How improvisation helps with innovation and team effectiveness

Companies are becoming interested in using improvisation as a way to unleash creativity, and to help people become comfortable working in a more fluid environment. In this issue, we explore the main principles and show how you can apply them in the workplace. This links to last month’s article on managing disruptive change, because you can’t always plan, or depend on the past, to build your future.

“We can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein 

What is improvisation?

The Oxford Dictionary defines improvisation as to:

“Create and perform (music, drama, or verse) spontaneously or without preparation.”
“Produce or make (something) from whatever is available.”

The ability to free yourself up to respond in the moment is a useful skill to develop – both at work and home. Nowadays we have to juggle multiple demands and work at a pace our grandparents didn’t have to face, so being able to let go sufficiently to do this will both unleash your creativity and minimise your stress levels.

Planning is still an important discipline, and if you can add the ability to quickly adapt and respond to dynamic situations, you will have the best of both worlds!

When children play, they are always in the here-and-now. That’s the feeling that improv generates in adults simply being present, in the moment.

“By being willing to take a few mild risks and follow a few simple improvisation rules, we can reclaim our aliveness and tap into an endless spring of talent inside us.”
John Cremer

Brief history of improv

Before writing had been developed, humans acted out stories without a script.

From the mid-1500s to mid-1700s, Commedia Dell’Arte troupes entertained audiences throughout Europe, improvising dialogue within a set scenario. The objective was to make theatre more accessible to everybody.

In 1946, Viola Spolin developed theatre games – improvisation exercises to help actors focus on the present moment and stimulate creative expression through play.

Keith Johnstone is widely regarded as the other pioneer of modern improv. In 1977, he launched TheatreSports, where opposing teams improvise scenes that are rated by the audience or a panel of judges.

Improvisation training centres have been around since the 1990s and businesses such as Google, PepsiCo and McKinsey have turned to them for help with communication and team effectiveness.

Fundamentals of improvisation

When improvising, it’s vital to have an environment of safety, trust and support. Sharing these three messages is therefore key (from John Cremer’s book Improv):

  • It’s impossible to do improvisation wrong
    • The underlying message is “You will not be judged, ostracised, killed or eaten, because there is no such thing as a wrong reply or a bad line”
  • There is no need to be quick, clever or funny
    • The underlying message is “You are part of the group you are in, you do not need to pass a test to be included. You have support”
  • There are a set of guidelines
    • The underlying message is “There is a process to follow which doesn’t need much effort or planning. If you want to just find the appropriate word now and then, that would help”. It encourages the actors to adopt a role and relish the flow of language, situations and ideas that emerge

Imagine how much creativity would be unleashed if people felt part of a supportive group, where they have a role within some simple guidelines, and where it is impossible to make a mistake?

Daena Giardella teaches an improvisational leadership class at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  She says “improvisation builds a muscle for trusting our own impulses and ideas, before we have to analyse how good they are, as well as helping develop an open-mindedness toward other people’s ideas”.

There are three main principles of improvisation:

  • Listen
  • Say yes
  • Commit


When you are actively listening to the people around you, it’s impossible to focus on your inner voice. Your attention is outward focused, not inward focused.

“If you listen to the thoughts in your head they are rarely about what’s happening now, and if they are, it is often to compare the current experience with previous judgement.”
John Cremer

Just a Minute

One of my favourite radio programmes here in the UK involves performers speaking on a given subject for one minute without hesitation, deviation or repetition. It’s worth watching for pure entertainment, but also to help develop your listening skills.

If we apply the learning from this game, what’s key is to listen closely to every word and then judge how to take it forward (ignoring the fact the players are trying to catch each other out – that’s definitely not a principle I am trying to encourage here!). This is helpful in team meetings and meetings with clients, where you have to be totally ‘present’, which in turn is more likely to enable you to access your best thinking.

When you are having a conversation with someone – for me, that might be in a coaching context – have your mind and attention completely focused on what they are telling you. This leads to a much more meaningful dialogue and possibly even a ‘lightbulb’ moment.

To unlock something really powerful, sit back, stop watching the clock, create space for someone to say what’s on their mind, and have a more in-depth discussion.

In addition, playing this game may help you feel more comfortable in situations (e.g. client presentations) where you might need to think on your feet – practising a skill normally reduces the fear factor, and improvisation in particular reduces the fear factor of getting it wrong. If we’re not worried about this we can relax, listen, and respond.

This idea links to my articles on positive psychology, mindfulness, coaching, and time to think.

Say yes

When you have a ‘yes’ mentality, you are more likely to spot opportunities and/or make opportunities work for you. Even if you don’t quite know how to make something work, by putting your attention to it you will come up with options. This concept is supported by the Lean In book mentioned in my Career article.

It can be really useful to play a “yes and” improv game before brainstorming or project planning, to boost positive thinking and creative ideas. “Yes and” means you have to accept what the other person suggests, and build on it. You don’t say “no” and reject it, and you don’t say “yes but” because that means “no”.

This principle means everyone feels validated and heard. The other person’s contribution is as valuable as yours, even if it’s different from what you expected.  Whatever you come up with is OK, and building on each other’s ideas is a strength. This should also discourage negativity – try saying “let’s follow this idea for a moment. Let’s “yes and”, to see where it goes”.  Between you, you create something better than you could on your own.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

Once you get in the habit of saying “yes” on-stage, it opens the door off-stage as well. You become more willing to give something a go and see what happens.


When co-creating or brainstorming, make a decision and commit to it. Go with the flow. Don’t worry about mistakes.

In the 1951 book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, William Hutchinson Murray said:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back…The moment one definitely commits oneself, Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred…Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

“Neuro-science suggests that much of the activity of the brain is used in determining what to screen out and ignore rather than what to notice.”
John Cremer

Whose Line is it Anyway

Below are some of the ‘best bits’ from the TV improvisation show. Notice how the performers listen to each other’s offers, “yes and” to build on them, and commit to the scenes they play.

Ready to play?

Please contact me for some improv games to practice being in the moment, listening, saying yes, and committing. They are equally useful to play with your family at home, or your team at work.

Let me know if you would like to arrange a facilitated improv workshop.

Insights from John Cremer

Here’s an exclusive summary written just for us, from John Cremer, the author of Improv:

The techniques of improvisation provide reliable navigation tools for the edge of one’s comfort zone – which is always the place where leadership develops.

When improvising, you can’t plan or prepare what the other players are going to do or say. Just like life, really.

So, whatever your improvisation partner says or does, you ‘yes and’ it. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but you assume they are a creative genius,  accept their reality, and build on it with joy.

Eventually, instead of assuming that what other people say or do is a problem or challenge, you start to see everything that happens as an exciting offer.

With practice, these tools become embodied rather than theoretical, and we find that we can truly flourish in the realm of unexpected opportunities.

As an additional bonus, we welcome the curve balls of business life as gifts and not as threats.

Oh, and we also laugh a lot more – it really is OK to enjoy our work life!

Case study

Here’s what my client, Frank Rydbirk of Roche, says about his improv experience:

Last year, I participated in an improv event organized for our leadership team. It might at first feel as though improv is to help one look good when lost or not prepared – like when called out in school and not being sure what to answer. However, improv was a great experience in several ways.

When knowing the topic (like knowing how to put up a tent or ride a bike), it is possible to improvise around this topic in a catching and creative way, even making others laugh about experiences we have all had or seen. By improvising and not following a script, the energy is higher, the audience and yourself are more alert and the atmosphere is dynamic and spontaneous. Catching a cue in the audience or picking up on a word or a question, changes the game and makes the scene inclusive.

Beyond these observations, practising improv as a team forces team members to let down the wall of protection. One can feel exposed in front of peers, but soon regains confidence when being supported by team members, when building on each other’s cues and cheering for great scenes.

Improv can help bring the team together in a new way where each can learn to trust your own intuition and ability to improvise, and the team learns to appreciate each other’s ability to listen, react, support, improvise and cheer for each other.

In summary, improv can be a great personal and team experience, pushing one out of the comfort zone for a moment.

Next month, we look at handling diversity.

If you found this information useful, please click the social media buttons below, to share a link to this article with your network, and let me know if you’d like more details about this topic.