This guest post is part of our series on working remotely, adapting to change, and innovating as a business during a crisis. See our remote work offering to learn how Designit and Cooper Professional Education can help you design a culture of collaboration that will empower your team to do its best work, remotely.
As businesses pivot and adjust on the fly in response to the coronavirus pandemic, teams can learn a few important lessons from the improv world. After all, improvisors are particularly prepared for unpredictability. Here are three skills to hone that will benefit your team during this turbulent time.
Adapting to change
Perhaps your team was working on a big project requiring in-person meetings before the shelter-in-place orders were given. Maybe your budgets have been slashed as the economy reels. Or, your project manager has to add homeschooling his children to his daily responsibilities. If there’s anything we can count on right now, it’s change. The rules have shifted, and we must adapt.
An improv game called “New Choice” showcases this skill. Two improvisors are given a simple premise from the audience, like brothers going on a fishing trip. As the scene plays out, the host can stop it at any moment and shout “New choice!” — directing the players to change their last line or action instantly. They joyfully and seamlessly integrate this new choice, and the scene changes accordingly. Watching the improvisers stretch their creativity to the fullest is entertaining for the audience: a simple fishing trip has become a trip to the moon to capture an alien!
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. This agility muscle, flexed on the stage, is also crucial for teams working in this current reality. How can your team creatively integrate new directions and seize unexpected opportunities?
During this pandemic, we are all experiencing anxiety: about what’s been lost, what’s to come, how to keep our loved ones safe, when we’ll return to the office… When our minds are racing with worries about the past or future, we cannot be present, which is why many business leaders are promoting mindfulness practices.
I worked for many years as a drama therapist and play therapist for children in foster care. These children are much more likely to receive a diagnosis of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the triggering event. When people with PTSD have a flashback or a flashforward, they’re experiencing frightening feelings about the “there and then.” My job as a therapist was to bring my client to a safe, calm space in the “here and now.”
I believe improvisation is a mindfulness practice not unlike yoga or meditation, which invite participants to place their focus and attention on the present. Improvisors build their scenes from moment to moment. They have faith in what they’re building together, releasing any plans they had for the improvised scene and staying present in the scene that is. They have to trust that this journey of discovery will be a thrilling ride for the audience.
Investing in mindfulness will help soothe your anxiety and create focus, so you can collaborate more confidently as a team.
Improv leans on mindfulness and creativity, providing a space for participants to experience the calm and safety of the present moment while building confidence in new ways of working together. That confidence is key when a real-world crisis appears.
In the same way, your team members can try on new roles, actions, and behaviors — witnessing each other’s growth moments. Whether through improv, yoga, or mediation, investing in mindfulness exercises will help soothe your anxiety and create focus, so you can collaborate more confidently as a team during an unpredictable time.
We are being asked to take individual action and make significant sacrifices for the health and safety of our society. To protect high-risk people from the novel coronavirus, we must prioritize others.
Recognize a colleague’s need for help and jump in to support.
Improvisors call this “other focus.” Audience members often tell me they’re deeply impressed by the improvisers’ quick wit and sharp dialogue. That magic happens because the impetus to join a scene is not to deliver a hilarious one-liner for the audience; the impetus is first and foremost to support fellow players. Improvisors are trained to detect vulnerability, those moments when their scene partners feel unsupported. They’re taught to jump in with an eagerness to help, trusting that whatever comes out of their mouth will work. It’s beautiful to witness spontaneous choices made in an effort to support.
What choices can your team make in pursuit of collective, rather than individual, success? How can you recognize a colleague’s need for help and jump in to support? The art of improvisation proves we can move forward together — tackling tricky scenes or thorny business problems — if we operate from a place of “other focus.”
Put on your cape
Many improv teachers and training centers are now offering online team-building workshops for remote teams. An experienced improv teacher can help boost your team’s morale and inspire creative, flexible thinking. Got a big presentation you now need to deliver over video? Improv trainers can share on-camera techniques to help you deliver a confident presentation while connecting authentically to your audience.
Leela, a San Francisco-based improv company, now offers customized online improv classes for corporate teams. We have teachers with training and advanced degrees in counseling psychology, mindfulness practices, multimedia arts, communication, and experiential education: a special blend of skills to provide your team with anxiety reduction, creative expression, and mindfulness practices during this stressful time.
As we shelter in place, experience economic vulnerability, and adapt to new societal rules, let’s put our improv superhero capes on. Because the world desperately needs superheroes right now.
Other installments in this series include “Remotely together, leading from afar,” “Diagnose your team mindset in the time of coronavirus,” and “Six best practices for remote meetings.” See our remote work offering to learn how Designit and Cooper Professional Education can help you design a culture of collaboration that will empower your team to do its best work, remotely.
Jill Eickmann is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Leela, a holistic improvisational theater and training center in San Francisco. She enjoys facilitating workshops for start-ups, established companies, and business leaders to support a positive working environment while fostering collective creativity.