Using Improvisation In The Workplace
Improvisation is defined as the act of creating something spontaneously or without preparation. But how much can you actually improvise or apply the techniques of improv in the workplace? And why would you? Surely work is the one place that you need to prepare…
If you read this article you’ll find out that the learning outcomes of improvisation training are totally aligned with what most organisations are trying to achieve for their people. And the results have nothing whatsoever to do with winging it.
by Richard Bradford
Here are some little-known facts about using improv in the workplace.
Being in the moment is the only place to be
In improvisation classes, you learn the importance of being ‘in the moment’. This is also called being ‘in flow’. It’s that moment when you’re working at your most effective, seemingly without thinking about it. This is the kind of focused mastery you’d expect from Olympic athletes, top musicians, racing drivers, even surgeons. In truth, we can all access this state. Whilst it’s definitely about knowing what you should be doing, it’s also about being in the right state of mind to execute it flawlessly. In the workplace, we generally have been trained how to do our job – whether at entry level or as a senior executive. But carry out the same task 10 times in a row, and you don’t always do it with the same level of effectiveness or adaptability, and you don’t always get the same outcomes. This is frequently because we are overly listening to our inner critic, we’re maybe concerned we might drop one of the balls we’re juggling, maybe there’s a deadline looming, or you have a sense that everyone is watching and counting on you. Being in the moment banishes these concerns, and allows your brain to focus effortlessly on the task in hand. This is something that improv unleashes
Improv training kicks in the second your plans go wrong
Improv is also about stepping out of your comfort zone. When you attend an improv training workshop, you step into the unknown. You find yourself in dialogues and situations which you never could have imagined. You also quickly learn that you’re in a safe space, and that you can’t get it wrong. We know that this is not how life is in the workplace, and that there are consequences from getting it wrong, but that’s not the point. If you spend a day in this kind of environment, what changes significantly is your concept of a comfort zone and risk. What you actually do is start to embrace the unexpected, because this has become much more commonplace to you. You start to exercise the part of your brain most of us don’t use that much. Usually it’s the part that says “OK, unknown situation – let’s panic!” That leads you to start shutting down parts of your brain and you jump into fight or flight mode. In this state, you can’t make finer decisions, you can’t draw on your wide experience or carefully apply some of your workplace training to deal with the situation effectively. After improv training, that same part of your brain has become accustomed to that mild discomfort, and through skilled trainers, you’ve learned that actually, you can function pretty well in this space. The next time you find yourself in a tricky situation where your workplace plans have backfired, a customer is yelling at you, your boss is suddenly challenging a decision you took, or you’re under fresh pressure to deliver, you’ll find the training will kick in and you’ll remain in a serene space. You’ll think calmly, and apply a great solution.
Workplace happiness makes everything better
Another thing about improvisation is that it’s just great fun. We laugh an awful lot as improvisers, and you know, we don’t laugh enough as grown ups. So if you’re going to apply improv in the workplace, make sure you include the funny stuff. Improv loves ambiguity, larger than life characters, quirky responses, unusual emphasis. Sometimes it really helps to see your colleagues as characters. Some people at work you know for a fact are playing a role. It’s not the real them. If you are lucky enough to attend an improv workshop with your colleagues, you’ll certainly see a different side of them. If not, you’ll anyway see everyone at work in a lighter light, whether that’s because you can imagine their back stories, or you make them up. There is a lot of research going into the need for people just to be happy, not to work only for the money, but to stop and smell the flowers, hear the birds sing. Laugh.
Having each others’ backs at work: the cornerstone of collaboration
One of the very best feelings you can hope for at work is that you truly have the trust of your colleagues, and that you trust them. Working environments can be politically charged. It seems like you’ve always got a colleague somewhere in the building who would like your job, or like the job you’ve got your eye on. Other people will want to take all the credit for good ideas, and whilst on the surface it might appear that a team is working well, a chat in the pub on a Friday night can often tell a different story. Add improv in the workplace mix, and it all changes. Improvisation can only work when a team is totally, and truly working as a team. It also teaches you that true, honest and transparent teamwork beats individuals time and time and time again. Once a team has learned to trust, it becomes truly unstoppable. Oh, and a lot more fun to be in.
Improv experience helps you hear people differently
Improvisation is about listening. Listening in a way some of us have long forgotten to do. Could you listen to your colleague talk for 5 minutes and then recap everything they just said back to them? You might not want to, but this level of active listening is powerful. It’s something we play with on improv workshops, because in improv terms, you can only really respond if you’ve totally heard everything your colleague just said to you. And it’s only by doing that that you can genuinely build on what they just said. And it’s only by building on what they just said that you can construct a team idea or approach. And it’s only by having a team approach that you’ll keep everyone engaged. All this starts with listening in a very special way. Improv teaches you this.
The fast route to engagement and empowerment
So improv in the workplace is not about making it up as you go along. It’s not about winging it and hoping for the best, but also, it’s not about only following plans and schedules and relying on them to be successful in all circumstances. Improv in the workplace IS about being focused and in the moment, it’s about making great decisions when the unexpected occurs, it’s deriving happiness from a work environment, it’s about building deep trust and a true sense of teamwork, and it’s about deep listening which builds collaboration. And all of that leads to an engaged and empowered organisation.
If that sounds good, contact us to see how we could quite literally transform your entire organisation’s way of thinking.