Improv – Yes, But….
I recently took an improv class and have to say, I had a blast. And more and more I see corporations and other groups using improv to help with teambuilding. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you keep some things in mind:
This is not for everyone. I happen to be an extrovert; I like to get onstage and act crazy. Not everyone is going to enjoy improv and that should be okay. Too often we do “teambuilding” exercises that make some members of the team uncomfortable and seem to have no clear application to our work. If I’m an internal IT person, do I really need to get in front of my peers and cluck like a chicken?
People have different ideas of fun. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article about CEOs who hug their employees, vendors, etc. The CEOs think it’s great and their workplaces are much more caring, etc. because of it. Two non-huggers who spoke anonymously (because they didn’t want to get in trouble) said they hated it. Not everyone wants to be in front of the room and not everyone wants to be touched. One man’s fun is another man’s hell.
Improv is not a silver bullet. Sometimes clients ask if I do teambuilding (I don’t – not like they have in mind). If you are calling someone from the outside to do your teambuilding, you have a different problem. You have leaders who can’t lead. Doing some improv exercises together is not going to fix that.
I think if a group is very, very clear about what they need/want, improv can be very useful. It will get people out of their comfort zones. It will help them think in new ways. “Yes, and…” is a concept that teaches you to build on other people’s ideas rather than crush them. Sally might say, “This is a fabulous pineapple!” You can say, “Yes, and it would make a delicious upside down cake!” Sally then can say, “Yes and you would look amazing in an apron!” She can’t say, “I hate pineapple upside down cake.” Because now she’s shot you down and the whole bit is ruined. She has to give you some place to go and “yes, and…” does that. See how that can help in brainstorming?
Improv is also something you have to do with other people – it’s not a solo activity. And if done well, you are supporting and cheering on those around you. But for this (or any “team building” activity) to have value, you have to have a plan for its ongoing application. If your culture is all about efficiency, you aren’t suddenly going to start doing a lot of “yes, and…” brainstorming. If the whole reason you think you need team building is Bob Jones is a soul crushing leader who micromanages his people, why aren’t you dealing with Bob? Why torture his people by letting them enjoy a fun day of “team building” just to go back to work and have the life sucked out of them?
I think it’s hard to objectively assess your culture when you’re in it. I can’t tell you how many corporate value statements mention diversity. Then I go in and everyone looks, acts, and dresses exactly alike. I think it’s fine to be homogenous if it works for you, just stop lying to yourself about your values!
Improv gets a little weird – if it doesn’t, you’re not doing it right. I work with many clients who really don’t want people getting a little weird. And you know what? That’s okay! Zappos can be weird. I’d rather the Mayo Clinic keep it buttoned down. I’d prefer no improv in the operating room.
But I do think you’d look great in an apron.