How Improv Will Make You a Better Collaborator

Problem solving in a team is often a significant challenge. Whether it be a technical problem, a design sprint, a product roadmap or even planning the next team retreat, getting buy-in from everyone in the team can be tough. Teams are often (hopefully) made up of people with diverse backgrounds, skill sets and characters that can often complicate things further. The loudest person doesn’t always have the best answer, and yet it’s often the most vigorous debater that will win the day, even if just by attrition. The problem with that is that best way to get buy-in from the team is to ensure nobody feels railroaded into something without getting their say.

By recognising that the best solution doesn’t always come from one person but from many diverse minds, the importance of good team collaboration becomes clear. In a great team every individual is fighting for the best solution, not their solution. That’s only possible when everyone feels heard and, more importantly, respected.

There’s plenty of great books out there on effective teams, and good collaboration process, but I have a book recommendation that perhaps you haven’t read. Actually, it’s more of a chapter of a book recommendation …

I want you to go and read Chapter 8 of a book called Bossypants by Tina Fey (30 Rock, SNL). It’s the one with her face on the cover buy with weird manly arms. My wife bought it, and the cover creeped me out for ages. I eventually read it to find out why she has man arms, but I never found out. You can read the rest of the book too if you like, but I want to talk about Chapter 8.

In this chapter, Tina tells of her time in Chicago’s Second City touring company “Blue Co”. The Second City touring company is an Improv group (If you’re not familiar with Improv, a few minutes of Whose Line Is It Anyway will sort you out quick smart). Improv is the best example of collaboration you’ll ever see. It starts with the barest seed of an idea, and unfolds in real-time based on nothing but the creativity and cooperation of the people in the scene.

In the same chapter Tina also describes her rules for Improv. I say “her rules” because it’s her book, but the rules have been written and rewritten dozens of times, in dozens of ways, by dozens of people. I just happen to like her description of them.

The thing about the rules for Improv, is that they’re generally pretty good rules for communication and collaboration generally. When you understand the rationale behind why these rules are good for Improv, you can start to see why they make a lot of sense in other areas of life. You’re working in a team with a common goal, but without any defined way to get there. In a lot of ways, getting up on stage doing Improv isn’t a whole lot different to running a startup…

I know this sounds like a bit of a stretch, but if you look carefully, you’ll see the rules of Improv have a lot in common with IDEO’s approach to design and even elements of Edward DeBono’s Lateral Thinking.

Rule # 1 — Always say Yes

In Improv, everyone has to be in on the lie. A story can only progress if everyone agrees on the premise and the direction. It requires a suspension of disbelief, an implied agreement that no matter what one person says the other person will go along with it. If someone is being obtuse, or constantly plays “the naysayer”, you’re going to be in for a tough time.

If during a scene I say to you, “Oh God, an Alien has come to abduct me!” and you reply with “No! I’m not an Alien, I’m just your friendly next-door neighbour here mowing my lawn”, then the story has hit a dead end because we no longer agree on the premise. I had a story in my mind about a terrifying alien abduction, and by saying “no” to that you‘re forcing me to drop my idea and work with yours. Instead of working together we’re now pulling in two different directions.

Even if your partner’s idea isn’t what you’d do, it often pays to go along with what they’ve come up with just to see where they’re going with it. Tina calls this respecting what your partner has created. By being open minded and willing to go with the flow, we can start developing the story together.

If you’ve ever tried to present an idea to someone, and their first response is “No”, or “it won’t work because” then you can certainly relate to this. What you might not realise is how easily we do this to other people all the time. When someone comes up with a solution to a problem, our natural instinct is to try and find flaws in the idea, to find why it won’t work. We call it playing devil’s advocate or just being thorough, but actually you’re just crushing creativity. Even if the idea is flawed, it might be a good jumping off point to discover some other, as yet unseen, solution. You’ll never know unless you’re willing to just run with it.

Rule # 2 — Always say Yes, AND

Whilst it’s not quite as bad as being in a scene with someone who simply can’t agree with you, the next worst offender is someone who is completely passive. If your partner has the idea, the onus is on you to add to the story. If, as the alien, your contribution is just “Yes, I am an Alien.” then once again, the scene is pretty quickly going to come to a dead end. The best outcomes are always when one idea leads to another which leads to another.

As soon as you say, “Not only am I going to abduct you, but I’m going to take all of your underwear as well”, the story is now ours. It’s something that belongs to both of us. I may have planted the seed of the idea, but now you’re helping grow it into something bigger and better.

The best solutions always come from good collaborations. We all have different information, skills and backgrounds. By solving problems as a team, we can each contribute our own bit of “us” to develop a unique solution. But, it requires each of us to have an open mind and be willing to contribute and build on someone else’s idea.

Rule #3 — Make Statements

This might seem a bit counter intuitive at first, but it builds on the concepts of the previous rule. By being passive, you’re certainly making your partner work harder, but by asking nothing but questions you’re actually creating more work for them. It’s no longer a collaboration, there’s one person throwing up walls that the other has to knock down.

If I’m being abducted by aliens and my only input is “so where is your spaceship? why don’t you have a ray gun? how come you can speak such great english?” then I’m constantly asking my partner to justify and explain themselves. Instead of helping, I’m actually putting the onus on them to come up with more information, more detail, more answers. As Tina says in her book, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution.”

It’s hard in a collaborative environment not to ask a bunch questions when someone has an idea, especially if you feel there isn’t a lot of detail to go on. But rather than grilling someone about their concept or solution, try to work with them and explore it together. Every idea initially is likely to have a bunch of holes, but instead of trying to think of reasons it won’t work, spend your time looking at the reasons it might work. So many good ideas get left in the gutter or are killed because too much time is spent poking holes in the negatives instead of realising the potential positives.

Rule #4 — There Are No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

The final rule of Improv is that no one is ever wrong. If you’re doing an impersonation of Taylor Swift but I’m too old to understand that and say you’re Beyonce instead, too bad… from now on you’re Beyonce. Haters gonna hate hate. There’s no value in wasting time telling me how wrong I am. It’s better for everyone to accept the mistake and just roll with it. Being wrong isn’t going to stop the scene from being funny unless you stop to disagree about it(see Rule #1).

When trying to find unique solutions to a problem, the things that are right are more important than the things that are wrong and so it’s critical to always defer judgment. You may have someone non-technical on your team that has a potential solution to a technical problem, don’t let their lack of domain knowledge get in the way of a what could be brilliant solution. The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff” comes to mind, and whilst I know the devil is often in the details, the details aren’t important when you’re still painting in broad brush strokes. Explore the idea fully before worrying about why it won’t work.

About Alan - Alan Downie has been working in web for over 20 years. Alan was the founder of Fivesecondtest, UsabilityHub and BugHerd. He participated in the Startmate (Australia) and 500 Startups (US) accelerator programs, before becoming a mentor at partner at Startmate. He recently launched Splitrock Studio, a startup studio based in Melbourne, Australia.

1 Comment

  • Stefan Spill says:

    Thx for sharing such thoughts. Have to llok up what this Improv exactly is, but the points you made already gives me some tools to get down with our teams and give them some hints what could ease their daily business life. Keep up the good work. Cant wait for Bugherd 2 hehe.