Can improvisation create a more productive workplace?
Updated: Feb 24
Pass the Mic Podcast series is an unscripted group discussion born out of AcornOak’s belief in the power of many voices.
Each episode begins with one expert - an open-minded and passionate individual who has spent a great deal of time investigating and researching a specific topic. During the hour, a small group of 4 to 6 people explore complex and challenging concepts with curiosity, uncertain beliefs, and the willingness to objectively listen and learn from the shared insights of others.
Our seventh episode discusses the topic of Improvisation with an attempt to answer the following question: Can improvisation create a more productive workplace?
Starting the Conversation
As the podcast host, Virginie Glaenzer paved the way for this conversation led by Kate Defeo on how improvisation can help us navigate a complex and unpredictable world to become better leaders.
Welcoming Our Guests
We were honored to welcome our panel of special guests eager to discuss improvisation and its philosophy and benefits for our organizations.
Kate DeFeo is the founder of FoHi Improv. Kate has taught theater to children and adults for over 20 years in NY, launching theater and creative writing programs at Cultural Arts Playhouse in Bethpage and Hunter College in Manhattan. She is one of the founding members of TAP Arts (Theater and Puppetry Arts), which services several local schools, including the Church-in-the-Gardens school and PS101Q, and is part of the creative staff at The Garden Players all located in Forest Hills, Queens. She has been performing long-form and musical improv for over 9 years on numerous teams. She can currently be seen on the long-running house teams Sequel, The Magical World of Musical Improv, and indie team Freeze Frame at The People’s Improv Theater and Magnet Theater in NYC.
Jamie Cummings is the founder of Cummings Coaching. Jamie is a professional improviser and corporate trainer who has performed for over two decades on stages across New York City and nationwide. As a professional improviser and corporated improv teacher, he has offered improv training to young and old, novice and veteran alike. He focuses on demystifying the concepts and connecting them to practical skills such as Collaboration, Listening, Speaking confidently, and Brainstorming.
Gabe Capone is the SVP Creative Director at H4B CHELSEA. Gabe moved into the role of Creative Director in January 2019 at the DCV Village, the world’s premier healthcare communications agency focusing on diabetes and cardiovascular health. He develops thought-provoking ideas and engaging communications while managing the creative team.
Rod Sayegh is head of Digital Strategy at Fiduciary Trust Company. As an expert in improv, Rod has a passion for Diversity, Inclusion, and Philanthropy and is known by his colleagues to challenge the norm in the financial services industry.
Listen to the tour de table introduction of our participants.
Key Shared Insights & Perspectives
Improv as a guiding principle
We started our conversation by exploring the guiding principle of the improvisation philosophy: “Yes and...” The most basic form of understanding improv and the theory behind it is the idea that we must say YES, but also add ourselves and our unique perspective with AND. Simply saying “yes,” without adding information as a leader, actually stops productivity.
This core principle invites everyone to collaborate and create something together. Often, the first idea out of the gate needs refinement, but by using improv, the concept can move forward positively by furthering the conversation.
Listen to Kate explaining this key guiding principle of improvisation.
Improv gives permission to others
Improvisation can improve communications in be applied to a variety of business contexts from discussing performance with employees to thinking entirely outside of the box in a design solution meeting.
In any collaboration, people bring the “baggage” of their negative experiences and limiting beliefs. Improvisation offers practical rules to create a real, honest conversation. It gives participants permission to free themselves from the burden of saying “no” and the risk of losing control by saying “yes.”
Listen to Rod sharing multiple examples of how he uses improv in his work.
Improv transforms culture
Empathy and listening skills
Using Improvisation, we learn empathy and listening skills. The Yes And principle invite people to expand their listening skills. Listening is the process by which you gain an understanding of the needs, demands, and preferences of your stakeholders through direct interaction. By becoming a better listener, individuals can improve their productivity, as well as their ability to influence, persuade, and negotiate.
Listening is also one of the highest valued soft skills sought by employers, and improvisation is a fantastic way to build those skills in your employees and in yourself.
Improv helps create a new, more meaningful culture where people are free to express themselves, and it starts with trust. When you know those around you, others in your office “have your back,” you feel relieved and comforted to know you can take risks and be yourself. It is rewarding to assure others you support them as well.
Listen to Gabe sharing his experience.
As we came at the end of the hour, our group ended the discussion in the same way we started, with a tour de table. Each participant had the opportunity to reflect on what they heard and share their take-aways from the conversation.
Listen to the last 10 minutes of the episode.
Final Thoughts to Consider
Improvisation teaches empathy, relatability and listening skills and has a deep impact on the culture of an organization.
Our growing dependence on technology can cause us to become less effective at interacting with humans in the workplace. When the landscape is complex and unpredictable, adaptability, not efficiency, must become our new central competency.
Leaders risk losing trust and mutual respect when they shut down their team’s suggestions by passively agreeing, but not building on them.
If instead, they encourage further development with unscripted supporting ideas, they truly engage and connect. By remaining open and receptive to input from others and letting go of their own insecurities and preconceived notions, leaders can create a culture of creative risk-taking and a shared sense of purpose.
However, it‘s easy to think that by hiring a consultant to teach improv to employees a new culture will emerge. As leaders, fostering a lasting culture of improvisation depends on consistently using it ourselves.
As Rod Sayegh said: “You only have control over yourself.”
If you think improvisation is right for you or your organization, you can start with some basic exercises, take a class, or bring in one of the panel participants.
Remember, at its core, every conversation is an improvisation, which means we’re all improv artists in a way.
If this short summary resonated with you, go to YouTube to view the entire discussion or listen on iTune, Spotify, Speaker or SoundCloud.
Basic Improvisation Exercises
Individuals stand in a circle and tell a story by saying a single word. Example, first person says, “Once,” next says “upon,” next says, “a time”... and so on. The goal is to tell a complete story and decide as a group when it ends.
Rubbing the google
This predates google the search engine. A group puts their hands in the circle and says “Rubbing the google” until someone else names a category, ie types of cereal, car makers, etc and then everyone tries to name as many items as they can. Then it goes back to “rubbing the google” until the next category is named.
Two people face each other and try and say the same word at the same time. This is about following the cues and patterns being established by each other. Ideally, the individuals eventually say the same word at the same time.
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