How to Use Improv to Create a Fun, More Productive Workplace

The simple phrase “Yes, and,” is at the core of improv, but it can also foster better collaboration at work.
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All those nights watching 'Whose Line Is It Anyway" can end up helping you in the workplace! (Photo: Richard Oberbruner)

“I moved to Chicago to be a starving actor, and it worked,” says improv artist and employee engagement consultant Richard Oberbruner. “That’s always my opening line because it gets a laugh.”

Seriously though, Oberbruner moved to Chicago to train at The Second City, the legendary improvisation theater group. One thing led to another, and Oberbruner began to use the basic elements of improv to help keep kids off drugs, help job seekers find employment, and now to help businesses create a fun, more productive working environment.

He said there are five core elements of improve — trust, acceptance, building, communication, and spontaneity — that add up to collaboration.

His favorite tool for improving acceptance is the “Yes, and” exercise.

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Businesses hire Oberbruner because his techniques help employees to open up and practice better communication.(Photo: Richard-Oberbruner)

Embrace “yes, and” thinking

“I always ask people, have you seen the TV show, ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’? Improv is based on agreement. When you watch the TV show, you think, ‘How can these actors create such imaginary and funny situations?’ Well, if you look at what they’re doing, they’re actually agreeing with each other and moving the scene forward,” Oberbruner said.

He calls this “Yes, and” thinking. In improv, it involves accepting what another actor has said (“yes”) and adding to that line of thought (“and”).

But when he began working with business groups, Oberbruner realized the office doesn’t run that way. “It’s ‘No, but.’”

“Why do people hate going to work? Because it’s a negative culture,” Oberbruner said.

One of the first exercises he uses when he works with a new group is to have them play out two scenarios. In one, the two people involved — say, a boss and an employee — have a conversation in which they agree on everything or positively reinforce what the other says. After two minutes, the same two people play out the same scenario as a ‘No, but’ conversation.

Then he asks them which situation is more realistic in the workplace. The answer is always ‘No, but’ because of budgets, hierarchy or a handful of other reasons.

The next step is to play the in-betweens: One person is in “Yes” mode and the other is in “No” mode. That’s when it becomes a negotiation instead of a confrontation.

“The business world is based on competition. How are you going to make more money? You’ve got to be competitive. But you can still apply ‘Yes, and’ thinking within your budgetary constraints,” says Oberbruner. The irony is that in order for a company to be more competitive in the marketplace, they need to be more cooperative and collaborative in the workplace.

“Yes, and” thinking has an added benefit: When the reaction to a new idea is “Yes, and,” employees get a morale boost because they feel they’ve been heard that they’re contributing. Oberbruner said he’s a firm believer that everyone in the company has a good idea.

Have a “Yes, and” meeting once a week

Oberbruner suggests businesses have a “Yes, and” meeting once a week, whether it’s with the entire company or just one department (if you have multiple departments), to facilitate the time and space for ideas to be contributed. The exercise helps break down silos to get people to communicate in a positive and productive way.

“When businesses actually listen to new ideas from their employees, it often leads them to places they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise — and they haven’t spent any more money than they would have if they said, ‘No, but,’” he said.

Try the “build a sentence” exercise

Another improv exercise Oberbruner uses, this one to build communication, is called Build a Sentence. In it, he asks eight people to stand up and contribute one word toward a complete thought. The eighth person finishes the sentence.

Once they have the hang of it, he takes it one step further and asks them to build a mission statement or a focus for the upcoming quarter.

The sentences that result from the exercise may not be perfect, but the feedback after they play the game helps them formulate what they may all be thinking in a creative and collaborative way.

“What I do is not entertainment for entertainment’s sake, it’s taking communication tools — improv — and adapting them to fit the office setting. And guess what happens: People laugh and they enjoy themselves,” Oberbruner said.

Interested in hiring Oberbruner? You can find his contact information on his LinkedIn profile.

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