Why improv can help your team collaborate


Nilofer Merchant has an excellent article on Harvard Business Review blog named "Eight Dangers of Collaboration" These are the reasons that keep people from starting down the road of collaboration and innovation. Here are the eight dangers she lists:

  1. Not knowing the answer
  2. Unclear or uncomfortable roles
  3. Too much talking, not enough doing
  4. Information (over)sharing
  5. Fear of fighting
  6. More work
  7. More hugs than decisions
  8. It's hard to know who to praise and who to blame.

When is collaboration the right choice?

It's true that collaboration is not the silver bullet for new century business. It's just the newest hammer that people have found, but, don't forget that not everything is a nail.

Collaboration is great for innovation and group problem solving. For big endeavors or when you are really stretching the status quo to get to something new, collaboration will help you get there.

Collaboration works best when it's integrated deeply into your whole organizational culture. It's a mindset in addition to a methodology. When everyone understands the principles behind it and buys-in you get the real multiplier effects and avoid the dangers that Nilofer points out.

How to create a collaborative culture

With a few changes the list of "eight dangers" is a good assessment of what improvisers face going into a scene.

  1. Not knowing what happens next
  2. Unclear roles or characters
  3. Too much talking, not doing enough
  4. Information (over)sharing or making too many offers
  5. Fear of fighting
  6. A new way of working
  7. More offers than story
  8. At the end there is nobody to blame or praise, you are in it together

Improvisation is a pure form of collaboration. Because of that, improv has a great set of tools to learn the skills you need to work with a team when ambiguity abounds. Unlike work it's  afun and engaging pursuit and provides a great training ground for teamwork.

So, how do you get your organization to embrace this new mindset?

Start at the top

Culture change only works when the everyone is in. Teams can benefit from spot interventions and work better together,  when it's supported from the top its happens more easily. For example, when you look at how the board and executives feel about fiscal policy, professional development, or any aspect of a business you will see that reflected through every part of the organization. Get the executive team going on improv along with everyone else.

Integrate Applied Improv Into Learning and Development

Applied Improvisation is a well established corporate consulting discipline that uses the lessons of performance improv (yes, like the television show "Who's line is it anyway?") The main difference is that there are specific learning objectives and every exercise gives an opportunity to debrief with the group to draw the lessons from them. If you are working with someone who just plays games and moves on, find someone else.

For more see my Applied Improv Principles series or join the Applied Improv Network.

Encourage employees to start improv clubs, troupes, or sponsor classes

The lessons of improv are easily available to anyone who takes a class and learns it for performance. The truth is that exposure to improv helps people in myriad ways - confidence, public speaking, thinking on their feet, better communication... but that's another post.