Can Improv Help your Team Jell?

“Why on earth would we do improv at work?!”   Think for a moment about where your team’s failure points and impediments have been.  Are the failures usually in an individual?  Or are they in the spaces between people?
If you answered “the spaces between people”, improv can help your team become off-the-charts, super-high-performing.  The power and risk of a team are in the ability to organize themselves.  (note: if your problem is with individuals examine your training and hiring practices)  

Let’s be clear here, we’re not asking your team to get up on stage and perform an episode of “Whose line is it anyway?”  We’re simply going to extract a few simple practices that you can apply to your everyday activities.

Here’s why Improv helps teams jell :

  1. Communicate better.  By flexing the muscles of relating and listening, improv gets people in sync.

  2. Create Safety.  A key improv principle is to build on an idea, and not block it.  Players create safety for each other by accepting whatever is offered.

  3. Serve the Team.  In improv, you don’t have to try and be clever.  Your words and actions serve the team.  These practices break the habit of needing to stand out or be unique.

  4. Be Spontaneous.  Improv practices are designed to be done without planning.  You give up your agenda and decide on an action as it happens.  Creative and funny things pop out when you least expect them.

Here are some Improv exercises to try with your team.  I recommend a debrief after each one to help each other connect the dots on how the exercise affects the teams’ interaction.

  1. Torpedoes: Gets people practicing agreement.  Use this as a 5 minute warm-up before sprint planning or as a simple Icebreaker.  By holding movement until you get agreement, the group learns a little restraint.

    • Stand in a circle. Say person’s name, only when they say ‘yes', you move to their spot. Then they say someone else’s name and keep the cycle going.  Then try it by just looking at someone and getting a nod, without speaking.  Wait for agreement to proceed.  

  2. Personas:  Personas are a common practice for many Agile teams seeking to understand their customers.   This is great for building customer empathy.  Adding a little Improv to your personas can add a whole new dimension.  It’s important to note that we are developing personas and then applying them to the product, instead of the traditional market segmentation where we create personas around our market.

    • Walk around the room and notice what part of your body you lead with.  Exaggerate that body part leading.  Consciously change the part of your body you lead with and see how that feels different. Now think about what this person leading with that body part might feel like.  What is your name as this person?  What do you like to do?  What do you like to drink?  What do you look like?  Lastly, think about how you will use the product or whatever it is you are working on.

    • After everyone has really gotten into their persona, have them stand up, still in character, and share a bit about their persona and how they will interact with the product.

Learn to fall in love with not knowing what comes next.
— Todd Stashwick