Improvisational Workshops

I’ve never been great with agendas in meetings. I often forget to write them and am not a stickler for keeping to them. Improvisational acting provides me a skill set to still succeed in this type of uncertain environment.

Leading a great design thinking workshop takes a lot of planning. Keeping 10-20 adults with busy schedules on track, entertained, feeling productive, and accomplishing what is inevitably an extraordinarily ambitious goal in a short amount of time can’t be done off the cuff. Never mind the fact that worksheets, materials, and supplies all need to be procured in advance.

Facilitating workshops is stressful. One eye is always on the clock and the other trying to watch every participant. You constantly check the agenda against the clock because you are guaranteed to get off schedule.

At the beginning of this year I began taking improv classes, and it has changed my meeting style. This isn’t to say I throw all planning to the wind and dive in; I deal with unpredictability in a more predictable way. Here are three lessons I’ve learned from improv acting that lead to better workshops:

Trust the process, leave the outcome to the group

Both improv and design thinking are process-driven activities. In improv you have a set of rules and concepts to keep you grounded, beginning with “yes, and…” Design thinking leads you through a series of steps that, when done right, should get you to a great result.

Leading a conversation at a workshop

In my workshops I used to plan things out like the agenda in a meeting: first, we will talk to this person for 45 minutes; then, we will reflect silently followed by sharing what we learned; afterwards, a card sort exercise for 25 minutes. No wonder I was freaking out about the schedule!

I’ve adopted the “yes, and…” technique to workshop facilitation. I know the process and the steps we need to follow, but not what my scene partner (the participants) will say. The agenda is no longer linear; we sometimes jump around or head in a direction I didn’t anticipate. But I say yes and add to it, and somehow we still get to our destination.

I now come to workshops with a set of exercises that can work for any phase in the process. If the participants come to one conclusion, I go to my set of exercises and pull out one that fits where we are in the process and help move the scene forward that way. I listen, I accept, and I add to it.

We are all artists, geniuses, and poets

My very first improv instructor told us to look around the room. “You are in a room full of artists, geniuses, and poets. Respect the genius of the group and never forget the brilliance that surrounds you.”

At a workshop
Artists, poets, and geniuses at work

The beauty of improv is multiple people working together and building on their ideas to create something strange, amazing, and sometimes even funny. Great ideas in the business world come around the same way and, like my instructor, I now remind everyone in my workshops that they are surrounded by and part of a community of geniuses.

What made my instructor’s words so important was that we then began an exercise where we looked like complete fools. We shouted, rolled on the floor, and essentially made fart jokes. But because we were all artists, geniuses, and poets, we were comfortable putting ourselves out there and trying something new. This is doubly important in a workshop where the participants will see each other in the office the following week—this philosophy grants permission for everyone to put themselves out there.

Don’t fall in love with your idea

I usually spend weeks preparing for a workshop. I get to know the subject matter very well. As I do my research, I naturally come up with a variety of ideas and solutions that I’m just dying to try out.

One of the biggest challenges of leading a workshop is letting these ideas go. The group  prioritizes issues differently and will inevitably come up with suggestions you would have never dreamed up. The only thing to do is to let go of your own ideas and elevate the group’s. They are artists, geniuses, and poets, and their ideas are brilliant.

Preparing content for a workshop
Preparing content for a workshop

But it’s much easier said than done. In improv this is sometimes referred to as “killing your baby”. You have a great idea and can’t wait to start a new scene. You jump on stage holding a gun and go “stop! Freeze!” and your partner replies “Now Tommy, I told you no water guns at the dinner table!” You can’t stop the scene and say “I was an FBI agent and was catching you smuggling drugs in your suitcase.”  You say “But Mom! No fair!” You have to kill your baby and be part of the team.

Improv acting is about keeping an open mind, being flexible no matter the situation, and trusting in others. Imagine if we brought this same mindset to everything we do professionally, how much more powerful our teams would be.

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