Research & Design Strategy

The importance of an improvisation mindset, part 2

This article is part two of a series about the advantages of an improvisation (improv) mindset on workplace teams. Read part one here.

The first part of this series centered around understanding the core principles and techniques to promote better group interaction. But many of the concepts fundamental to improv also have roots across business sectors. Although the terms and phrases may vary, the worlds have much in common.

As design consultants, we must lead by example in how we conduct ourselves during collaborative sessions (e.g. co-analyses, workshops). Having those who are more experienced improvisers in the class initially seemed somewhat intimidating to me as someone who had no reference point or knowledge of the art form. But the experienced led the team, and I mean led. They engaged in the games, prompted the scene if a stage partner was faltering by offering endowments or playing a background character, termed a Canadian Cross in improv, and they provided tips to help make the group members better performers.

Facilitators are catalysts for creating a space in which team members feel a level of acceptance and freedom. Improv instructors are expert facilitators. They make group members feel that all comments and/or observations are insightful by acknowledging and building on what was said, and they praise strong character dedication after a practice show game. Though there are several leadership forms on and off stage, they all display these key qualities of a guide and an instructor.

The concept of psychological safety has permeated the walls of many organizations in the past few years as a key component to making teams more productive and, ultimately, successful, thanks to a study on internal team dynamics at Google. A distinguishing characteristic of improv is that the group always applauds those who misstep in warm-ups because it is not about perfection or competition – with the exception of elimination rounds. This creates that sense of psychological safety that allows the group to embrace vulnerability and express whatever comes to mind in that moment, thereby strengthening the group dynamic.

During one of our practices, a stage partner intended to set up a scene with two neighbors doing housework. He intended to say shingles, but instead said shackles. At that moment, it didn’t matter that he was no longer hanging shingles; we just wanted to understand this new world in which someone might hang shackles on the roof. That slip of the tongue was not a mistake because it led to a plot line that was a far more interesting set-up and he felt more comfortable continuing the scene knowing he had the support of his stage partners.

Story is the underpinning of improv. The goal is to identify the story’s parts early in the scene. This includes the who, where, what, and the wrinkle (conflict) in that order. By setting up a stable plot line with these parts, the audience can follow the story in any direction it takes.

The word storytelling is now thrown around as commonly as innovation, causing it to lose some of its significance. But telling compelling stories is the heart a design consultant’s job and it is an integral part to getting buy-in from others. Team members are no exception. By having clear definitions (e.g. the challenge, desired outcomes), the team has a solid ground on which to stand.

The pillars of our work as consulting partners are to build relationships with client teams, visualize abstract experiences in concrete ways, develop narratives to tell a story about the experiences we are designing, make sense of inputs to identify opportunities, share in our clients’ realities, and make our team members look good. By leveraging the techniques inherent in the art of improv, we can build better teams and design better experiences. 

Truth be told, I wasn’t the best improviser on stage. I made many mistakes and I was constantly fighting an internal war with impulsivity. But the experience has allowed me to look at interpersonal dynamics through a new lens. The next time you sit down with your team, I hope you try putting yourself in the mindset of an improviser. And, if you have the chance, enroll in a class.

For more information on an improviser’s mindset, check out these sources:


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


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