Improv Your Team

by Geof Lory

No, this is not a typo, I'm referring to comedy improvisation, � la Second City or Saturday Night Live. Last week I watched my oldest daughter, Jenna, perform at a team comedy improv competition. Jenna is really into the whole theatre and drama scene (like we don't get enough drama with two teenage girls in the house, one of them has to go cultivating it, deliberately) and she is quite good at it. I have to admit, I enjoy the comedy more than the drama, both on stage and at home.

Watching the two teams of four students compete, it was a lot like Whose Line Is It Anyway? with Drew Carey. I couldn't help but be impressed with the level of teamwork that happened so naturally in such a short time. While these kids know each other socially and have been on stage together before, each improv skit puts them in new and different situations, requiring them to quickly reconfigure the way in which they related to their teammates. The level of dynamic interface, when done well, was amazing.

Project teams can learn from these kids. Here are just a few lessons that come to mind immediately:
  • Set some boundaries - There were rules imposed by the Master of Ceremonies and the audience to keep the humor clean and funny. Points were deducted for each violation. Anything not suitable for family viewing had the added penalty of the offender performing the rest of the skit with a brown bag over the offender's head, making effective improv almost impossible.

  • Take the lid off - Nothing had to make more sense than was necessary to keep the skit moving forward and earn the approval or laughs of the audience. We saw made-up words, over-done animations, and random thought threads that continually shifted.

  • No mirrors allowed - Performers weren't concerned about how they looked or what others thought of them other than if it would win the approval of the audience. Students wore their passion and their emotion on their sleeves, and the best ones were very good at wearing it clearly on their faces. The more exaggerated the better.

  • Mind and body together - Every skit required an integrated combination of creative thinking and unencumbered expression. Usually one preceded the other, but not always. Some of the funniest moments were when the two appeared simultaneously. Even the performer was entertained.

  • Avoid the dead zone - In improv, the occurrence of real dead time (where nothing at all is happening) is truly a killer. The best teams had several interactions going at once to double their chances that something funny would happen and to reduce the chance of hitting a dead zone.

  • Goals over solos - Unlike a stand-up comedy routine, almost all improv requires at least two people. The comedy is created in the interaction between the people. Each skit keeps the team focused by clearly laying out the team goal of the skit, which can never be accomplished by just one member of the team. Team = success.

My favorite skit was one called "Chain Murder." I'm thinking about using this either in my training classes or for new team development. The goal of the improv is to convey the three clues from a murder -- the who, where and how -- from one team member to the other without speaking. The M.C. asks the audience for a place where a murder occurred, the profession of the murderer and an implement used to commit the murder. This is not as simple as Mr. Green in the conservatory with the lead pipe. How much fun would that be? The M.C. makes sure all three clues are obscure, ridiculous, and challenging.

Once the person, place and weapon are decided, the first member of the team is brought out and told the three clues. Team Member 1's job is to convey those clues to Team Member 2, much like charades, but neither one can speak. All Team Member 2 knows is that their job is to solve a murder by determining the place, person and weapon. Once they indicate readiness to make a guess, Team Member 2 "kills" Team Member 1 with the imaginary weapon and then tries to convey those deciphered clues to Team Member 3, who has been off-stage and could not see any of the previous activity. This progression continues three times.

This ended up being a very funny combination of phone tag and charades. After three attempts, the audience knew that none of the clues had been effectively transferred to Team Member 4. She was truly clueless. Her predecessor, Team Member 3, was equally clueless. Team Member 2 only got two of the three clues from Team Member 1.

One of the interesting things I noticed was that when Team Member 1 used a specific gesture that successfully conveyed an idea to Team Member 2, they in turn used the same gesture to convey that same idea to Team Member 3. At first glance, this only makes sense: what worked for the first person ought to work on the next person. However, unless the gesture was a blatantly obvious one, it was rarely successful. The new interpreter was seeing the gesture with a different set of eyes. To be successful, a new and different gesture was needed. The winning team was able to recognize this and quickly shift gears. The other team continued to use the same gesture, more emphatically, hoping the clue would suddenly become apparent.

In training, I have used telephone tag and other communication games to illustrate the point that the more layers of communication and the more restricted the communication method, the less likely the real message is to come out the other end as intended. This is why on IT projects we encourage small multidisciplinary teams with empowered representation from the business, operations, and technology. However, the diversity of this representation creates the challenge of each team member seeing things from a very different perspective.
Fortunately, on most of the teams I work with, no one is restricted to charade gestures. However, I have seen written documentation that was just as obtuse. Anyone who has ever tried to visualize a business workflow from a paragraph of ifs, thens and elses knows what I mean. While it may make perfect sense to the one who wrote it, the audience is looking at it with a different set of eyes, and has probably just glazed over from confusion and/or frustration.

I'm not going to suggest that we start to run our projects like a comedy improv competition, but I do think we can learn a lot from the way they perform and the creativity it generates. There are times in our teams where a little improvisation would release the energy necessary to get us thinking a little differently and perhaps change the way we interface with each other. Agile methods, XP and other less structured software development approaches attempt to act more in this improvisational model, minus the charades. Working in small teams with sufficient diversity, communication is dynamic and multi-dimensional.

As my daughter said, "Dad, if you think project management is tough, try improv sometime." She followed that up with, "On second thought, don't, you'll embarrass me!"

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