“Yes, and…”: Applying the principles of improvisation to teamwork

| May 26, 2017

I’ve been involved in some form of improvisational theatre for a lot of my life. The ability to come up with something fresh and exciting on the fly in partnership with other people? To me, there’s nothing more thrilling. What I’ve found is that learning the rules of improvisation has helped me in many other aspects of my life—like my work.

Yes, even when you’re making things up as you go, there are rules! Thankfully, they’re pretty simple and easy to start practicing. You don’t have to be part of an improv group to learn how to use and apply them when working with your team.

Don’t deny; always add to the scene

The first and most fundamental rule of improv is “Always agree.” Everything you and your scene partner say or do is true because this is the only way to keep the scene moving forward. If someone says, “Mwahahaha, I’ve bound you with my wizard powers!” you can’t just stand there and say, “No, you didn’t.” Rejecting your partner’s idea without suggesting an alternative leaves your partner to stand there impotently.

It’s not enough to simply say “Yes.” Saying “Yes…” and nothing else can be just as blocking as “No,” because you’re still forcing your partner to do all the work. Instead, you want to always want to elaborate on what they said.

This doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with everything anyone ever tells you, but rather that adding to a discussion is better than immediately shutting it down. You can say “Yes, and…” even while you’re saying “No” by acknowledging what your teammate or user is trying to communicate to you.

Pay attention

The most important skill for an improviser is paying attention. An interesting scene is one that flows—you and your scene partner get the hints you’re giving each other, validate each other’s ideas, and don’t try to force the scene down a particular path.

You can’t take what your scene partner gives you and roll with it if you don’t understand what they’ve given you. If you don’t know where the other person’s ideas are going, you can’t help them get there, or figure out where they could go from there.

In your next meeting or brainstorming session, take notice of how much time you spend listening and how much you spend trying to force everything to fit your ideas of how it should go. If you find yourself doing more of the latter than the former, commit to switching up the ratio next time.

Make statements

One of the biggest impediments to an improv performance is lack of confidence. If you’re constantly second-guessing your instincts, you’re going to trip yourself up.

The beauty of improv is that you decide what is. If you decide your hand is a gun, it’s a gun. If you decide a whale is floating in the sky above you, guess what, every meteorologist in your made up world is confused and terrified now.

Improv teaches us to make statements and carry them through without burdening the premise by questioning. No one feels 100% confident all the time, but the more you act confident, the more you become confident. Instead of asking endless questions or fishing about for your teammates’ approval, try stating your case and letting it stand.

Make your scene partner look good

Improv is inherently about collaboration, not competition. You’re not there to one-up each other or fight for control; you’re creating something together, as a team.

The same is true with teamwork. To create the best chance for creativity, give teammates opportunities to contribute. Treat all ideas as valuable, and give credit where credit is due. By saying “Yes, and…” to them, you’re showing that their contributions matter, boosting confidence and allowing ideas to blossom.

The better you make your partner look, the better the scene or meeting is going to be—and as a result, the better you’re going to look. When everyone plays, everyone wins.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Even if you do everything as you should, mistakes and problems happen. You can’t always prevent them from happening, but you can learn from and embrace them.

When the unexpected happens in improv, you have two options: freeze up, and let the whole scene die; or integrate the change into the scene, and create something even better. When you choose the latter option, you’ll see that if the unexpected thing hadn’t happened, you may not have reached your most creative potential.

Even if you do everything “right,” problems can occur. By reframing mistakes as opportunities, it’s easier to roll with the punches and keep your cool under strain. In turn, it’ll be easier to turn a fail into a win, maybe even an epic win.

The next time something goes awry, ask yourself: what opportunities do you have now that you didn’t have before?

Of course, even when following these principles, it can be a challenge to keep things going. That’s what makes improvisation so fun! Of course, it may be intimidating at first, whether you’re trying them out in an improv group, a work meeting, or anywhere else. But the more you practice, the easier it gets.

Trust me, I’ve tested this. So has the whale that’s flying over your head right now…