On the hunt for innovation, we recently found out that theatre improv was just the thing we needed to spur a whole new work attitude. Think being the Yes Guy at the office is a bad thing? Turns out, instead of replying with “No, I don’t have time” or “No, I don’t think it will work”, saying that one little word, Yes, opens up a world of possibilities.
We often can’t stop ourselves from saying, or even thinking, NO, before having listened or considered the other person, their idea or feedback. Google, McKinsey and Johns Hopkins Medical School all recognized that their teams needed to scale down that No reflex and be given that little extra push towards being creative. But how can you nudge an employee to be more creative? Well actually research has shown that creativity can be a learned and trainable skill. So those three organizations all decided that they would take a cue from the theatre: by learning improv.
Wanting to be on the forefront of the innovation curve, we decided to launch our own improv experiment with die Gorrillas, a Berlin-based performance group. We wanted to take a leap and shake up the way our teams work and the interactions they have.
Here’s how improv can revolutionize and turn everyday interactions into everyday innovation: instead of relying on that automated ‘No’ response, theatre improvisation pushes participants to say “Yes…And..”. Imagine a person receives an ‘offer’ and meets it with an open mind. This means taking what life throws at you, and transforming it into a new and improved entity.
In real life, of course, some ideas are wise to ultimately shut down (unlike in improv, where this is known as a ‘block’), but by taking the offer up wholeheartedly, you open yourself up to more chances of innovation than by slamming the door shut at the get-go. So remarkably the difference between uttering a YES versus a NO in improv is the entire survival of the scene, much like the difference between letting a co-worker’s idea come to fruition, versus stifling the innovation that would come with hearing it out.
The implications for our team were that people became better active listeners because they had to keep the story alive through listening and co-creating, not by simply listing off their own preconceived ideas.
And if things are changing sentence by sentence, it also means the performers need to change and adapt with it. They can’t stick with an idea they formulated independently five minutes back, when the scene has switched from an 80th birthday party to piloting a spaceship about to crash land on Mars. This makes it impossible to stay stuck in one pattern or way of thinking, or the story hurtles onward without you. And the same holds true for business!
When we think of innovation, we know that openness to new ideas is the key catalyst for change. This landmark study found that after teams have improv training, members said hands down they learned to be more open-minded. The vast majority of those trained were incredibly eager to change their approaches and habits, to apply the skills they learned in improv, indicating a clear willingness to change and be more flexible.
Plus, researchers found that if teams had improv training they trusted each other more than those who hadn’t done improv training. The trust developed because now colleagues were so highly aware of each other’s skills and could collaborate fully and confidently.
Our sessions with the Gorrilas gave us more than just good laughs, our teams bonded beyond the norm by seeing new parts of each other. Through improv we nurtured a sense of openness and non-judgement and most notably, we planted the seeds of innovation in each other. You know you want to give it a try too, just say YES!
Text: Jenny – Lead | People Operations & Workplace Culture @99chairs
Pictures: Matthias Fluhrer, 99chairs