Lessons From Improv: What Comedy Can Teach Us About Creative Teamwork
The corporate team-building trust fall: there’s a reason it’s a cliché. As you let yourself fall off the conference table into the open arms of Jeanine from Finance and Harvey from HR, you’re making a physical commitment to your team. When you freefall, you’re saying to your co-workers, “you’ve got this, right?”
The problem with the trust fall is that there’s no real risk involved. The stakes aren’t high enough. Sure, Jeanine might get distracted and you might hit the conference room floor, but everyone will blame Jeanine for that one. You weren’t trying to succeed at anything, after all. You were just allowing yourself to fall.
Creativity isn’t about falling. It’s about shooting for something with all you’ve got.
How do you show your team you trust them without freefalling and hoping they’ll catch you? That’s where improv skills come in handy!
You’ve got to give them something
Improv is a creative business, and it changes the lives of those in the business of being creative. When a group of improv comedians takes a stage, none of them know exactly what’s about to happen, but they’ve got to convince each other (and the audience) that everything’s under control. Improv is about looking at the person across from you and thinking, “I trust her to do a good job. I’m also going to support her ideas, no matter what. If they’re not great, I’ll make them better. If they’re great, I’ll help her do it again, and louder.”
In improv, if your scene partner establishes that you’re both giraffes, well, you’d better stretch out your neck, walk like you have hooves and support that idea. When an improviser says jump, the other improvisers don’t say how high. They say, “yes, we’re about to jump because this is sky-diving, and I’m getting married tomorrow!” Creativity is borne from detail; if a scene is to succeed, it’ll work because everyone involved was present, brainstorming, in agreement and ready to integrate new ideas.
Sitting silent in a think-tank won’t get you far. Sitting silent on a stage, even if you’re listening carefully to your scene partner, takes the friction out of the project you’re putting together. That’s why improvisers don’t just say “yes”—we say “yes, and…”
Simply agreeing is not enough!
Improv, like other creative work, is built on the recognition and management of patterns. You learn your coworkers’ habits, and you delegate assignments based on what you’ve seen from your team in the past. Often, when we begin a relationship with a new client, we don’t have time to reason out who on our team is best suited to the particular project. We pull from our pool of creative experts, toss them in with a project overview, and watch them spin gold out of the air. This confidence comes from experience. In studying improv, you learn how to make these decisions more quickly.
Let’s go back to the giraffe example. Which one sounds like a more interesting scene?
Jeanine: I’m glad I’m a giraffe. Harvey: Yeah, you’re very tall.
Jeanine: I’m glad I’m a giraffe. Harvey: Eh, it’s not too bad being a koala. Hey, whaddya say you shake down some of the leaves for me, tall guy? Gotta keep my pudgy, lovable figure so humans will keep thinking I’m cute.
As a creative thinker, Harvey took in Jeanine’s offer, produced quick associations with giraffes (they’re tall, they live in the wild with other animals), and asked himself “if all that is true, what else is true?” His answer in this hypothetical was, “I bet other animals are jealous of the giraffe’s ability to get leaves. It probably affects how they view themselves.” But then again, it’s improv, and it could have been anything!
The point is, it’s always better when it’s something.
Don’t just repeat; heighten!
If a joke lands, that’s a small victory. In order to pull off a “callback,” by referencing that same joke later in a set, a comedian has to quickly identify what was funny about the first scene, isolate the funny part, and place it in a new setting with higher stakes. The tired example is a marital spat repeated as if it were POTUS arguing with his VP, and then again as God arguing with Jesus.
Improv teaches us that every member on your team should be able to identify where the “heat” is in a brainstorming session. Creative work isn’t just about producing a high volume of ideas—it’s about rifling through those ideas, identifying a pattern, and delivering those ideas in a streamlined, concise, and catchy way. Nothing in improv is simply repeated, and nothing in creative work is simply replicated. It’s faster, it matters more. It’s heightened.
This will go well because I’ll make sure it does
Let’s return to that trust fall.
It’s a stand-by tradition for improv comedy teams to clap each other on the shoulders while backstage and whisper, “I’ve got your back.” It’s affirming, and even exhilarating, to embark on a project with a group of creatives when none of you have much of an idea of how it’s going to go. Studying improv can lessen your anxiety about the unknown, but the buzzing anticipation of success, and the fear of failure, never really goes away. Improv just teaches you to set those emotions aside and produce. Letting go and assuming the best: that’s a great lesson for any team.
If an improviser makes a poor choice on stage, it’s only her fault for a moment. If the audience realizes there’s been a mistake, then the onus falls to her entire team. One of the foundational aspects of improv is no-holds-barred, committed, seamless teamwork. Your teammates are, in a way, counting on you to catch them, but no one on stage is simply falling. They’re leaping toward the next foothold, which may or may not be there.
If it’s not, it’s your job to catch them, introduce a new idea, and try again together.
Photo courtesy of Great Lakes.