Organizations are rapidly realizing that improvisation is a valuable tool in many of the situations that arise in business (and life) and how effortlessly they can weave its tenets into their work.

Why Improvisation?

I recently spoke with a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who told me that a student in one of his advertising classes, a communications major, was trying to get a job and felt that if she was interviewing against two other applicants who majored in business, she would be the third choice. The professor agreed that on paper, she might be. His advice? Take an improv class.

Understanding improvisation means you’re better equipped to say, “Yes, and …”; to listen actively; to heighten ideas; to think more creatively and on your feet; and to make the other person look good. Improv works, because it’s not about being funny; it’s about supporting and connecting, which is where creativity lives and ideas flourish. As Jill Eickmann, artistic director and co-founder of improvisational theater and training center Leela, recently wrote in a blog post for Cooper Professional Education: “If there’s anything we can count on right now, it’s change … Improvisors can turn on a dime. They respond quickly and confidently to change.”

Who’s Doing It?

Twenty or even 10 years ago, improv was not thought of much outside of small boutique theaters. But in the last five years, improvisation and the concepts it instills have become popular in both academia and business. A vast majority of high schools and universities have at least one improv club or team, and top-tier business Schools like Stanford, Duke, MIT, Notre Dame and UCLA have incorporated improv into their curriculum.

In years past, organizations brought in motivational speakers, coaches or even magicians for presentations and entertainment. But what’s the takeaway? Employees may feel inspired or motivated, but that feeling dissipates quickly. The impact of understanding improvisation is lasting, and learners come away with the tools to adapt more quickly and effectively.

Ford Motor Company has an in-house improv director who works with its accountants, lawyers, plant workers and other employees, and even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta is leveraging the benefits of learning improv.

What About Online?

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, much of business has moved online, and many companies have experienced success in doing so. Others, however, are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and employee burnout. Managers are learning to supervise from a distance, but engaging and motivating staff remotely can be a challenge. Lack of professional and social interaction can reduce teamwork, morale and productivity — which is where improvisation can prove to be a welcome antidote.

In bigger groups, improv is conveyed in a lecture format, but a lot of companies opt for a smaller setting, in which five to 20 employees receive instruction from an improv expert. This facilitator explains and introduces improv concepts and shares examples of research that illustrates the success it can impart. Then, it’s time for a game or two. After a few shared laughs, the facilitator helps the group explore what they learned and how they can use it going forward. In most cases, virtual sessions last about an hour or so. Some organizations use lunch-and-learns, some implement a weekly series, and some have even incorporated improv seminars into an online happy hour.

It’s learning with levity — and who couldn’t use some levity these days?

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