• Terry Withers

Can Improv Exercises Be Used For Team Building At Work?

Improv Team Building Exercises, What Are They Good For?


Improv as a team building activity is a subject I have really wanted to write about for some time. I have known for years that improv is, of course, a phenomenal activity for team building.


And it goes without saying that many of the best improv comedy teams are (besides being extremely funny, extremely smart, and extremely quick witted) extremely high functioning teams.


Maybe the reason I’ve wanted to write about this subject is all of the amazing team experiences improv has brought into my life.


A True Story


I remember a show I once did with a really great group of improvisers at the UCB Theatre in NYC.


The theater was packed that night. 250+ people were crammed into that beautiful basement theater and the excitement was palpable. Loud music was playing, the whiff of stale beer was everywhere, the lights were flashing, pulsing, almost demanding that the audience get more and more excited.


I was backstage with the rest of my team waiting for the cue to take the stage. I looked over at my nearest teammate, who we’ll call Steve in order to protect the innocent. Steve looked even more excited than me.


It wasn’t very surprising then that he jumped onto the stage first when the cue for us to emerge finally came. Dramatically, almost heroically, Steve charged straight to center stage! Where his feet promptly slipped on some milk that had been spilled moments earlier by a couple of comedians performing a warm up act.


(Don’t ask me what they were doing with the milk. I guess they were spilling it on each other in some way that was funny? The audience loved it.)


I remember that it was hard for me to comprehend what I was seeing when I first got onstage. Steve was on the floor center stage. Everyone else was still coming out onto the stage and moving fast like Steve had been just moments ago.


Then Steve stood up some and you could see that the milk had stained his tan pants, and this sopping wet stain was just where you wouldn’t want a sopping wet milk stain to be, especially if you were wearing tan pants.


“Disaster,” I remember thinking, because that’s all that I saw laid out in front of me.


My teammate Belinda (Let’s say her name was Belinda, that’s way more fun than Steve.) saw something different. She saw something the UCB Theatre had trained us to see. She saw an opportunity.


Without pausing, without thinking, without weighing the pros and cons, Belinda charged to center stage, right next to Steve. Once there she wasted not a second, but intentionally slipped on the milk herself and somehow managed to roll around in it enough that her pants developed an even worse stain than Steve’s.


Once Belinda laid out the battle plan it was child’s play for everyone else on my team. We took turns charging to center stage, slipping on the milk and staining our pants. Heck, there wasn’t even a drop of milk on that stage when we were done, we had cleaned it up with our pants so thoroughly that we were the envy of mops everywhere.


At one point all 8 of us were simultaneously slipping and falling on the milk, while we grabbed and tumbled over each other.


See, we didn’t just duplicate the “mistake” Steve had made. We slipped harder, fell worse, stained our pants in increasingly off putting ways. We celebrated Steve’s “mistake.”


And the audience went berserk for it. Most of them were improvisers too and they had been trained like we had to value teamwork and team support above all else. They had been trained to know that there are no mistakes in improv, only opportunities.


What’s the point of throwing your colleagues under the bus if there are no mistakes? Then you’re just throwing opportunities under the bus. And who wants to do that?


So Then Yeah? Your Story Is Evidence That Improv Exercises Can Be Used For Team Building.


Weeeelllll, not so fast.


I mean sure, improv is a great activity to engage in when looking to build a great team or to become an expert on building teams and teamwork.


But the activity is just an activity and it’s not like there aren’t plenty of improvisers who think of themselves first when they perform. For as many stories as you might hear about amazing improv teams, there are 2 stories about teams that sold each other down the river.


So improv exercises, by themselves, will hardly forge a strong team. That’s not really surprising if you think about it.


I mean there are lots of great basketball teams that the NBA has produced over the last 75 years, that have been great living examples of selfless teamwork, but you won’t build America’s strongest customer success team by having them do layup drills.


Even so, a quick Google search of “improv team building” (or some other similar string of words) will reveal a very long list of blog posts, articles and web pages all listing examples of improv exercises you can run for team building.


In fact, all the top posts are conglomerations of improv exercises for team building. Some posts list a measly 3 or 4 exercises, while the most ambitious I noticed list 75 different improv games, all for team building.


As if playing One Word Story or Yes And Conversations is what prepared Belinda to dive head first into that milk spill.


Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing any fingers. For goodness sake, I have a page on my own site listing out games (and other tools) useful for team building.


But games aren’t what build great teams.


It’s the values inherent in the culture of improv comedy that do that.


The Values Of Improv


Improv isn’t shy about its thoughts regarding teamwork. There must be a dozen improv sayings that get at improv’s intense commitment to the team, but my favorite is Treat Your Teammates As Geniuses.

I was a student in an advanced improv class with an amazing teacher when I first understood how fervently committed the culture of improv was to teamwork.


On the day in question my teacher (Let’s say his name was Anamander, since that feels like even more fun than Belinda.) was talking about bad shows.


“They are going to happen, guys.” He was saying something like that. “You’ll be doing a show and someone will make a decision the audience hates. Maybe even you hate it. What should you do?”


This was a rhetorical question, but someone in the class tried to answer it anyway. They suggested trying to change the context within which the hated decision was understood.


Like if someone said they had bought Knicks tickets and the audience hated that for some reason (maybe the show is happening in Boston?) then you could say something like, “Oh I love Stevie Nicks. Thanks for picking those up.”


Pretty reasonable solution. But Anamander wasn’t having any of it.


See, saying something like that doesn’t make your teammate look like a genius. It sort of throws them under the bus, doesn’t it? It says, you, the audience, are right to react negatively to my teammate’s regrettable decision. Here, let me fix their bad decision for you.


So Anamander said no. Don’t do that.


But what if their decision is really awful? What if it takes the show to the least funny, most embarrassing destination.


What if it leads to disaster?


“Then make it a disaster to remember,” growled Anamander.


That’s word for word, although he didn’t growl.


And let me just clarify before anyone misunderstands, Anamander was not saying that you should support hate speech, or onstage behavior that could injure someone, or push another teammate or the audience beyond reasonable boundaries for a theatrical experience.


But even though he didn’t mean it within the context of those patently inappropriate examples, Anamander still meant it quite a bit.


“Don’t you have any shows you regret having been in?” one wide eyed student wondered aloud.


“Yeah, I do. It’s the terrible shows that I got scared in and didn’t support my teammates through. The shows where I hid on the backline and let them take all the heat. I regret those.”


Experiencing firsthand the passion and commitment that Anamander demonstrated that day is what builds teams.


Receiving accurate feedback from an instructor who is watching the exercises carefully is what builds teams.


Providing strategic takeaway materials that highlight the values and lessons you were supposed to derive from the exercises is what allows teams to learn and therefore build.


The exercises themselves are fine vehicles to deliver those values, feedback and materials to students through. But that’s all they are, vessels.


And if all you bring to a team building workshop is the exercises themselves, then I hate to say it, but what you’ve brought with you are just empty vessels unable to deliver anything of substantial value.


Consider Environment Charades (please click the hyperlink). Read through just the exercise instructions on the left side of the screen.


What do you think? Sure it seems like a fun exercise. And maybe you could call it team building, because everyone involved will probably laugh and see each other doing something out of the ordinary.


It’s a fun way to kill 20 minutes, anyway.


Now read through the instructor taking points on the bottom right of the screen. It’s these intended notes that make the difference, and yet so many of the articles on improv games for team building list only the exercise instructions.


So I figured I better write a blog post about this in order to save the internet. You’re welcome!


I’ll leave you with this opinion:


Teams are only as strong as their commitment to each other. That’s what improv teaches you.


Google improv team building, read all the exercises you can find and share those exercises with your teams as much as you like.


But don’t forget to teach them to treat each other like geniuses while you’re sharing the exercise. That’s the whole point after all.

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