An Improv-ed Perspective

Ben Henham, Project Manager describes his first interaction with improv.


Having never heard of ‘improv’, I signed up for the workshop ‘Applied Improv: Change the Way You Look at Work’ at SXSW with a very open mind and no shortage of naivety. The description mentioned ways of embracing the simple joys we had as children with others, building stronger team dynamics and reframing the way we think about collaboration – all skills I knew would be useful as a Project Manager. I came to learn that improv is a widely known and practised skill within corporations in America, but had I known more about it beforehand, this workshop is the last place you’d have found me.

Imagine a huge room, clustered with roughly 100 total strangers of all ages and gender. Then all being told to stand up, run over to the nearest person you think you wouldn’t get along with, and start a conversation – with your chin on their shoulder. Yes, I’d stumbled into one of those dramatically ‘positive’ team building sessions which thrive on making people uncomfortable.

This combined with my natural introversion, meant I was in a fairly dire situation. There was obvious panic written on my face and I wouldn’t have been the only one if I’d have chosen to walk out at that point. I persisted and stayed, thinking perhaps this is exactly the kind of workshop I needed.

Warming up to each other

As I alluded to above, our first exercise tasked us with invading each other’s personal space. We had to ask 3 core questions:

  • What is your name?
  • What do you do?
  • What do you hope to get from the workshop?

This was repeated a number of times with different people, changing which ‘space’ we were invading each time. From touching toes or elbows, to resting your chin on the other person’s shoulder or hugging. It was wild, crazy and in many ways exhilarating. Not only was I being thrown toe-to-toe with people I wouldn’t possibly have thought to ever talk to, I was also discovering a fair bit about them. It’s amazing how quickly you can build rapport and make allies when you’re all as awkward and scared as each other. Of course, as the workshop went on, you realised that the entire room were your allies.

From this first exercise, I began to see the potential benefits of improv. The purpose was to get us talking, thereby breaking down barriers of judgement and social awkwardness. We were a room full of strangers, each of varying levels of social aptitude, and none of the workshop would have worked if we had held firmly to our indifference to each other. This exercise broke that and forced us to interact in uncomfortable, but effective ways.

Amoebas, Chickens and Gods

If you hadn’t felt embarrassed yet, this exercise was designed to do just that. As a giant circle, we had to sequentially act out being amoebas, chickens, and then gods. The more authentic you were, the more kudos you got, and it was obvious some people couldn’t embrace their inner chicken. Then the game started. We were set off walking around the room as amoebas with the mission to target people, and challenge them to a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’. If you won, you ‘moved up’ the chain of evolution to a chicken, eventually reaching godhood. Of course, the hidden objective was to target people higher in the food chain, and as such you’d find the gods almost being mobbed to have their status removed. It was ridiculous, fun, and in that short 5 minutes I must have interacted with 30% of the room.

The insights from this exercise were simple. The less serious we feel about ourselves, the more creative we allow ourselves to be. There were many ways to express being an amoeba or god, and as you got more into the game you realised you could act the fool and no one was judging you for it. The speakers repeated that it’s important to be able to be yourself, having fun with it and the people around you. This carried over to the creative process, where the speakers described it being healthy to break expectations by starting any creative brainstorm with the 7 worst, most insane and crazy ideas first. The rationale being that it opens the floor for everyone to feel more comfortable to contribute.

 Yes, And…?

Before now, the exercises hadn’t been directly related to the working environment. Sure, the insights were there but in practise, I didn’t see myself telling my project team to jump up and give me their best chicken impression. The skill ‘Yes, and…’ began to show practical implications, showcasing a positive state of mind which could be applied to any situation.

How often have you been in a meeting and heard someone say “No, this…” or “Yes, but…”? Everyone is guilty of it, and whilst on the surface I can certainly see rationale around how you can’t always say “Yes”, I also saw first-hand the negative impact saying anything other than ‘Yes, and…’ can have on the most basic of discussions.

The exercise involved us creating stories, either as one huge group or as smaller groups of 4. Each response always had to start with “Yes, and…” with the topics being open to anything. What we found was that when you employ this approach, the story was always able to continue. The ‘yes’ would reinforce the other person’s response, whilst ‘and’ allowed the story to continue. Some of the crazy things people came up with were entertaining, but also led the story on interesting paths. These new paths negated the less feasible or ridiculous answers, and in context the story grew in complexity and intrigue leading to a sense of wild imagination.

My immediate thought was how this could be applied to the creative process, which I believe, was the intention of the speakers too. All too often ideas are shot down, sometimes harmlessly, before they have a chance to grow. Failing to reinforce the maker of the initial idea with the ‘yes’ negatively impacts their contribution, whilst refusing to add anything to their idea with an ‘and’ stops it in its tracks. Even bad ideas can lead to something amazing when built on, refined and adapted. The take-out is that everything can lead to an opportunity, and ultimately, we create our best work when in a positive environment.

Final Thoughts

From a position of despair having realised what the workshop was about, I can say that I left feeling invigorated, excited and socially refreshed – it was the perfect preparation for the rest of the week. I made a lot of new connections, who throughout SXSW continued to interact with me, so much so that one person introduced as ‘chin on shoulder guy’ joined us for a drinking game.

Is London ready for this? I have my doubts. We hold dear to our ability to coldly ignore each other in the lift, or stick to official business during meetings. However, there are still people I have not so much as nodded to, never mind met, conversed with, or been forced to wallow like an amoeba with. Perhaps we need something like this to break down the corporate nature of our business. Maybe, just maybe, we can introduce a little more ‘yes’ to discussions, ‘and’ thereby develop and grow for the better. Who knows where it could lead us.



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