They say you never forget your first time.
I arrived for my first public Improv show 45-minutes early. The comedy club was entirely dark except for a single spotlight pointed towards the makeshift stage. The room smell like stale beer, and my feet stuck to the floor when I stood still for too long.
At most, the room held twenty tiny, round wooden tables with vinyl-cushioned chairs, most of which were split open with sponge hanging out of them.
What the f*ck was I doing? I’m not a comedian. I’m a teamwork consultant. I help organizations master the art of communication, collaboration and conflict. I’m not bucking to be on Saturday Night Live.
What in the world made me think that I could walk out on stage in (now) 30-minutes, with a newly formed Improv troupe, to a tough crowd of critics and make them laugh? How the hell did I get here?
Less than a year earlier, I wanted to try something different. Surprisingly, that showed up as an introductory Improv course at The Second City in Toronto. It was meant to be something fun, mindless, social and silly. Nothing more.
It was all of that and much more.
From the very first class I noticed the similarities between the techniques used by the comedians on shows like Whose Line Is It Anyways and the executives I spend time developing into world-class teams.
The art of Improv is really the art of working like a well-oiled machine. It’s about supporting one another, adding to people’s ideas and never (not even for a minute) thinking you have to go it alone.
It’s also about creating something bigger than you ever imagined possible and getting back up after falling flat on your face.
It is teamwork.
What started out as an intro class turned into me studying for a full year as an Improviser, being accepted into The Second City main stage conservatory program and forming an Improv comedy troupe which was about to perform publicly for the first time in (now) 15-minutes.
And it became my classroom for teamwork lessons that I use with teams every single day. Here are three of the best lessons I learned:
LESSON #1: Yes, And.
The foundation on which every successful Improv troupe stands is its ability to accept ideas or offers from a teammate then add to it.
If a member of the troupe declares you’re floating in the ocean then you’re floating in the ocean. Period. From there you build. Are you floating in the ocean on a raft, on a newspaper, on an iceberg, on Donald Trump? Who knows? But you are floating in the ocean.
From there, the possibilities are endless, and that’s the point.
By taking an ordinary suggestion like, “Here we are floating in the ocean”, then adding to it with something like, “Yes, and who ever thought we’d escape Guantanamo on a cafeteria tray?”, you create something rich and imaginative.
“Yes, and” is powerful.
It signals to the person making the original suggestion that their idea is great and allows for room for you to make it greater. It tells them they are on the right track. It makes people feel included and valuable. It sparks creativity, innovation and the art of the possible.
On the other hand, “No” or “Yes, but” (the polite “no”) kills suggestions. It signals the death of an idea. It stifles creativity. It makes people feel they shouldn’t speak or even try to contribute.
When a team learns to build on their ideas by figuring out how to make them work instead of figuring out why they won’t, they out-perform their competition.
It’s the difference between wondering “can we?” and “how can we?”
LESSON #2: Be vulnerable.
One of the exercises we’d often do is blurting. Blurting is spitting out the first thing that pops into your head. No edits. Don’t worry whether it’s right, wrong, the funniest, smartest, best idea or most logical thing to say. Just blurt.
What’s Superman’s eye color? “Chocolate”. How far is it to Jupiter? “Six feet”. Why does the Earth spin? “Because it’s made of cheese”.
Blurting means you might look silly. You’ll likely say something nonsensical. You may even say something that isn’t even a word. Something like, “blah-mat-bing” because that’s what showed up in your brain.
Whatever it is, it’s perfect.
Some of the funniest Improv I was ever involved in came when someone let loose and blurt out the first thing that popped up just like some of the most successful products are the results of a mistake (like Post-It notes).
Playing big is always better than playing small. Courage is contagious and when a team member is willing to be vulnerable, take a chance or act unconventionally they unlock the entire team’s potential.
LESSON #3: I’ve got your back.
Before each class performance, we would stand back stage, pat each other on the back and say, “I’ve got your back.”
It stood as a sign of solidarity, a reassurance that no one would let you fall and a guarantee that we win and lose together.
“I’ve got your back” means we’re a team.
I found this to be one of the most meaningful, yet simple, gestures I’d ever been a part of. To declare before every single show that we stood as a team and not as a group of individuals made us feel invincible.
There was no grandstanding. There was no show stealing. There was no upstaging. An Improv troupe, like a great executive team, shares in the win because they understand it takes everyone to pull it off.
When the time finally came to step out on the stage to a full house for our troupe’s very first public, 90-minute Improv show, we felt ready and excited.
We ended up crushing our set. We were vulnerable enough to be silly, we ‘Yes, And’-ed the crap out of each other’s ideas until the audience couldn’t stop laughing and we definitely had each other’s backs. We worked like a well-oiled machine.
In short, we were a team.
Have you experienced teamwork in unusual ways? Tweet us your thoughts, or share with us on Facebook.