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What Improv Comedians Can Teach Government Employees

The guiding principles of improv comedy could help people in the public sector perform better.

Government managers often find themselves in so-called “brainstorming sessions,” where they’re supposed to work together to come up with a new approach, fix an old problem or develop a new program. Participants too often emerge from these meetings with a sense that little of value has been accomplished -- except for giving a handful of folks the opportunity to talk.

One of the problems is that government managers are so thoroughly trained in planning that beginning with a blank slate can be uncomfortable. It struck us that the epitome of a team creating something of value in a more spontaneous fashion is improv comedians who often take an unexpected word, phrase or idea from the audience and use it to build a humorous scene. From the popular TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" to groups like Second City, the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade, teams of improvisers start with a simple idea and connect thoughts into a seamless whole. Sometimes the results can be remarkably fresh and unexpected.

The private sector is already catching on -- and the public sector should take note. According to a 2014 Slate piece, companies like American Express, Dupont, Ford, PepsiCo and Procter and Gamble have used improv to help with communication skills, crisis management, adaptability and leadership. Meanwhile, although we were unable to locate any cities or states that are currently using improv in training, here’s a straw in the wind: A keynote address at the upcoming ICMA Conference in Seattle in September is titled, “Using Improvisation to Improve Creativity and Collaboration.” It will be led by members of the Second City team who will “demonstrate how to use improvisational techniques to develop innovators, encourage adaptable leaders, and build transformational work environments,” according to an ICMA newsletter.

We decided to turn to a few of the premier improvisers at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (UCB), a company with campuses in New York and Los Angeles that focuses on improvisation and sketch comedy. One of its founders was Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live. We asked them a pretty simple question: How do you get a bunch of people to work together effectively to create something worthwhile?

Our improv comics came up with half a dozen thoughts, which we’re confident can apply to government work.

“I do think improv techniques are easily translatable to any team-based process, including those that take place in government agencies,” said Jill Donnelly, who has taught at UCB for six years and also works as a strategic planner for the not-for-profit L.A. Care Health Plan, established by L.A. County. “We don’t have to have the right idea off the bat,” she said. “But there’s complete permission to put any idea out there. In improv, there’s a concept of killing your darlings -- you may walk into a scene with a certain idea and you may have to drop it and move along.” 

The starting point, all agreed, was to respond to other thoughts with “Yes, and...” as opposed to “Yes, but...” Rejecting ideas out of hand doesn’t help a conversation. Instead, participants should buy into at least part of a notion and then move forward with additional ideas.

Our improv sources also pointed out that one of the most important skills is knowing when it’s your time to shine and when your teammates have it covered. Improv -- like government teamwork -- is not necessarily about making one person look like the funniest or smartest guy in the room; it’s about making the team successful.

And here’s a biggie: active listening. How many times have you been in a room where it appears as though the whole group is paying attention, when in fact they’re just nodding at the appropriate moments (especially when the boss is talking)? Active listening in improvisation means that people are taking in not just the words, but the subtext that shows the speaker’s real meaning. Depending on inflection, the simple sentence, “Do you want to put up another stop sign on Main Street?” can be straightforward -- or with an emphasis on the word “another,” it can be a vote against any more stop signs.

Fear of risk-taking can also be a killer in both brainstorming and improv. Someone who only pipes up when he or she is absolutely confident that his contribution will lead to big laughs probably won’t get any laughs at all. Similarly, a manager who waits until he’s got an idea that’s sure to pass muster is likely to only make contributions that are already pretty obvious to everyone else.

Obviously, there are huge differences between trying to get laughs and trying to find the best way to reduce teen pregnancy rates. But when it comes to the dynamics of a group of well-intentioned men and women, it seems clear that the public-sector workers will improve their performance if they can pick up a few pointers from entertainers who are doing a performance.

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