The British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? inspired a couple of parties at our house a long time ago. Our guests had a really good time. Although some were shy about participating, no one felt left out when it came to laughing—hard. As an introvert, I found acting in the skits really uncomfortable. And yet in the end, the experience really wasn’t as “bad” as I expected.
As fun and freeing as those experiences turned out to be, it never occurred to me that people apply the principles of improv to work situations. Oh, we may not play formal games like they do on TV, but we do improvise every human interaction. Something happens and we respond. How well we respond, how creative we are depends upon our attention to detail, the willingness to risk looking foolish, and also our desire to support other people around us—and their desire to support us in turn.
A Webinar called Improv for The Business Stage, led by Kat Koppett and sponsored by Positive Business DC, has gotten me to think about change management in a new light. I have led a couple of turnarounds. Part of the underlying idea was to create a safe space where people felt comfortable being themselves along with encouragement (from me) to make mistakes geared toward growth and learning.
The approach worked consistently. But, a number of things Koppett said during the webinar have stuck and I’m now wondering if my approach played it a little too safe.
Producing better business outcomes may be the reason companies have been adopting improv as a tool for the past 25 years. What lies at the heart, though, is creating vulnerability and more intimate relationships, which completely transforms group dynamics. Done well, improv in the workplace pushes people out of their comfort zones. They can take risks without judgement or fear within the larger group.
When doing improv, you focus on your partner’s needs and make them feel good. This environment enables people to express themselves and be seen, recognized, and supported. If a mistake happens, take a big, circus bow. People will not be laughing at you, they will be laughing with you.
The improv environment creates a place where it’s okay, and even expected, that you will feel uncomfortable and make mistakes. Team members become vulnerable together. That vulnerability creates a very trusting space conducive to conflict resolution. In other words, it’s safe to take risks here. It’s the willingness to take risks that enables creativity to flourish and allows true innovation to occur.
You cannot design a Dyson vaccuum cleaner unless you break free of everyone else’s worldview. It appears as if improv gives you the latitude to think like Dyson. Or Amazon. Or Zappos. You can’t grow without getting out of your comfort zone. And you definitely cannot disrupt markets without the courage to take risks no one else would dare take. Improv sets the stage for that kind of breakthrough thinking.
If you would like to hear a recording of the the Webinar, which includes games and tips used to foster creativity in the workplace, please visit Positive Business DC.