Improv Games & Business Don't Necessarily Mix


What is improvisation, really?

A.J. here. I studied and performed improv for three years throughout Chicago, from the famed Second City to iO and Annoyance (made famous by a show called the Co-Ed Prison Sluts, to give you an idea of their style). And after being in a business setting and working as a consultant with companies for the past few years, it seems to me that improv is greatly misunderstood in terms of its benefits for business teams. 

In recent articles highlighting improv experiences within the workplace, three themes popped up time and time again:

  1. Listening
  2. Presentation Skills
  3. Affirmations 


And that's where I’m calling bullshit:



I’ve seen professional improvisers with 10+ years of experience under their belt fail miserably as listeners. The goal is to make your scene partner look good by listening and accepting their scene choices; however, this is about as rare as those immortal scenes which live forever in our mind for being so goddamn funny. Yes, there are some improvisors who are brilliant and consistent listeners; but the idea that your office teams will learn how to listen in the same way after a few hours of short-form improv games in unrealistic. Performers can go through years and years of training and still suck at it, at least to some degree. That’s just human nature. 

But why is listening so important in the workplace anyway? 

Because everyone needs to be on the same page for the business as a whole to reach its goals effectively - and efficiently. More often than not, the people who are “heard” are the ones who speak first and display the most confidence in their ideas. In turn, their thoughts tend to anchor entire brainstorm sessions. More docile employees may not speak up in this environment, and therefore their ideas are not heard - especially since the first ideas are usually the ones that a group might pursue. 

Fast Company published an article about this very problem: Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Technique Instead. Ultimately, what the author recommended was something called “brain writing.” Instead of locking your team up in a room to come up with ideas in a fast-paced, stock-exchange-esque environment, have them produce ideas privately and individually. Then, they can bring those ideas to the meeting, that way everyone is heard and more ideas get airtime. And if you go around the table, allowing everyone to voice their thoughts, then the listening problem is resolved. 

On the flip side, consider an improv scene: Everyone is trying to be funny, say something witty, get the laugh, or prove they’re better - subconsciously or not. “Yes, and…” might be enforced to a degree by the improv teacher or coach; but that’s not going to generate new business insights unless applied specifically to business ideas that were thought of beforehand. However, in improv, bringing stuff in that’s pre-planned is anathema to the style. Everything is supposed to be created in the moment. Throw your teams on-stage with that assignment, and they won’t be listening to each other. They’ll be far too busy trying to "win the game" by proving their standing in the office hierarchy. And that’s simply not effective. 


Presentation Skills

One of the most common fears is public speaking. Improv can help with this, to a degree, once you’re prepared for anything to happen, able to live in the present, and truly listen to your scene partner. But again, an improv scene is not a presentation. If anything, it may just help you get over the pain of looking foolish in front of co-workers and the boss; but it’s not going to make your presentations any better. 

When entering an improv scene, scene partners need to come in with a want or driving motivation, then feel out who wants what in the scene and how they’re going to get what they want. The goal is conflict, not stage presence. What are you fighting for? What’s your relationship? What just happened? What is new? What’s the game? What is normal? Then there’s the added stress of environment, object work, existing in the space, and developing a strong character. 

In other words, the goal of improv isn’t to help you produce a strong speech or presentation. To claim that it will seems more like over-selling than an honest assessment of the true benefits this art form offers. And if we’re being completely honest, if stage presence and presenting are your problems, you’d be much better off studying clown (think: Jacques Lecoq not Bozo) or the Japanese martial art Akido than improv. Those two art forms teach you to make eye contact with the audience, build rapport, and breathe; while improv teaches you how to play games on stage. It’s apples and oranges. 

Furthermore, no improv scene will actually prepare you for giving a presentation. If that’s an area that needs improvement within your business life, you could simply combine the brain writing exercise with in-house presentations given once a week. You could have staff develop ten ideas for a problem, then present their ideas with five slides on Fridays. That would be far more beneficial than having your teams create scenes or “pass the pulse.”


Affirmations (“Yes, and…”) 

Alright, now to deal with the real elephant in the room: “Yes, and…” This is a rule of improv in which you never negate your scene parter’s dialogue. If they say the sky is blue, you follow with “yes, and the clouds are bigger than I’ve ever seen them before.” Then they say, “Yes, and they seem rather grey. I hope the rain doesn’t wash away the crop we just planted.” “Yes, and that would be terrible because if we have no crop we have no food.” “Yes, and then we would surely starve.” Etc., etc. The whole point is that by saying “Yes, and” you’re driving the scene forward. 

Consider the opposite:

A: “The sky is blue.” 
B: “No, the sky is red.” 
A: “OK, the sky is red and I fear a storm is coming.” 
B: “A storm isn’t coming! That’s from the nuclear explosion that happened yesterday!”
A: “Yes, and I’m shocked we’re still alive to tell the tale. How did we survive again?”
B: “We didn’t survive! We’re ghosts, you fool!” 

Now, maybe this could turn into an interesting scene - maybe - because one player is following the "Yes, and" rule. Now, what if no one was building a scene in this way:

A: “The sky is blue.” 
B: “No, the sky is red.” 
A: “No, the sky is blue. What's wrong with your eyes?” 
B: “There's nothing wrong with my eyes. What's wrong with you? Did that nuclear explosion damage them?”
A: “What nuclear explosion? You idiot. You're so dumb I don't even know what to do with you.”
B: “I'm not the idiot - you are! The sky is clearly red!” 

This scene is going nowhere, fast.

A more effective way to play with this rule is instead to have scene partners start dialogue with “Yes, because…” That forces players to expand their idea more and unpack meaning with each back and forth. It's certainly something worth trying if you're dead set on the improv track; but, really, are any of these examples truly helpful for businesses? Not really. 

Let’s revisit the brainstorming example, where those who speak first often anchor the conversation. If that person speaks first with a terrible, mediocre, no-good idea, and then everyone immediately morphs into some sort of sycophant “yes, and-ing” that individual until the end of the meeting, you’re screwed. So, instead of saying “YES!” to everything, in business you should ask “Why?” Why ‘A?’ Because ‘B.’ Why ‘B?’ Because ‘C.’ Keep digging. 

An improv game is totally different from the business world. In business, we’re trying to solve problems for our customers. In improv, we’re trying to create problems for comedic relief. In business, we need to collaborate for our best ideas to be born. (Think: The smartest person in the room is the room itself.) In improv, an ensemble must collaborate to create a cohesive performance with callbacks, recurring characters, and tension. The two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. Add to the fact that some people take great pride in their ability to be “funny,” and you’ve got a real personality problem on your hands. 

Even within tight-knit improv circles, it’s really difficult to achieve the beautiful ideal of the “ensemble” - for a collection of personas to create something out of nothing by listening and being generous with one another. The improv community itself is also rather competitive, with students trying to make teams, get cast by a Second City touring company, or landing that elusive spot on a major stage in the hopes of getting a gig on SNL. It’s not all cherry blossoms and gum drops. There is gossip, backstabbing, and pettiness. In some cases, these communities are like high school - just with forty-year-old boys roaming the halls in Captain America t-shirts. They don’t have it all figured out. And even the best aren't always the best at affirming what their scene partner just said. They’re human, after all. And what works best for them may not necessarily work best for you. 


So what is improv good for?

If those who participated in improv workshops felt that they became better listeners, less-anxious presenters, or more positive and affirming individuals - fantastic! But if I’m a CEO looking at a pamphlet for an improv retreat for my teams, I’m gonna need something more concrete than that. So, here are our ideas on how best to integrate improv into your teams for the most benefit: 


Have customer support role play with your sales teams. 

The people who are most familiar with your customers and the problems they have should portray those customers in scenes with sales reps. Make it clear that whatever happens in these scenes stays between the group, but that customer service reps should embody the pain points their customers experience regularly. Then, have the groups switch so that the sales team is now the customer and the support teams are now in sales. Based on what you learn from these interactions, you may be better able to address certain pain points in your customer’s journey. And if you’re really feeling frisky, include your product development teams as well, even if they’re just in the audience. 


Have employees split off between new prospects and sales reps. 

How can you explain your value proposition to a new prospect? On pieces of paper, write down what each customer might want, or define their specific problem. Each player portraying a prospect must then choose a piece of paper and portray that problem to their scene parter. The scene partner must answer questions, address issues, and try like hell to sell the idea. Through this game, you can discover new language for your business and also learn more about the problems your customers are having. 


A new spin On the game “THE Living Room.” 

In this improv game, players are in a “living room setting,” meaning they’re sitting around talking about stuff that actually happened to them. Then, from those suggestions, improvisers re-create the scene for laughs. You could use this game as the foundation for better understanding the relationship between your employees and customers. A group can sit around in the “living room” to share their craziest stories about working with customers, or something that happened in the office. From there, teams can re-create scenes to discover how the situation could have been prevented, improved, or resolved. Laughs would merely be a bonus. 


In Conclusion

Improvisation is a wonderful art form, and I greatly enjoyed being immersed in that world. But as we collaborate with more and more businesses and startups, I fail to see the benefits of traditional improv games for generating new ideas or pushing innovation. Sure, some games will help new teams bond or get to know each other better - but we should be realistic about the gains. Personally, I think everyone can stand to benefit from improv in general; but if you’re planning on bringing improv into your business, be very specific about what you hope to achieve and why. Otherwise, we’re all just playing games and not really building anything of value.