A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Team Building

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Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I took a two-day elective class on improvisational comedy. Why, I don’t know exactly, but I think someone told me it was fun. As it turned out, it was very fun and also incredibly valuable. The week after I took the class, I went through consulting case interviews with several prestigious strategy consulting firms. I still credit that improv training for the job offers I received after those interviews. My ability to stay present and calm, build on the ideas presented, and then manage all the curve balls was not something that came naturally to me. Improv really helped.

A few weeks ago, we did our first improv training at Thought Ensemble. I was once again blown away by how much value could be drawn from such a fun activity. And now I see what improv can do at a team level. Our culture at Thought Ensemble was already very much in alignment with the core tenets of improv, but this training helped crystalize our language around it and give us techniques to practice with each other.

The word “Ensemble” for us has a lot of meaning – going back to when my co-founder Jim and I met in choir. Working together, you can create something so much more beautiful and powerful than any soloist, and improv really nails that. Here are a few of the things we got out of improv that helped strengthen how we work together:

“I’ve got your back”

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You want to go on stage with people who make you look good. Players who are focused only on themselves quickly find they are without partners. Our facilitator Cynthia, who also performs at Comedy Sports, shared with us that before going on stage all the players in her troupe each say, “I’ve got your back” to affirm their support for each other. This totally translates at work. We may debate and challenge each other right up until an important sales or client meeting, but once we are in that meeting we do everything we can to support each other. I’ve heard, “I’ve got your back” dozens of times in the last few weeks since our company improv training. This language really takes our team’s supporting nature to another level.

“Yes, and”

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One of the core tenets of improv is “yes, and.” Jim and I have been using this technique for years. It was one of the reasons I really wanted to run the improv training as a bigger group. Watching the shift in energy when a comedian responds with “yes, and” instead of “no” or “yes, but” is incredibly powerful. “No” or “yes, but” totally stops the flow of ideas. At Thought Ensemble, we challenge each other’s ideas constantly, which is great, but sometimes we need to brainstorm, so we will now say, “can we play ‘yes, and’ for a few minutes?” We now have a better understanding of when and how to get ourselves into this mindset.

“Dance with the one who brung you”

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When performing, it is tempting to think ahead about what your next line will be. That is a recipe for disaster in improv. Instead, you have to stay completely in the moment and completely with your fellow performers to really build on the story you are creating together. We all know we are more effective as a team when everyone is focused and present. What I loved about the improv training was the exercises we did to practice it. We will likely be pulling some of those into our meetings and workshops to get everyone more fully engaged.

“Stay above the line”

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When our facilitator started talking about this concept, I thought we were going to get a lecture on the HR appropriateness of our skits. Not at all. Staying above the line is about taking responsibility. When something goes awry when you are performing, it is tempting to point a finger. Instead, we should just embrace the failure, do a quick failure bow (we practiced those), and move along. We got a lot of practice at this in the session and the exercises helped the team learn to trust each other.

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there. If you are looking for a different type of team building, I’d highly recommend giving improv training a try. I’d also highly recommend our facilitator, Cynthia Oelkers, who did an amazing job guiding us through the principles of improv and showing us their relevance to the business world. And for further reading, here is an article that references the program I went through in graduate school: Why Improv Training Is Great Business Training