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How Managers Can Use Improv Strategies to Improve Communications

This article was based on episode 223 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get a free Motivation and Feedback document. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


I’ve always thought of improv comedy as a team building activity to avoid. But unlike trust walks through the forest or singing karaoke, improv and good management have a lot in common. We all improvise, all the time. We’re constantly taking in stimuli and responding to them in the moment. I spoke with Brian Rolnick-Fox who helps teams take those natural improv skills and put them to our advantage in the office.


Brian has been using improvisation techniques as a channel for individual growth, group development, and organizational success since 1999. He is the CEO at Nimble Learning Strategies and has delivered leadership programs for a diverse set of organizations from Fortune 100 companies to Harvard Business School. Here, Brian teaches us three core improv strategies you can use at your next team meeting to get everyone connecting and collaborating faster than you can say “yes and”!


WHAT SHADE IS YOUR BLUE?


Lesson: As individuals, we can learn to better understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives.


Ask your team to think (silently!) of a shade of blue. Then have them yell out at the same time what shade they were thinking of. It may be “teal”, “sky blue” or “navy”, for example. Then engage your team in a conversation about what just happened. What did this exercise demonstrate about that could help us learn to communicate better in the future.


What Shade Is Your Blue shows the different perspectives each teammate brings to a similar situation. In the workplace, this may show up as the marketing team seeing things very differently or using different language than the sales team, for example. The game also highlights the power of specificity in our teamwork; if we don’t spell out our goals or describe our expectations with enough accuracy, they may be misinterpreted. Acknowledge the power of these different perspectives and consider how to utilize them to your advantage at work. Whenever your team hits a place of conflict, bring them back to this lesson by asking, “What shade is your blue?”


THE MACHINE


Lesson: Learn to step into uncomfortable spaces and get in sync with each other.


Ask five or six volunteers to stand in a line. Have each person choose one sound and movement to make, such as meowing like a cat and flapping arms like a bird. The goal is for everyone’s sounds and movements to be in sync with each other. Once the group has settled into sync, tell them they’re at a speed between 1 and 10 (1 being slowest, 10 being fastest). Ask The Machine squad to go faster or slower by “turning the knob” to a new number. The team is challenged to figure out together what a “4” would look and sound like, and how to coordinate that together. After this fun and hilarious game, discuss how this experience relates to teamwork and office dynamics.


For one, The Machine challenges everyone to step into an uncomfortable space and to do it as a group. It also raises our awareness of how sensitive we are to nonverbal cues. Like at a meeting, when we see the boss shift energy, most people pick up on it and shift accordingly. Acknowledging the power of nonverbal cues, we can choose at times to check in with our colleagues. We can ask them, “Hey, I noticed the conversation shifted when I brought that up. Can you tell me more about that?” We can sharpen these skills of observation and conversation to collaborate together better.


Free Association Word Ball


Lesson: Learn to listen and share your thoughts even when you’re uncertain.


Have everyone sit in a circle. Start off by saying a word and tossing a small, soft ball to someone. Invite each person to contribute any word that comes to mind associated with the last word said when they catch the ball. This word association game is fast and fun! You’ll never expect what others will end up blurting out. After a few rounds, have a conversation about what the game teaches you about team collaboration.


Free Association Word Ball teaches us to build the muscles of trusting ourselves to come up with something on the spot and share whatever is on our minds. It also asks us to trust our team members that whatever we bring into the circle will be received. Putting ourselves out there and building connections is powerful team building. What’s fascinating about this activity is that you will see the team building patterns through word association naturally! Brian suggests playing at the beginning of a meeting to help your team feel more creative and ready to speak up.


Improv activities teach the essential message that “I’ve got your back”. We commit to supporting what our teammates offer us and then to add on to it. By creating a space for both play and vulnerability through improv, we teach our teams how to show up and collaborate more effectively. We learn the power of different perspectives, the importance of getting into sync, and how to hold what others throw out before adding in our own voice. Plus it's an opportunity to form inside jokes, which always make a team feel more connected. Start trying some improv games at your next team meeting. Work will never be the same again!


KEEP UP WITH BRIAN


Get a free Communication and Collaboration document when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at themodernmanager.com/join.


This article was based on episode 223 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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