Improvisation, something often associated with the television show, Who's Line is it Anyway, is becoming more and more of what businesses turn to for staff training and development. The skills involved in being a strong improviser are the same skills needed to develop high-functioning teams and strengthen leadership skills. In other words, they're "21st century skills" necessary for successful businesses.
Imagine you are walking into a business meeting. You glance around the room and, with the exception of one or two colleagues, everyone is a stranger to you. What crosses your mind as your eyes meet the dispassionate stares of strangers? If you are like most people, regardless of your level of competence, there is usually slight fear and a small internal voice (or sometimes a loud voice) that yells, "Run!" However, if you are Deborah Trette, Human Resource and Operations Manager of 21 Tech, you will walk in confidently knowing that your colleagues will have your back and that you have the confidence to handle any situation that comes your way. Deborah participated in two improvisation staff development sessions designed specifically for 21 Tech, and finds that many of the activities presented during the training have been instrumental in supporting day to day teamwork and collaboration. One of the games, "Trust Circle," involves walking with your eyes shut across a large open space and trusting that colleagues around the circle will be there to guide you in a new direction and keep you safe in the process. Deborah reflected on how Trust Circle impacted her during a business meeting. "When I'm walking into a business meeting, I may not know the people who are in attendance, and sometimes it has that 'blind' feeling of not knowing where you're walking, but you have that confidence in yourself and also in your abilities and skills and so you walk on blindly into that meeting anyway."
There are several tenets of improvisation that can be equally applied to a successful business.
Say yes and build on what you receive
Be open and trust your partners
Make your partner look brilliant
Look for connection
Serve the bigger picture
Mistakes are gifts so risk failure
One of the doctrines of improvisation is "Mistakes are gifts so risk failure." This supports the idea of being willing to take those risks, meet those failures straight on, and use what is learned from each situation to build something even more successful. Improvisation involves risk-risking failure or walking out onto a stage (or into a room with strangers) without a solid idea, but committing to the scene regardless. When applied to business training, improvisation becomes a medium to support staff members working collaboratively, while gaining confidence to take the risks necessary to move the company forward.
Let's go back to the business meeting. We left off where you had stepped into the room only to face the dispassionate stares of strangers and because of "Trust Circle" you have bravely walked in and taken your seat at the head of the table. Next, if we apply the tenets of improvisation, we would "look for connections" with others. What do we have in common with the people in this room? Deborah discusses how another activity, "60 Second Life," supported her in making a deeper connection with a colleague. "We listened to one person and then took time to introduce them to the group. A lot of us were surprised at the amount of information that we gathered in such a short period of time even though we may have been working side by side with this person for two to three years, we may not have known that they went to a school in New York or that they studied abroad or that they had different hobbies that we typically don't see in the workplace." This activity opens up the possibility that the dispassionate strangers may also have facets of their life with which we can resonate. Improvisational training begins to have a larger reaching impact.
Improvisation works on and off the stage due to the fact that its sole purpose is to support a team working together to produce a dynamic result. Deborah summed it up well by saying "When we called the staff and asked them to participate in this activity, there was some push back and not everyone was jumping up and down like 'Oh, this is gonna be so great, you know, because it's thinking outside of the box.' And so we came in as individuals.
And when the activity was complete, after all the activities and games that we played and the interactions that we had, I really felt that we all came away as a team and as a group. It felt like we'd all gone through an experience together and we did it as a team. And we were successful and I think that we felt a better understanding of each other. I would imagine it would be like if we were all taking a hike together and we finally reached the top and together we planted the flag."
Under what circumstances would you implement a staff training using improvisation?
The business is going through major staffing/organizational changes
General lack of morale within company
Need to realign staff on core mission/values of company
Develop greater collaboration to support company's bottom line
To facilitate board retreat and create consensus
Support staff in taking greater risks
Need to teach or review something
Reward or honor employees
(and yes, even for ) Entertainment!