Many of our favorite funny celebrities got their start in comedy with the famous improvisational theater group Second City in Chicago, Illinois. The rules for improv turn out to be great guidelines for anyone involved in various types of team-based work.
Using the rules to improvisational comedy may seem like a strange way to improve your culture and business, but the foundations of effective improv are also the foundations for effective communication and teamwork: creativity and innovative thinking, active listening, open communication, trust, reciprocity, engagement, effective leadership, responding to mistakes or failures ... the list goes on.
In fact, extensive research by Google on what makes the company’s teams work more effectively or fail, showed it has little to do with the skills or roles of people on the team, and everything to do with creating high involvement and a sense of psychological safety. Making people feel safe makes them comfortable sharing ideas and feedback. On the other hand, fear can be the biggest impediment to participation, creative thinking, healthy relationships, and generating employee input. So how can teams make people feel safe?
It turns out that the rules for improv help create safe spaces for participation by combating fear and creating support, openness, and affirmation. Improv helps people express themselves openly and honestly by allowing people to make mistakes. It allows people to be bold or take risks, use their imaginations when problem solving, and feel validated or accepted by teammates.
To put some of the lessons from improv performance to work and improve company culture, in your team, or with your coworkers, a great place to start is with these four basic rules for improv:
Rule 1: Agree & Postpone Denial
Denial, or immediately focusing on why someone’s idea or contribution to your efforts will not work, inhibits people from wanting to participate and can actually create a sense of antagonism among team members. If an idea is to be successful, it needs room to breathe. When problem solving or brainstorming, create a space where judgement or editing of the ideas themselves is postponed.
Rule 2: Say “Yes, and…”
This is the most important rule of improv. Once you have responded to your partner’s idea with agreement, build on that idea by taking a more additive approach. Say “Yes, and…” to keep the creative process moving forward. A “No.” or “Yes, but…” can stop an idea dead in its tracks. With “Yes, and…”, you might find that a previously odd idea leads to something more fruitful for your work team through the contributions of other’s insights or experiences. This way, ideas and contributions can grow and evolve.
Rule 3: Make Statements and Support the Team
When too much of your groups work or creative thinking relies on one person more than others, it can be overwhelming. This is when burnout sets in. Statements encourage confidence and participation. For instance, asking too many questions without making any contributions yourself may put too much unnecessary pressure on your teammate. Ensure that your work teams are actively engaging and involving all team members effectively and save the critical editing process for later, where you can all take part in this step together.
Rule 4: There are No Mistakes
Sure, this may seem odd; of course, our teams and companies will make mistakes. This rule is really meant to help us manage how we respond to our mistakes. We should not think of such things as failures and instead do our best to identify opportunities. Adaptation and agility are major keys to company success. Learn from mistakes and look for opportunities. Stop, take a step back, and think about a problem differently. Reframe your questions and look for solutions. A good exercise on this is for groups to think back on mistakes teams have made, what they learned from them, and how to move forward. You may find the mistake to be a tremendous breakthrough in the way you manage certain problems or tasks later. In that regard, the mishap may create more value for your teams in the form of what you learned from it. No great success was ever achieved without a bit of failure first.