“What Improv Can Teach Your Team About Creativity and Collaboration”

For this week’s blog post (sorry it’s a day late) I’m reviewing the article:

“What Improv Can Teach Your Team About Creativity and Collaboration”

by Ken Blanchard and Scott Blanchard – @KenBlachard @LeaderChat

As always the articles we review may or may not directly talk about User Experience and that’s OK. What Jim and I will do with our article reviews is pull out the main improvisational themes being talked about. Then we’ll give our perspective/take on those themes and how they relate to and support User Experience.

Article Summary:

IMHO, this week’s article focused on the themes of:

  • Positive support fosters
    • Creativity
    • Innovation
    • Engagement
  • Big egos are b a d, bad!
    • Ditch the search for the Rock Star/Guru/Unicorn

The article goes over a training session provided by the Second City to help with collaboration in the work environment. The session was lead by Colleen Murray and Mark Sutton. I love Second City having gone through its beginning training program and they have in recent years expanded heavily into the corporate world to provide training and team building. Mark Sutton* is an excellent improv coach and is really insightful as to how improv can be applied outside of the theater.

The article mentions how the group went over some basic listening and support exercises and how people with big egos generally don’t do well in them.

“People with big egos aren’t very good at improvisation because they constantly want to look better than the other person rather than work with the team to bring out the group’s best”

The problem with big egos is that they don’t listen; they focus on themselves and what they want to say. The whole time the rest of the team is trying to contribute ideas the big ego is trying to kill those ideas and push their own idea.

The big ego also doesn’t appreciate other teammate’s contributions because they think their ideas are the most important. One of the main ways this was shown to the participants was with an exercise that showed what support does to help generate better ideas.

“The “yes, and…” response made all the difference. Ideas flowed. The groups generated innovative, creative approaches that none of the individuals would have come up with on their own. The increase in energy and collaboration was palpable as the room buzzed with animated conversations, laughing, high fives, and every other behavior you would expect to see when people are genuinely engaged with each other.”

The participants of the training session not only got to see, but experience first hand, what being truly supportive can do for collaboration. And that’s where improvisation really separates itself; the participants are truly experiencing what is being taught and that leaves a far bigger impact than having a “Hang in there!” or “Teamwork” poster hanging on your cube wall.


Hang In There

-courtesy of Google images and my sarcasm



-courtesy of sarcastic motivational posters


How it relates to Improv:

I’ve mentioned agreement before and the power of “yes and” so I’ll be brief. Agreement is paramount in improvisation for the theater. The big issue a lot of beginners have is thinking agreement means your character has to like and agree to everything that’s going on. In actuality, agreement means that the improviser agrees to the ideas and facts being offered by their fellow improvisers in the scene. Their character however doesn’t have to like the facts at all. Supporting other ideas always leads to more interesting and impactful scenes in a show. Otherwise the scenes are constantly stuck in the cycle of:

new idea

no support

new idea

no support

scene ends up going nowhere

Audience hates improv, leaves and never comes back to see your group again.

Improvisers with big egos need to learn to work with their teammates or they will, in a short period of time, be looking for a new group to play with. That’s actually one nice thing about improvisation; it tends to weed out a lot of the jerks. Some people who are super talented can hang around for awhile, usually because they get laughs during a show or elicit some sort of reaction from the audience. However, this is more often than not at the expense of their teammates.

I encourage improvisers to not put up with that crap, as no improviser is irreplaceable. Wouldn’t you rather have someone you enjoy playing with rather than someone you’re constantly complaining about outside of rehearsal and offstage? (end of tiny rant)

TL:DR Agreement good for collaboration and creativity. Big egos are of no help and suck the life out of everyone and everything.


How it relates to UX:

Bringing it home. There is a lot of talk about


“be innovative!“

“we need to innovate!”

“did anyone bring the innovation?”

As UX practitioners we’re at the front end of trying to make things innovative and great for the projects we’re working on. In order to do that we focus on the users first and what they want and need to accomplish their tasks and goals.

Speaking from the viewpoint of Improvisation, the user’s feedback and thoughts are the “suggestions” we can take to create our solutions. This can be done during the ideation phase and it’s where a lot of great things can happen…IF we listen and support each other. Great ideas don’t exist by themselves in a vacuum. They exist because someone has an idea and others work together to grow them into something more. I truly believe that together, we make far more interesting and creative solutions to the problems we’re solving. And again that includes everyone in the project from the UX team to the developers to the stakeholders to the business analysts etc. Everyone’s ideas are valid during ideation.

Like improvisation, a project eventually needs to focus in on the best ideas that will solve the user’s problems. This is like the opening of an improv show where a suggestion is taken from the audience and an opening is used to generate ideas and themes. Not all of the ideas and themes from the opening are used but the ones that do end up in the show were influenced by all of the ideas generated during the opening. The best and strongest ones become apparent by the end of the opening and the show takes off from there.

So just like the opening of an improv show the ideation and creation phase is used to get the ball rolling and together the group will refine the ideas down to the best ones. But the key is everyone got to participate which gives everyone on the project shared understanding of what is going on as well as the feeling that they contributed which will motivate them to work their butts off to make the final product a massive ball of awesome.

That’s all for this week!


Yes and,

Mike and Jim

* A long time ago in a galaxy (Chicago) not that far away I was fortunate enough to have Mark coach my Indie improv group.

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