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Sunday, 01 March 2015 22:00

Funny Business: Applied improv helps corporate teams communicate, collaborate

Written by  Jill Hinton
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As dozens of comedians prepare to take the stage in Grand Rapids as part of the fifth-annual LaughFest comedy festival, corporate managers may find the performers’ interactions with the audience to be anything but funny business.

Improvisation, once the exclusive domain of stand-up comedians and performance troupes like Second City, has found a new home in the boardrooms and the sales training programs of corporate America.

The technique that helps people collaborate, communicate and quickly solve problems has caught on among companies looking to improve their workplace culture in ways that support employee engagement.

“Applied improvisation is taking the techniques, tools and behaviors that improvisers use on stage to solve problems quickly and well and in the moment — then using those tools and those same behaviors to do the same in the workplace,” said Mary Jane Pories, owner and president of Grand Rapids-based Fishladder Inc., which designs and facilitates corporate training programs.

Fishladder has worked with a range of businesses including Fortune 500 companies, universities and nonprofits to train teams in the power of improvisation in the workplace.

“It’s not meant as comedy entertainment — although it’s fun and can produce laughter,” said Pories, the author of “Yes, And! — Harnessing the Power of Improvisation to Transform Your Life and Work,” which was published in October. “It’s meant to achieve business results and help people be quicker on their feet, more resilient with change, more collaborative.”

As the title of Pories’ book suggests, business leaders looking to improve performance can start with the “yes, and …” concept.

Traditional improv is based on the notion that its performers don’t know what’s going to happen during the performance until it happens. Every scene starts with an idea from the audience, and using that idea as a prompt, the performers make up a story as they go, using the concept of “yes, and …” to move the scene forward.

The results are often funny, or at least entertaining, but that’s not the primary goal with applied improvisation in the workplace.

“We’re not clowns, we’re not teaching people to be clowns. It’s improv, not stand-up,” said Brian Lam, co-owner of Kalamazoo’s Improv Effects LLC. “But I think humor is really important, and not just in the workplace, but in life in general. It’s a way to keep people engaged and excited about what they’re doing and who they’re around.”

Applied improvisation is based on “accepting the reality that’s around you, then building on the ideas, the gifts, resources and people that you have around you to find solutions,” Pories said, noting that the “yes, and …” phrase helps cure workplace distrust.

Essentially, the technique helps improve relationships within a company as team members learn to work together to solve problems.

“Improv is a great tool for creating better relationships, more interesting relationships, and creating those relationships quicker,” said Dann Sytsma, Lam’s business partner at Improv Effects. “Once you do that, there’s a very different way that you interact with your fellow employees. You’re going to be more inclined to see them as people as opposed to whatever their position in the company is. While respect for people’s position is good, it’s really, really important that that relationship shines through.”

Improv Effects provides training and team-building workshops for Kalamazoo-based Stryker Instruments. The sessions aim to help a range of employees from the sales team to production supervisors to get comfortable with communication and storytelling, said Nancy Stefanick, manager of learning and development at the company.

“The magic of their workshops is that you’re kind of learning while having fun,” Stefanick said. “You’re learning in spite of yourself. It just feels very fun and very entertaining. The evaluations we got after that session were just phenomenal.”

While the sessions are entertaining, they’re also business-focused, she said, noting people exit the workshops with clear paths to implement what they’ve learned. The most recently workshop focused on risk-taking and the “art of failing successfully.”

A growing trend

Some big names in business, education, nonprofits and government are using applied improv to improve their performance.

For example, Google, PepsiCo, the Red Cross and even the United Nations have used the technique to improve relationships, break down barriers and help employees think on their feet. There’s even an applied improv global conference, which allows companies like Fishladder to meet with and learn from the likes of Stanford University’s Institute of Design, Pories said. 

Pories gives the example of a sales executive who thinks he has an hour to do a presentation for an important client, but then the situation changes and that time is cut down to 14 minutes. The exec could simply not give the presentation and lose out on the sale entirely, or find a way to adapt and work within the time frame, she said.

Applied improvisation has gained in popularity as companies look to build stronger teams and encourage collaboration, said Lam of Improv Effects.

“We’re definitely in a cultural transition in businesses,” Lam said. “It used to be the angry boss storming down the hall barking orders at people. When I did sales … it was a very top-down leadership style. I don’t think that that is the current zeitgeist in the corporate community. I think people are much more concerned with drawing the best out of their employees.”

Because recruiting good people and then retaining them is so expensive and time-consuming, companies need improv to more effectively compete in the labor market, he said.

“People are looking for ways to keep their workforce engaged, they’re looking for ways to make people want to stick around to give their best,” Lam said. “So I think that’s why we’re seeing this. People are seeing the value, the dollars behind employees communicating well, being excited about where they work and drawing the best out of them while they’ve got them.”

Improv and leadership

The “yes, and …” concept teaches employees how to listen to what’s being said, accept it and then build on it. For managers, it helps them find ways to engage employees, Lam said.

When Improv Effects works with businesses, what they try to “get people to recognize is that everybody’s got something good to share,” such as when employees come to managers with ideas or solutions, he said.

“Some of them are not very well-formulated ideas, they’re not fleshed out as much as other ones or fully formed, but everybody’s got some good stuff that they bring,” Lam said, adding that if employees’ ideas are consistently shot down, they will stop sharing — which can be harmful to building a corporate culture.

“They’re going to stop trusting the people they’re working for, whereas if you can find ways to ‘yes’ and build on people’s ideas, they share something with you,” Lam said. “You’ll find ways to get more information, find ways to build on it and have fun with creating it as a shared idea.”

Start with honesty

Small businesses can start implementing some of the techniques of applied improvisation in their own cultures right away, but it’s not always easy, Pories said.

“This is true of good leaders and it’s true of good companies: You first have to be really honest — honest about who you are and what you do and how you do it,” she said. “That’s probably one of the hardest things about improvisation. It requires honesty.”

Once companies are honest with themselves, they can identify what they’re good at, what they need help with, and then figure out how to implement applied improv techniques to those opportunities, Pories said.

Companies need to stop seeing obstacles as something negative and start seeing how obstacles can actually make them better and smarter, rather than try to get rid of them or ignore them, she said.

“If you are going to create a workforce that’s agile, that they’re good innovative problem solvers, they have to be able to laugh together,” Pories said. “When you start using this stuff, you really can’t help but use it in all areas of your life, which is why it is transformational.”

Sidebar: The ‘rules’ of improv

Although improv is based on the idea that life is unpredictable, there are still rules to follow. Actor and writer Tina Fey — an alumnae of Chicago’s famous Second City improv group — outlines her rules for improv in her best-selling book, Bossypants. Funny enough, these rules can also apply to business (and life in general):

  • Rule #1:  Agree and say “yes.”
  • Rule #2:  Not only say “yes,” say “yes AND.”
  • Rule #3:  Make statements.
  • Rule #4:  There are no mistakes, only opportunities.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from its original form to clarify Pories’ interaction with Stanford University’s Institute of Design. 

Read 8110 times Last modified on Monday, 02 March 2015 14:09

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