Improv: A Ritualization of the Collaborative Process

by Rachel Cort

At the midway point of this series, I’d like to take a moment to remind readers that I’m writing about five competencies which, taken together, will help Jewish professionals better serve unengaged Millennials. In past weeks, I made a case for why disruptive or discontinuous innovations are best suited to serving Millennials, who represent a new market in Jewish life and who often look very different from the professionals who seek to engage them. Last week, I wrote about design thinking as a way to create disruptive or discontinuous Jewish experiences built around Millennial definitions of value, and explored design thinking as a praxis for creating new Jewish experiences. Another key recommendation for developing successful innovations through design thinking is to not undertake the process alone.

As Lisa Colton of See3/Darim insightfully pointed out in a comment on last week’s article, a diversity of viewpoints (in terms of age, experience and expertise) on a team can making design thinking a very valuable proposition. Lisa’s comment highlighted what I may not have written plainly: design thinking is a process that belongs to the team. The atomic unit of innovation should not be seen as the lone genius, but rather as the collaborative team. Today, I’ll explore improv, a comedy art form, as a highly effective way to develop collaborative teams.

True team collaboration, as opposed to simply competing to have one’s own idea “win out” in a group setting, is very difficult to achieve. It is a skill that must be practiced and honed, a skill which requires great generosity and humility, and unfortunately, a skill that people in a competitive society are often socialized to avoid. Improv in the workplace is nothing new ­­indeed, Steve Yastrow has already written a great series here on eJP about improvising persuasive conversations instead of making sales pitches. I’m writing here to connect improv to the competencies of disruptive innovation and design thinking, and also to share my thoughts on improv as a highly effective ritualization of the collaborative process.

This summer, with no background experience, I took an intensive improv class at iO Chicago Theatre, and it taught me a lot about teams and collaboration. I first learned that improv isn’t actually about being funny, it’s about making connections­­ with the other performers, with the audience’s emotions, or within the scene itself. Laughs are incidental, but they come from the delight that making connections engenders. In long­form improv, such connections cannot be planned in advance, since the performers make up their scenes the spot. Therefore, the only way to make such connections is for the group of performers to trust each other and support one another’s ideas. Only in an ultra­collaborative environment can any sort of order come from the chaos of getting onstage with no preconceived script. We can learn a lot from how improv performers use collaboration to make connections and generate ideas.

Many idea ­generating sessions I’ve been part of in non-­improv spaces go one of two ways: 1) someone criticizes someone else’s idea, pointing out why it will never work or 2) someone puts forth an idea, and the next person to speak puts forth a totally unrelated one. I’ve been guilty of both myself. What I learned during my improv class is that the way to overcome these quagmires and missed opportunities is through rule of agreement: agreeing with or saying yes to what the previous performer has said, and then furthering their idea by adding something to it. In an idea-­generating space, criticizing someone else’s idea (or ignoring it) ultimately leads nowhere, while validating and then building on someone else’s idea can lead to many interesting places. Ideas start to get really good and really interesting when we take the time, as a group, to see them all the way through to their logical conclusions. An important part of the ritual of improv is the separation of spaces for idea generation and the “editing” of ideas. Obviously, not all ideas are strong ones, but in an idea-generating space, establishing an uninterrupted flow of creativity is more important than weeding out weak ideas.

As teams get better at working together, weeding out weak ideas may not even be necessary; it will be obvious to everyone which ideas are the real winners, and everyone will feel a sense of ownership over them. This is because the rule of agreement leads to ideas that are the property of the group, rather than to an individual. Charna Halpern, founder of iO, calls this “group mind”; it both magically erases antagonism and territoriality over ideas, and frequently results in better quality ideas. This kind of “group mind” ethos is also present at IDEO, where the slogan is “All of us are smarter than any of us.” Training Jewish professionals in the art of improv is perhaps an antidote for the “two Jews, three opinions” phenomenon, which, though it is rooted in a wonderful tradition of Jewish debate and argument, can actually discourage people from making the kinds of contributions that lead to strong new ideas.

Taking this improv class made me realize that even with all the brainstorming sessions I’d been part of throughout my life, I’d only very rarely had the experience of collaborating with a group of people to bring ideas to life. Being part of a group mind made me feel like each of my contributions were valuable, that every person on my team was “an artist, a genius and a poet” (a favorite maxim of Del Close, another iO founder), and­­ when we were really on­­ that we could basically intuit what the others were thinking. No wonder improv has cult­like associations. The rush and satisfaction of being part of a “group mind” in a creative space was a mostly foreign sensation for me, and I tried my best to memorize it so I could try and replicate it in the future, in my work.

Improv skills can set the stage for idea generation within professional teams and organizations, but this skill set also closely ties into empowering Millennials by honoring and including their voices and ideas. Jonathan Woocher has written insightfully about how “individuals today increasingly wish to exercise their right of choice by being active co­creators of the products they consume and the experiences they undertake.” This phenomenon is of course not limited to Millennials, but has come to characterize the kinds of experiences that resonate with them most. Let’s not forget to include them on our teams. Next week, I’ll write about about some effective ways of building relationships with unengaged Millennials.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future