Welcome to COA's interpretation, a blog for inspiring ideas around quality improvement and innovation in the human services field. 

When in Doubt, Improvise

When in Doubt, Improvise



When you think of improvisation, Christopher Guest movies like Waiting for Guffman or television programs like Whose Line is it Anyway? might come to mind. But improv does more than inspire laughter. It teaches us to be mindful, adaptable and collaborative.

Applying the principles of improvisation to your work in human services isn’t about making it up as you go along – although, let’s face it, we all do that a little bit from time to time – it’s about fostering trust, respect and acceptance at your organization in order to galvanize your staff to be fearless, open and inventive. Let’s explore some elements of this mindset and discuss how it can influence your work.

Say, “Yes and…”

A major rule of improvisation is to never deny your partner. “No” is a one-way ticket to nowhere. “Yes” is an invitation. “And” is a bridge to a new idea. We collaborate by accepting each other's ideas and letting them inspire our own.

Let’s walk through an example: Daisy is attending an improv for non-profits workshop in New York City.

Ted, the facilitator, takes the floor and points to Daisy. “Tell us about your morning.” Daisy laughs awkwardly. “Um, well, I took the subway here.” Ted gestures for her to continue. “And the train stopped short in the tunnel.” Ted says, “Great. Stop there. I want the group to continue Daisy’s story.” He points to Pete. “I want you to say yes to where Daisy left off in her story and then add a new detail. For example, yes, the subway car abruptly stalled in the tunnel and… then I fell.” Pete continues, “Yes, I fell right into a stranger’s lap and… we became friends.” He pauses. “Fast friends.” The room breaks into laughter. The story continues around the circle, growing and changing as the group actively listens and adds their own new facets. By the time they make their way back to Daisy, it is no longer just her story. It’s everyone’s story.

This simple exercise encouraged the group to engage, invest and work as a team by validating everyone’s contribution.

Collaboration at your organization can give birth to fresh ways of fulfilling your mission, and it can also create efficiencies through consolidating efforts and functions. One way to serve your community is to collaborate in the field with other service based organizations. This type of partnership can assist with extending your reach to the population you serve.

Group Mind

This improv term refers to the collective mind of the group. No individual performer is more valuable than the ensemble. A similar concept called collective leadership is defined as a group of people working together toward a shared goal. It is approaching leadership as a shared process. It’s a bottom-up approach - the emergence of individuals who exhibit leadership from all levels of an organization. The entire staff participates in creating the vision, and all are committed to working to achieve it.

Collective leadership provides the following benefits:

  • Shared responsibility and accountability
  • Increased knowledge sharing across the organization
  • Heightened commitment and engagement
  • Improved inclusion and celebration of diversity
  • Faster acceptance and implementation of change and innovation
  • Greater performance outcomes

Celebrate Failure

Learn from failure and have fun doing it! In improv there is no such thing as a mistake, only an opportunity to explore the unexpected. Failure sparks new ideas, and as long as everyone on the team is transparent with one another, it can make a project stronger and create a chance for bonding. If we can view failure as our mentor, then we can transform into successful innovators unafraid to take risks.

Penalizing employees for their mistakes doesn’t produce a more open creative process. In fact, it does the opposite. That is why many organizations have started celebrating it.  Google’s Moonshot Factory starts with a problem. Specifically, a really big problem in the world that if solved could improve the lives of a massive amount of people. Then, their teams propose a radical solution. When one team announces that it has failed, the members are praised, receive bonuses, paid time off, and new projects.

Dosomething.org, a nonprofit that helps youth take action on social change initiatives, has a Fail Fest more than once a year. It’s an off-the-record event for all staff and board members designed to communicate that there is no shame in failing. Pink feather boas are available because you can’t feel too bad for yourself while wearing one.

Global Giving, a crowdfunding website that makes it easy and safe to give to nonprofits, donors and companies anywhere in the world in order to support their efforts towards social change, regularly evaluates their successful and failed fundraisers. A few times a year, they distribute the Honest Loser Award to a person who tried and failed to implement a new initiative. The honoree shares what did and didn’t work and their takeaway from the experience.

Matt Smith, a Seattle-based improvisation teacher, developed a technique called the failure bow. The idea behind this physical gesture is that it alters one’s physiological response to failure by removing the self-doubt and self-judgment. Apparently, trapeze artists, acrobats, and other athletes are trained to take a failure bow after a blunder because it frees them from the fear of making a mistake.

Relax and Have Fun

Improv is all about one’s sense of play. We are all familiar with the saying, “All work and no play…,” but what if your work can be play? This field of work can take its toll mentally, physically and emotionally. You need to recharge in order to deliver the best services to your stakeholders. Give yourself permission to create openings for joy in the workplace.

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, M.D., the founder of the National Institute of Play and co-author of the book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, correlates play with oxygen. He writes, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” There is plenty of research that shows if employees have fun while completing a task, they retain more information. A sense of play can also influence an employee’s overall health and stress levels, leading to decreased absenteeism and a more positive attitude. It can generally invigorate the work environment. If you want to take a page out of Dr. Stuart’s personal playbook, then make note: his study is in a tree house.

Here are a few approaches to play in the workplace:

Cooperative Play is concerned with solving a problem by working together to achieve a common goal. This can provoke healthy competition and teamwork. This circles back to the concept of the “group mind”. This type of play can encourage compassion towards colleagues, which has been shown to expand employee commitment, accountability and performance. 

Risk-Taking Play is similar to celebrating failure. Carve out time to invent and reimagine your approach – recovering after a misstep allows one to learn faster and think outside of the box.

Storytelling and Narrative Play is how we share context and purpose, which is a crucial part of the way you interact with stakeholders. Storytelling can be a tool for change, whether it’s reinventing your process or getting buy-in from staff. Creating a narrative thread can unearth hard-to-reach thoughts and feelings, and not only connect staff to the work but to each other.

Constructive Play is all about building and designing in real-time. We can talk until we are blue in the face, but sometimes we can only understand through visualization. Don’t be afraid to “think with your hands” and create a tangible prototype. Just the process of developing a procedure can force us to rethink a project.

Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun! Laughter can create a strong sense of camaraderie and add years to your life. You can plant seeds for laughter through team building exercises and through celebrating life events like birthdays or anniversaries, as well as accomplishments like completing a particularly intense project. If you don’t have something to celebrate, then gather staff for a pizza lunch or a short video on a shared topic of interest. Breakdown the silos with curiosity and an appetite for joy.

If you are interested in learning more about improvisation, I recommend Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation by Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson and Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier. You’ll be able to find exercises based on these principles in both of these publications. No matter how you try to incorporate these concepts into your workplace, the overall intent is to create a culture of consideration and confidence.

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