5 Rules of Improv to Spark More Productive Meetings
Are your meetings falling flat lately?
For many, the realities of remote working are wearing kind of thin. We’re looking for ways to breathe more life into meetings and raise the bar for engagement, productivity, and yes, even fun.
It’s easy to become frustrated with participants during a call when they’re on mute for most of the meeting, or texting, or only partially present. It’s true, of course, that this is business, and we’re all adults, and tuning out should not be an option. It’s also true that when the leader of the meeting gets intentional about a different approach to navigating group interactions, the energy and the impact of the meeting takes off in a new trajectory.
Remote meetings present distinct challenges, especially months into a global pandemic in which most everyone has been required to work remotely. Regardless of whether participants are sitting around the same table or separated by several time zones, there is so much that meeting facilitators can do to encourage all participants to lean in, actively contribute, and build upon each others’ ideas to come up with great solutions.
Improv at Work
The rules of improv comedy can actually provide some great lessons for keeping meetings moving with all participants bringing their A-Game.
I had the fortunate experience of working with several coworkers at an interactive digital marketing agency who taught and performed improv comedy. I learned from them that the kind of hysterically funny, in-the-moment interactions present in improv is not as spontaneous as they may seem. Great improv results from a lot of study and practice.
As it turns out, learning and following the basic “rules” of improv can have a significant impact on the energy and outcomes of business meetings.
Here are a few improv comedy rules along with some thoughts on how they can be adopted for business.
Rule #1: Say "YES"
“Yes AND …” along with “Yes ANDing” has emerged essentially as the catchphrase of improv. “Yes ANDing” is a skill that requires practice and, for many, a big mindset shift.
The knee-jerk reaction during meetings tends to be either “Yes, BUT,” or a flat out “NO,” followed by all the reasons why a given idea isn’t feasible or isn’t based on adequately strategic thinking.
- “We tried that last year. It didn’t work.”
- “Sounds good but have you thought about …”
- “There’s no way we could get _______ to sign off on something like that.”
While making someone else wrong might seem to represent discernment and critical thinking skills, the real impact is a gradual, or sometimes a swift, shut down of further contributions.
The objective of “Yes ANDing” is to validate, to be open to another perspective -- a Plan B or C -- to collaboratively build something together by adding to it.
Here are some sample “Yes AND” responses:
- “Interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, and this could be a good foundation for ...”
- “We tried something like that last summer. That was when the market was very different / or we didn’t do X, Y, and Z.”
The challenge, before shutting them down, is to help build out ideas, even if you don’t fully understand them or it wasn’t what you had in mind. For any number of reasons, the idea might not ever take shape, but taking the time to listen and learn, builds both productivity and relationships.
Rule #2: Build up. Don’t break down. Keep it moving.
With improv, the second someone gets invalidated, the scene dies. A similar dynamic plays out in meetings when participants go quiet and they silently say to themselves: “OK you figure this one out.”
Too often, poor participation and long silences stem from this kind of dynamic.
The genius of great improv is the pace.
We don’t need to measure up to the lightning-fast wit of the improv pros from the likes of the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway,” which ran from 1998 through 2007, but silence can kill the energy of a meeting, just as it does with improv comedy. Encourage participation and build from it.
Rule #3: Don’t ask questions. Contribute new information.
This one can be a challenge to put into practice. The standard is to expect participants to defend their ideas or lead them into the realization that their ideas will not hold water.
Avoid the expectation that only fully thought out suggestions are allowed to be voiced.
- “How could we ever expect the dev team to take this on?”
- “I was talking with Deborah in dev the other day and she seemed really eager to try some new things. This might be right up her alley.”
- “Let’s talk further about how we can get the dev team on board with us on this.”
Rule #4: No Wrong Answers
We’re all familiar with the “no bad ideas” premise of brainstorming and the objective of a free-flow of lots ideas that spark other ideas, as a few “best” ideas start to emerge.
Rules of improv are also built upon an understanding that making people wrong is wildly unproductive. The difference is that brainstorming is inherently focused on a number of ideas with the assumption that the vast majority of them will never see the light of day. Sometimes, brainstorming is exactly what’s needed, but improv is a bit different. It’s about co-creation and collectively building something together as a team.
Another difference: with brainstorming in general, it’s possible for some participants to sit back and others to dominate. Improv -- similar to Promet's Human-Centered Design workshops -- draw in the whole group.
Rule #5: Everyone participates and brings their A game.
Improv rises and falls on the dynamic of the group. It’s not about who has the best ideas or who is the smartest. It’s about knowing each other’s strengths and how to best leverage them. We can bring this same principle into our meetings along with the expectation that everyone who has been invited to the meeting is there for a reason.
With improv, everyone is expected to bring their A-Game, stay in curiosity, let go of their ego, take risks, and have some fun.
Try injecting some rules of improv into your next meeting! First, inform your group of how it works and see how following these practices can actually enhance and motivate your team to have more participation, provide more ideas, and work together to create some new possibilities.