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Making other people look good: what improv teaches us about teamwork

In my spare time, I can be found ‘making silly stuff up’ with improvised comedy groups Classic Andy and Twinprov.  There is little as exhilarating and satisfying as spontaneously creating something together, as a team, that delights an audience.  It is also challenging and often scary, in a good way, to be taking risks and ‘managing on the edge’ together, not quite sure how it’s going to turn out.  What began as a creative and fun hobby four years ago has taught me as much about truly effective teamwork as any management course or corporate role could.  Here’s why…

Because improv is about:

Listening

Genuinely, truly and actively listening.  When you perform as part of an improv team, you literally walk on stage with 20 minutes to fill and absolutely no idea what is going to happen.  It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Active listening means making strong eye contact, keeping an open stance and genuinely absorbing what has been said.  It means not railroading through your own pre-formed ideas.  How many times have we sat in meetings thinking about what we will say next, rather than giving the current speaker our full attention? We lose many potentially innovative ideas every day because of this.  And we lose trust because our colleagues don’t feel we really value them.  To listen is to demonstrate a willingness to be changed.

Saying ‘yes, and’ to others’ suggestions

If you remember nothing else about improv, remember ‘yes, and’.  How many times in a day is your natural reaction to a suggestion ‘yes, but’? Or even ‘no, but’?  These are blocking behaviours.  ‘Yes, and’ is at the heart of creative problem-solving.

Once you begin to say ‘yes, and’ more, you can work with others to develop ideas and build on their suggestions to make something really innovative.  It doesn’t mean that you uncritically accept people’s off-the-wall ideas but it means that your mind is more open and you genuinely engage with new opportunities in a creative way.  We receive many ‘offers’ each day that we simply miss or fail to engage with.  That’s a lot of wasted potential.  It can also be hugely motivating for members of the team to experience ‘yes, and’ leadership or teamwork.

Making other people look good

Imagine if your only role was to make other members of the team look good and fulfil their potential?  That’s really what improv is all about.  The team will not look good or perform well if one member is benefiting at the expense of others or is trying to denigrate someone else.  Make it about everyone else, rather than you.  If they are doing well, the likelihood is you will be too.

Consider how you can support other members of the team to do the best they can; the team’s performance, potential and morale will improve dramatically.  It’s simple but it works.  And it significantly increases trust.  It is the basis for most theories around creating strong corporate climates and being a facilitative and transformative leader.  But you don’t need an MBA to do it.  How can you make others look good today?

Making strong offers

All this collaboration and listening can mean that we feel nervous or disinclined to put our own suggestions forward in case they’re not good enough.  Surely others have more interesting things to say? We shouldn’t feel that way.  Strong offers are fantastic in improv as they give others something specific and tangible to work with.  And they can develop in surprising, fascinating and joyful ways. The same is true of teamwork at work.

Need new product ideas? Make a bold suggestion. Need to improve performance?  Say something radical.  Others will then explore and develop it with you.  Strong offers make people feel safe as they have something to work with.  Put forward your hypotheses.  They don’t have to be the ‘right answer’ or fully-formed.  That’s what the team is for.

Being emotionally attuned

In a world where performance improvement, whether of machines or humans, is often talked about as something that can be engineered, to reach the optimum configuration, the human dynamics are often ignored.

Being a strong improviser is fundamentally about humans, reacting and interacting in a dynamic system. It is about establishing emotional connections with others and being able to quickly pick-up on micro-signals.  It’s essentially about emotional intelligence.  This is clearly hugely important in teams, particularly when it comes to motivation, attitudes to change and approaches to new ideas.  It also means that emotions such as excitement and joy can become contagious, boosting morale.  Given the current focus on employee wellbeing and psychological safety in the workplace, it is more important than ever to focus on developing more positive climates at work.

I’m not suggesting that you ask all your team members to take up improv comedy in their spare time (even though it would be fun!).  There are lots of easily accessible exercises that you can use within team settings to help people to work together more effectively.  You can take your own simple steps to develop more effective and happier teams.  And that has to be good for everyone.