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February 20, 2020
Brad Jamison

Improv: the unsung hero of team building exercises

The parts make up the whole.

At least, that’s what they tell you when you take a group acting class.

Movies, TV shows, and stage productions are not objects, stagnating in history. They’re moving, breathing organisms built by a team of people who are committed, skilled, and cooperative. Your company is that way and so are the projects you engage in. That’s why you need a different kind of team building exercise—the cooperative kind. 

In team building, cooperation precedes collaboration

What’s the difference between cooperation and collaboration? Let’s get word-nerdy: 

  • Collaboration: The act of working with someone to produce or create something
  • Cooperation: The act of working together toward the same end goal OR the act of providing willing assistance and participation

The difference is nuanced.

Collaboration is about getting together and completing the desired or assigned task. Cooperation is about working together, blending skills, and achieving more through a team approach. If you want your employees to go into a room and figure it out, you don’t need cooperation. If you want your team to collaborate well, you must first inspire them to cooperate. 

To do that, you’ll need some really smart team building exercises that:

  • Focus on mirroring, mimicry, and the malleability of the human psyche
  • Combine and enhance diverse personalities before demanding groupthink or co-support
  • Break down the natural walls and suits of armor we wear at work.

Hmm... sounds a lot like improv!

The 7 tenets of improv 

Improv—short for improvisation—is a type of comedic performance or group activity where a challenge or prompt is given, and after that, 100% of the performance or exercise that follows is made up on the spot.

Improv performers will get together in groups and perform for audiences, but many improv clubs get together just to practice for sport. It’s fun, but the deeper meaning of improv is to challenge your linear or presumptive thinking.

When you get out of your head and escape what you assume to be the known recourse or obvious next step, you’re operating in the present.

There are no fears about previous performances. Expectations are forgotten. Improv is a perfect team building idea because it induces complete freedom from worry or expectation.

Improv inspires: 

Agreement over argument

You might have heard the phrase “yes, and…” referred to in improv or theatre circles. You use “yes, and…” as a reminder to never negate, undo, or override what another improv player has added to the scene. This doesn’t mean that colleagues should never challenge each other’s ideas or information. Instead, it’s a reminder that you get further by building onto someone’s offered solution than you do by tearing their ideas apart.

Position over competition

Improv performers are not competitors to one another. They share a common end goal and understand that completing a scene successfully will require equal effort, equal enthusiasm, and equal skill. The same is true for your workplace or team.

Relationships over tasks

Improv is theater and theater is art and art is never an obligation. Unfortunately, work can sometimes feel like an obligation. The way to combat this is by helping your team connect to the problem and the empathy at the core of what they hope to solve or build together. Improv helps us center the relationship, the challenge, and our contributions—not just checking boxes.

Direction over design

Humans have a tendency to try and make things pretty before we’ve made them well. Improv reminds us that using your prettiest prose or performing a fancy pirouette isn’t what your audience wants. Your audience wants the action to move forward, and at work, that’s what your boss wants too.

Action over abstraction

Speaking of action, don’t get lost in the minutiae of decision making—stay zoomed out. Once the big picture is clear, the smaller details can and will develop. Improv reminds us that nothing is precious and that concepts are fleeting. It keeps us agile.

Pulling over pushing

Rather than entering the group atmosphere hoping to direct everyone toward your own agenda, be flexible. You’ll get more out of others—and provide more yourself—by asking pointed and relevant questions to draw ideas into the middle. Improv teaches us this, and it’s something we can use at work every single day. Pull before you push.

We before me

Perhaps the most essential tenet in improv, and when fleshing out team building ideas, is to yield to the collective. Whatever is good for us, is good for me. Whatever direction we’re all going in is the direction in which I will row. At work, this breaks down to the focus on career vs. company. If your employees go home and stew over the individual work they have to do, pressures, and gains, they’ll never come back to work amped to cooperate. Improv reminds us that we are part of a whole and the whole is nothing more than a sum of its parts. 

Team building exercises demand cooperation.

So does work.

When we translate the tenets and principles of improv to the corporate world, people tend to freak out. Who wants to be open or vulnerable at work, right? 

Speaking of, hear from Director of People Ops Emma Brudner about why openness and empathy at work works

Yet, the demand to be constantly creative, solution-oriented, open, human, connected, engaged, and present remains. How is someone who is uncomfortable, stressed, pressured, uncertain, fearful, and unsupported also meant to present creative ideas, produce untethered solutions, or even speak up among colleagues? They won’t. 

Emotional and mental freedom from worry is a precursor to enthusiastic, open communication and collaboration. To build the cooperative machine within your team, you first must help them trust each other. Improv unfailingly does that.

Bringing team building exercises to work 

Introducing improv into the workplace can happen in small or big ways depending on the need and the accommodation. Like any extraneous workday experience, you decide how much you want this important thing to fit in with your other important things.

These four team building ideas can fit seamlessly into your day:

Team building in meetings/stand ups

The beauty of improv exercises is that they can be conducted in a matter of a few minutes.

Start your big company meeting or smaller team meeting with 10 minutes of improv. It’s a great way to embed a team building exercise into the natural cadence of your company’s culture and test the waters. Don’t be surprised if people get carried away and you’re forced to cut things short!

Team building in huddle form

You can take an hour from a random workday (once a day, or even once a week) to get the whole team together specifically for an improv session or team building exercise. Whether you bring in a guest speaker, recruit an employee to run it, or just disperse an activity and have your leaders facilitate, this hour could become a treasured reset for your teams. 

Team building during a workshop

For teams that see a significant deficit in their ability to cooperate, or who’ve earned a day off to deepen their connections, the half-day or whole-day workshop model might be best.

These can be conducted in the office or offsite somewhere. You can head to your local improv theater for a more holistic experience, or you can host your own. In any case, you’ll give your teams the opportunity to try multiple activities, take breaks, and build rapport more naturally. You’ll also get more of your reluctant participants involved if there’s more time.

Team building at a retreat

If a bigger reset is in the budget, a long weekend or week-long retreat might be the answer.

These come at a price whether they’re held locally or somewhere more ~fun~, but the takeaway could mean a complete overhaul of the way your people think, perceive each other, create, and collaborate. Your team will get all the feel-good benefits of taking some time away to reset their headspace, but it’s bigger than that. By taking a together-vacation, your team won’t just come back refreshed, but also reconfigured.

Their partnerships will have changed. The mood in the group will be different. And the rapport will have shifted for the better.

Another team building idea that will build trust among your employees: expanding your work from home policy. Read more about the 10 real health benefits of working from home.

Evaluating the results

Once you’ve conducted your own improv efforts, you’ll instantly be glad you did. I’m comfortable guaranteeing this myself, because I’ve never seen anyone not enjoy themselves at improv.

But, I understand the need to prove to yourself (and your boss) that improv and other “fun” team building ideas are worthwhile for the company.

Before your next team building experience, send your boss this report from Quantum Workplace. Once you conduct your exercises, look for the following: 

  1. An increase in creative collaboration and solutions 
  2. A more positive response to team-based work 
  3. A decrease in confusion around tone in Slack or emails 
  4. Less one-off meetings or project management overkill
  5. A decrease in lost assignments, messages, or reminders 
  6. Fewer HR complaints and less conflict mediation 

It’s also worth noting that your improv workshop could bring up some unfiltered honesty.

I know that’s iffy territory in business. However, we’re finally reaching a precipice where different personalities and lifestyles are welcome at work, where it should be OK to challenge the long-held beliefs and byproducts of your employer, and where honesty is sometimes necessary to unstick what’s stuck. Improv does that.

If you want to learn more about applied improv, check this out.
For a huge directory of improv exercises to try at work, take a look at this one.
For other non-improv (but still human-first) team building exercises, there’s this.

And if you want to keep the employee surprises rolling all year long, chat with us.

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