Making other people look good: what improv teaches us about teamwork

In my spare time I can be found ‘making silly stuff up’ with improvised comedy group Classic Andy. What began as a creative and fun hobby a couple of years ago has taught me as much about truly effective teamwork as any management course or corporate role could.  Here’s why…

Techniques from improvised comedy have already made the leap over into corporate training and organisational development, particularly in the USA and Canada, where improv is very well-established. Many organisations in the UK are also weaving in improv activities to improve collaboration, communication and trust, and to encourage their teams to be more innovative.

It’s fantastic when work and hobbies overlap or seamlessly fit together. I have experienced first-hand how improvisation can transform the way we work with others to achieve great things.  And these techniques can be blended with other consultancy and organisational development approaches to develop strategy, solve problems, improve services and innovate.

Here’s why it works. Because improv is about:

1.    Listening

Genuinely, truly and actively listening. When you perform as part of an improv team, you literally walk on stage with 20 minutes to fill and absolutely no idea what is going to happen. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Active listening means making strong eye contact, keeping an open stance and genuinely absorbing what has been said. It means not railroading through your own pre-formed ideas. How many times have we sat in meetings thinking about what we will say next, rather than giving the current speaker our full attention? We lose many potentially innovative ideas every day because of this.

2.    Saying ‘yes, and’ to others’ suggestions

If you remember nothing else about improv, remember ‘yes, and’. How many times in a day is your natural reaction to a suggestion ‘yes, but’? Or even ‘no, but’? These are blocking behaviours.

Once you begin to say ‘yes, and’ more, you can work with others to develop ideas and build on their suggestions to make something really innovative. It doesn’t mean that you blindly accept people’s off-the-wall ideas but it means that your mind is more open and you genuinely engage with new opportunities in a creative way. It can also be hugely motivational for members of the team.

3.    Making other people look good

Imagine if your only role was to make other members of the team look good and fulfill their potential. That’s really what improv is all about. The team will not look good or perform well if one member is benefiting at the expense of others or is trying to denigrate someone else.

Consider how you can support other members of the team to do the best they can and you will automatically do well and the team’s performance and potential will improve dramatically. It’s simple but it works. And it significantly increases trust. How can you make others look good today?

4.    Making strong offers

All this collaboration and listening can mean that we feel nervous or disinclined to put our own suggestions forward. We shouldn’t feel that way. Strong offers are fantastic in improv as they give others something specific and tangible to work with. And they can develop in surprising, fascinating and joyful ways. The same is true of teamwork at work.

Need new product ideas? Make a bold suggestion. Need to improve performance? Say something radical. Others will then explore and develop it with you. Strong offers make people feel safe as they have something to work with. They don’t have to be the ‘right answer’ or fully-formed. That’s what the team is for.

5.    Being emotionally attuned

In a world where performance improvement, whether of machines or humans, is often talked about as something that can be engineered, to reach the optimum configuration, the human dynamics are often ignored.

Being a strong improviser is fundamentally about humans. It is about establishing emotional connections with others and being able to quickly pick-up on micro-signals. It’s essentially about emotional intelligence. This is clearly hugely important in teams, particularly when it comes to motivation, attitudes to change and approaches to new ideas. It also means that emotions such as excitement and joy can become contagious, boosting morale.

Why not try it?

I have found that the way I interact with others, both in a work and home setting, has changed dramatically, for the better, since I’ve been improvising regularly.

I’m not suggesting that you ask all your team members to take up improv comedy in their spare time. But there are lots of easily accessible exercises that you can use within team settings to help people to work more effectively together.

I find that these techniques make the most impact when they are integrated into wider workshops which focus on a particular business outcome or issue, such as forming part of a strategy development or innovation session.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences of using improv in the workplace. If you would like to talk about how to incorporate improv techniques to help your teams work more effectively, please get in touch at or on 07733 306155, or visit my website.

Julie Flower is a strategy and organisational development consultant, specialising in corporate creativity. She runs the consultancy The Specialist Generalist and is a performance improviser with Classic Andy. Follow her @specgeneralist.

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