Improvisation-Based Organizational Development

by Kat Koppett, Koppett + Company, and Adam Grupper, Act Professional

Improvisation and Business

Improvisation has broad applications for businesses and organizations?

For those familiar with improvisation via shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway” or comedy clubs, improv may seem haphazard, even chaotic. In fact, improv is a well-developed discipline designed to support innovation, achieve goals in the face of unexpected and ever-changing obstacles, build trust, and enhance presence and charisma.

Improvisation is also an increasingly valued platform for workplace development and training. After all, what improvisers do – work collaboratively, flexibly, under extreme pressure, and without knowing what will happen next – is what business professionals do every day as well.

Improv principles and techniques are currently employed by organizations around the world, in wildly diverse industries to address performance development subjects including:

  • leadership presence and influence,
  • change management,
  • mentoring,
  • client relations,
  • team building,
  • strategic planning and problem-solving,
  • creativity and innovation
  • and creating cultures of inclusion.

In a business and organizational context, improv training enables individuals to:

  • develop active listening skills
  • collaborate effectively
  • problem-solve efficiently
  • build stronger relationships
  • create supportive environments
  • successfully negotiate conflict and change
  • strengthen executive presence
  • enhance innovation and risk-taking

Why Improv Training Is Especially Valuable

Fundamentals of Improvisation

Being Present

Central to improv is being focused, attentive, and in a state of readiness to respond to whatever happens. By being present and “in the moment,” improvisers demonstrate their attentiveness to the needs of their scene partners, and take responsibility for ensuring that everyone succeeds in the scene. In a deeper sense, being present also means “showing up,” not just as improvisers but as human beings, with life experiences, emotions and a willingness to engage with others. The result is trusting relationships and supportive environments – a foundation not only of improv, but of any successful endeavor.

Practicing “Yes, And”

In business and organizational cultures, people commonly believe they add value to interactions by expressing opinions and passing judgments. Conversations are frequently agenda-driven, transactional or fixed on predetermined outcomes. In contrast, improvisers strive to follow the rule of “Yes, And:” to be non-judgmental and accepting of “offers.” In the world of improv, an offer is anything anyone does or says: words, body language, emotional states, etc. The “Yes” of “Yes, And” means that improvisers accept the offers their scene partners give them (note the difference between “acceptance” and “agreement”). The “And” means that improvisers use the offers they’ve just accepted as a springboard, informing what they, in turn, do or say.

Business and organizational leaders (at all levels) who practice “Yes, And” respond to people and situations as they are, not as they would wish them to be. They become active listeners who demonstrate their listening skills by accepting, and building upon, others’ input. They work to be flexible, responsive and collaborative; to be willing to set aside their own agendas in furtherance of supporting relationships. For their staff, colleagues, bosses and clients – who know the difference between being truly listened to and being disregarded – the impact is profound.

Telling Stories

The power of a good story is universal. Stories are the dynamic, robust way in which human beings communicate. It is through stories that individuals learn, and cultures are created. It is through story that we inspire others, learn from our experiences, and envision the future. Through the practices of sharing, crafting and soliciting stories, organizations enhance their productivity, goal-alignment, and motivation. In improv, story is the difference between funny, but meaningless fluff that audiences quickly tire of and engaging, robust, layered entertainment. Good improvised scenes, like any theatre, must be coherent, compelling and relatable.

Increasingly, the power of story is being embraced by organizations at all levels, because, as Jerome Bruner, noted cognitive psychologist and learning theorist says, “Story IS meaning.”.

Performing

It’s obvious that improvisers are performers. What’s less obvious is that we are all performers. We are multifaceted people who possess a multiplicity of identities, play a variety of roles, and work, play and live within a vast array of contexts. Each of these identities, roles and contexts requires us to perform in different ways.

Acknowledging this ability means we accept that our actions are the product of choices we make. Many performances are habitual, but when we recognize ourselves as performers, we begin to expand our range of options. We can make different choices; perform in different ways. By embracing the transformational power of performance, individuals embrace the possibility of change, growth and development.

Methods/Tools

Experiential Activities

Improvisers believe that listening, building relationships, presence, creativity, risk-taking and flexibility are “muscles” that can be developed and strengthened.

Improv activities are designed to expand participants’ view of the power and importance of these skills, and to exercise the performance muscles, rather than just imparting knowledge. Improv training is interactive, engaging and experiential. Learners are impacted emotionally and psychologically, as well as cognitively, in ways that deepen understanding and retention. And the activities can be employed in ongoing ways to maintain those performance muscles, much like using a stair master or ball machine to maintain body muscles.

When integrated into more traditional learning and development sessions, improv activities can help learners understand how to practice new ways of engaging. The activities provide “jolts” that spark new mindsets, and provide tools for ongoing development of the skills that are introduced in formal learning environments.

Role-Plays

While role playing is frequently used in training initiatives, it is also often cited as the most dreaded activity in any training. It is considered artificial at best; humiliating and irrelevant at worst. So, there are many advantages to placing it squarely within the context of theatrical performance. The emphasis on theatricality gives participants the license, the “stage,” to experiment with bolder choices than they might ordinarily employ in typical role-play scenarios. A theatrical context also gives role playing all the structure of theatrical rehearsal, allowing the facilitator and participants to freeze the action, replay a pivotal moment within the scene, adjust the stakes of the scene, and swap out role-players.

When working with trained improvisers, instructional designers have a number of options. In terms of content they can:

  • Create role-play scenarios that are directly modeled from the experiences of the workshop participants. “High-fidelity” scenarios offer credibility, make obvious links back to the job, and encourage the brainstorming of specific language and solutions.
  • Craft scenes that are metaphorical, capturing the essence of an important workplace issue while placing it in an industry or scene different from that of the participants Metaphorical scenarios allow facilitators and participants to examine a workplace issue without getting bogged down in the particulars of the participants’ industry content or questions of a literal “right” or “wrong” answer.

In terms of process, facilitators and designers may use the participants themselves to engage in role-plays or to employ professional role-players, in any combination. There are many advantages to using professional role-players to act as “foils” for participants in scenarios. Professional role-players can adjust their performances, modifying their characters’ personality traits and degrees of push-back to make role-play scenarios more realistic and challenging. Professional role-players are trained to be attentive and responsive to the tactics, which participants employ during role-plays. Then, during debriefs, they can highlight moments when participants’ choices had a significant impact on the conversation.

Individual Coaching and Expert Facilitation

The central tenets of improvisation – being present, practicing “Yes/And”, harnessing the power of story, and acknowledging the value of performance – inform the improv coaches methods. Improv coaches take pride in creating “consequence-free zones” in which coachees and workshop participants can experiment freely and where mistakes are celebrated. Improv coaches work to listen attentively, to bring each participant’s voice into the room, to connect ideas, explore unexamined and neglected issues and generate new best practices by embracing the input of everyone  they engage.

In one-on-one sessions, clients can get performance feedback and tips on how to expand their options to best meet their objectives and build positive relationships in virtually any context.

Applications

Improv principles and techniques have proven to be valuable in any situation in which human beings need to interact productively. Some of the more popular applications include:

  • Team Building
  • Change Management
  • Leadership
  • Managing Difficult Conversations
  • Providing Feedback
  • Client Relations
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Presentation Skills
  • Building Executive Presence

Program Design

Nearly all our programs are highly customized to meet the needs of the specific culture, attendees, and objectives. Programs range from an hour to three days, with half-day and one-day programs proving the most popular…

Contact us any time for details.

We Are

Kat Koppett is the eponymous founder of Koppett + Company, LLC (www.koppett.com) a training and consulting company specializing in the use of theatre and storytelling techniques to enhance individual and organizational performance.

Her book on how to use improvisational theatre techniques in training, Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning, is used by trainers, teachers and organizational leaders around the world.

Kat holds a B.F.A. in Drama from New York University and an M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, and has worked with teachers, administrators, doctors, engineers, lawyers and young people of all sorts.

A founding member of the Applied Improvisation Network and a presenting member of ASTD and ISPI, Kat has designed and delivered training such diverse clients as Chanel, Merck, Kaiser-Permanente, NYSID, JP Morgan Chase, Glens Falls Hospital, Cadence Design Systems, Eli Lilly, and The Farm Bureau in places such as India, Brazil, Paris and Oklahoma. Her areas of specialty include leadership and communication skills, creativity and innovation, teamwork and conflict resolution, and presentation skills.
In addition, Kat is the Training Director of The Mop & Bucket Theatre company, (www.mopco.org). TheatreWeek Magazine named Kat one of the year’s “Unsung Heroes” for her creation of the completely improvised musical format, “Spontaneous Broadway”.

Adam Grupper is the president of Act Professional (www.actprof.com), a consulting company specializing in the application of acting techniques and principles of theater to organizational and business settings. He has designed workshops and/or provided training and coaching for clients including Signature Bank, Estée Lauder, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Citigroup, ArcellorMittal and Barclays. Adam balances his work as a trainer, coach and facilitator with a successful career as a professional actor. His performance credits include nine Broadway productions and numerous appearances on film and television. In addition, Adam is an award-winning audiobook narrator who has recorded works by Stephen King, Bob Woodward and Tom Clancy among others.

Adam graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in psychology. He has been honored by the American Society for Training and Development with the Ronda J. Ormont Award. As a performer, he has received the National Institute for Music Theater’s Mary Martin Prize, the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Barrymore nomination for best actor and numerous audiobook honors from Audiofile Magazine, Publishers Weekly, iTunes and the Audio Publishers Association.

Contact

Adam Grupper                         Kat Koppett
agrupper@actprof.com             kat@koppett.com
www.actprof.com                     www.koppett.com
(917) 838-0424                       (518) 280-1089

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