This week, The New York Times shared a piece on how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans are getting creative to survive.
They've replaced a fallen bridge with a pulley-drawn shopping cart that transports food, water, and supplies across the gap. They're learning to improvise in these harsh, difficult conditions. Amidst the tragic disaster and the slow arrival of assistance, there is some silver lining: According to science, the more people improvise, the more creative they will become. That can lead to more new ideas and solutions to put to use now--and in the future outside of a crisis.
When we improvise (think, for example, of a jazz musician in a jam session), the areas of our brain that restrict and self-sensor become less engaged. This allows us to more freely come up with new and novel ideas. Dire situations may force us to improvise for reasons we'd rather not be facing, there are also ways to adapt improvisation skills to the workplace to increase team creativity in the day-to-day.
Here are three ways to incorporate improvisation techniques with your team.
1. Promote a culture of "yes"
"Yes and," is a powerful phrase in improv. In any game, improvisers respond to one another with "yes and," as a way to build on whatever idea or action came before theirs. If instead, people criticized or negated what was said before them, the game would not last very long and it would deter people from contributing more in the future.
As Second City exec and Yes, And co-author Kelly Leonard explained to FastCompany, "What you learn about improvisation when you apply 'Yes, And' is that there's a bounty of ideas, way more than will ever get used."
Introduce and promote the usage of "yes and" in team meetings and work sessions. As it becomes more widespread, people will have less fear about sharing their ideas, and the best ones will rise to the top, enabling your team to produce the best work possible.
2. Bring together an ensemble
An important rule of improv is to always take care of your partner. Instead of using the word "team" which can sometimes feel loaded, improv groups call themselves an "ensemble." An ensemble is built up of people who succeed by helping other succeed, rather than competing with one another. At Second City comedy, alum like Tina Fey and Steve Carell have shown how they can rise while also enabling their ensemble to succeed as well.
When brainstorming new solutions to problems or discussing how to approach a matter at hand, look beyond team structures to bring a diverse group of people--your ensemble--together. Expose employees with different job functions and day-to-day responsibilities to one another. Each will pull from their own experience and perspectives, bringing together a concert of new ideas that couldn't have come from just one person or team.
3. Encourage spontaneity
Improv, by definition, is unplanned. In most games, the scene builds and comes together by the second. For example, an actor may say just one word to be followed by another actor who says another word to build on the sentence. Or, in a game called Follow the Follower, one person in the center of a circle tries to identify who is leading the actions in the circle of people around him or her.
Setting a precedent of spontaneity lowers the barrier to contributing ideas, especially for people who may be shy or less senior. When discussing new ideas and solutions, gather people for impromptu or casual brainstorms where no preparation is needed. This will allow people to build on each other's ideas, without feeling intimidated by what people bring into the room or unnecessarily constrained by whatever ideas they may have come up with beforehand.
The ability to adapt is important both in life and in business. Though it's ideal to have plans and projections, it's crucial to have the skills to think on your feet, and to build an organization that is adept at improvising as well.