"There is truth in comedy."
Upright Citizens Brigade director of corporate learning and improv teacher Chelsea Clarke gathered Fast Company Innovation Festival attendees into a circle and began walking them all through a series of exercises and ice-breaker games with the intention of getting all involved to rethink how they communicate and collaborate in a work environment.
And of course, nerves quickly gave way to hesitant chuckles which in turn gave way to full on laughter and before we knew it, we’d learned that Chelsea was named after the neighborhood she was raised in, "'90s rave" is a terrible idea for a party theme, and the words "subway" and "fog" can lead two people down a stream-of-consciousness path that landed, naturally, with both of them shouting "coma!" at the same time.
It was fun, it was goofy, but the point was infinitely relevant for collaborative office cultures. Don’t be afraid of mistakes, don’t immediately shoot down an idea, and above all: listen.
"Planning ahead is not something you want in improv," explained Clarke. "You miss so much relevant information when you’re just focused on what you’re going to say next."
Since moving to New York from Chicago in 1996, the Upright Citizens Brigade has not only become one of the premiere improv theaters in the country, it is the only accredited improv school. Along the way, they discovered the games they play to loosen up and get students comfortable could help businesses figure out how to create and collaborate more efficiently—and Clarke and her colleagues have been coaching sales teams, ad agencies, and others ever since.
"One of the key lessons we teach is to think ‘how can I make this idea better?’ rather than ‘why is this idea bad?’," says Clarke, by way of introduction to a game designed to teach the benefits of the "Yes, And…" maxim that is the lifeblood of improv comedy. Festival attendees were told to trade ideas back and forth about planning an imaginary office party. At first, each person has to respond with "No…" and then offer an alternative. The second time around, each participant was told to respond "Yeah, but…" and offer a contrary opinion. Finally, everyone was instructed to reply "Yes, and..." and build on their partner’s idea. The communication flow and fun increased exponentially the more positive the exchange. Improv (and collaboration), it seems, dies when the exchange is negative or when ideas are shot down before they’re explored.
"Type A personalities with really nice purses—yes, I checked—feel like they need to crush weird or bad ideas," Clarke joked to the attendees.
"This teaches you to go with it."