foundation, but this isn’t enough on its own. In addition to listening attentively to each other, improvisers also unconditionally support each other on stage and off. The general rule is “don’t let anybody die on stage.” But this doesn’t just mean saving someone who is floundering (although that is an absolute must if it happens), it’s more about continually supporting each other to avoid any situations where an actor feels alone or is exposed as having “made a mistake” (“mistakes” don’t actually exist in improv, but that’s for another time). If the actors aren’t listening to each other, they are not able to offer this high level of support, and without this support, they’re back to being a group of people on stage who have no idea what they’re doing, no matter how individually talented they each are.
Think about your team. How supportive are they of each other? How do they respond to suggestions, questions and requests from other team mates? How well do they support each other with regards to their different talents and areas of expertise? This level of unconditional support is vital to any effective team, and improvisers build it in to everything they do together so that it becomes second nature. Here is another quick exercise you can do with your team that will help create a supportive mindset throughout everything you do together.
- Yes…and. This exercise again involves working in pairs, or you could do it going round the room. Start with a simple topic, for example where to go for lunch or ideas for a party. Someone offers a suggestion. The next person says “yes, and…” and then adds to that suggestion, and so it goes on. The crucial language to use is “and” rather than “but” so that each person is demonstrating they accept what the previous person says (listening) and support it by adding something more to it based on their own valuable knowledge/ expertise/ opinion. So for example, you might get “I think we should go to Joe’s for lunch,” “yes, and I think they have specials on Tuesdays so we can try something new,” “yes, and they also have vegetarian options” etc etc. It doesn’t matter for the purposes of the exercise whether Joe’s does have specials on Tuesdays or vegetarian options, the idea is just to get people used to supporting each other positively. See where you end up. Ask your team how they felt at the end of the exercise. How could you build that attitude more into your day-to-day communication with each other?
Trust may not sound like something you have to practice, but it is a mindset that can be trained and it is vitally important to any team. The issue in organisations is often that teams can be transient as people leave and new people join, and often there is not trust between team members as personal agendas get in the way. The understanding in improv is that there is no room for personal agendas and there is a firm, ingrained belief in the whole being greater than the sum of the parts: without all troupe members truly working together, the end result is not going to be one of coherence. It has to be this way because everyone is thinking on their feet; there is no time to question anyone else’s motives or intentions; the lowest common denominator is the success of the show.
The same is true in any team: there needs to be unified belief in the ultimate aim, and trust that every member will listen to and support every other member to achieve that aim.
But how do you achieve this? It isn’t an easy task, but by practicing your team listening and team supporting skills then you’re already half way there – you will probably find that an increased sense of trust is a bi-product of these two things anyway.
With that in mind, the final exercise in this post is of a more advanced nature that brings these things together, and* I challenge you to give it a go. It’s the sort of thing that the more you practice the better you’ll get at is as a team, and it’s also great fun. It doesn’t need to take long and, like the others, you could just use it to kick off team meetings. (*I’m using “and” here, not “but” to demonstrate my support for you doing it and my belief that you can!)
- One day…The objective here is to create a story together, out loud, on the spot. You need to listen to each other, support each other and trust that you will collectively come up with a story. Which you will. Firstly you need to choose a title to help give you a direction to go in. A good way to do this is to use any objects you see in the room as inspiration – it does not need to be wacky or creative in any way. Something like “the table with 3 legs” is fine. It’s just a starting point. Someone is nominated as the “pointer”. This person chooses someone to start telling a story that starts with “One day…”. That person speaks until the pointer points to someone else, who then takes over talking. This goes on until you get to the end of the story. You will get to the end, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit the conventional structure of a story as we know it, or if it goes off on a complete tangent. The object is to practice building something together, as a team putting complete trust in each other and in the process of doing so. Keep practicing it together and notice how it feels. See what difference this makes to how much you listen to, support and trust each other as a team during your day-to-day.
This post by no means covers all there is to improv or all there is to building an effective team, but I hope it has given you some insight into quick exercises you can build into your team sessions to help you work more effectively together on the things that matter.
If you are interested in developing this further then our Teamworks and Improvisationworks workshops build on some of these ideas (and more), and will help you put them into practice within your specific work environment. Please do get in touch if you want any further information about these.
For further reading, then you can do worse than to read Do/ Improvise by Robert Poynton, which is packed full of improv-based exercises to help you build really effective working practices.
Enjoy and work happy!