Whose idea is it anyway? How improv comedy can boost your workplace teamwork


Most people you talk to will have a nightmare story about a group project. I sure do. Ideas are put forward, only to be shut down or dismissed by someone else. This tends to repeat until everyone become discouraged or frustrated, ideas slow to a crawl, and finally, out of desperation, an idea is chosen due to it being the easiest, but not exactly the best. Along with big egos, unmotivated group members and conflicting personalities, these are experiences shared by many throughout their education. We then step out into the workforce, believing that working with mature adults will be different.

Unfortunately, many are met with a disappointing reality: effective teamwork is not as common as we would like. This is especially important for businesses that pride themselves on innovation, where the ability for a team to communicate well on creative projects is key. When a design team or marketing team cannot collaborate effectively, the product suffers, and so does the business.  As such, many companies are searching for ways to boost collaboration within their ranks.

One increasingly popular solution to this is that of improvisation training. Companies of all sizes, from start-ups to mega corporations such as Google, PepsiCo, and McKinsey have integrated improv activities into their corporate training programs, and many of these companies say they feel like this growing trend of corporate improv training is getting results. You might have seen TV shows such as 'Thank God You're Here' or 'Who's Line Is It Anyway?'. Sitting down to watch any of these shows, one could see how the mindset these improv comedians have could be so useful in the workplace. 

The Fundementals of Improv

Quick thinking, cooperation, and adaptability... while these skills are crucial for the intense collaboration required in improv games, they are also skills that many businesses seek to improve in their staff. Seeing the value in their own speciality, many improv theatres are now offering corporate training sessions, in which participants are taught the fundamental skills of improv acting: 

"Yes and…"

This is the most widely known technique in improv acting, and rightly so. It's shorthand for the method of accepting the ideas offered up by others, and building upon them. While learning this skill can be challenging, there is nothing worse for a group brainstorming session when this rule is not followed, leading to stagnation, frustration, and picking lazier ideas. Changing that "No, but..." into "Yes, and…" opens up the conversation to a world of new potential.

According to Daena Giardella, a teacher of an improvisational leadership class at MIT's Sloan School of Management, "Innovation thrives in an atmosphere of safety and non-criticism… Improvisation builds a muscle for trusting our own impulses and ideas, before we have to analyze how good they are, as well as helping develop an open-mindedness toward other people's ideas."


I'm not talking about how you "listen" to that chatty coworker that always seems to be around when you need some space. Within improv activities, giving your complete, undivided attention to your group members is key, not only to what they say, but how they talk and act towards you. Warm-up improv activities often involve games such as communicating completely in gibberish. "It's not just about listening to words, but subtext and intent,"  says Chelsea Clarke, a performer and instructor with New York improv group Upright Citizens Brigade. "That's valuable in business, where a client or partner might be telling you one thing but communicating something else through body language." 

What science can tell us

We're still discovering all the ways that improv training improves interaction between team members, but are providing intriguing evidence of the effects that underlie its success.

After a 12-week improvisation training course, pharmacy students at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy improved their communication scores in a clinician-patient interaction task, showing a greater attentiveness to the patient's emotional state, as well as hints of symptoms. This suggests that the skills taught in improv classes are useful in a wide variety of instances, and highlights how in the business world this may translate to better business-customer relationships.

A study from the University of Michigan found that students had reduced social anxiety after a ten week improv training course. For many, social anxiety is a major obstacle that keeps them from putting their ideas out there or contributing in group situations.

Recent evidence suggests that the benefits of improv training extend beyond social interaction. According to one study, students improved individual divergent thinking after 11 weeks of improv training, meaning they came up with a greater number of ideas to solve a single problem. 

Embracing the Ridiculous

More and more improv theatres offering training to meet the increasing demand from the corporate world. Additionally, executive MBA courses from Stanford, MIT, and UCLA have already implemented improv classes into their curriculum. 

For now, whenever you feel stuck for what to say in conversation or come up blank while brainstorming, just know that you can train yourself to push through those situations more easily.

 You just might have to be open to a bit of silliness.

Darcy Ryan