Need Inspiration? Try Improv.

At Burness, we brainstorm about everything, from where to go to lunch to strategies to move social issues. Sometimes participating in brainstorms can be intimidating — what if my idea sounds stupid? What if it’s not realistic?

Our recent Global team retreat put those fears to rest. We participated in an activity ten times more nerve-wracking than brainstorming: improv.

When I learned that we’d be doing improv, I was daunted, to say the least — maybe even terrified — and I think a lot of my teammates would say the same.

But the improv class taught us to let go of a lot of concerns that hold us back in brainstorms and other areas of our work, and the results were fantastic. Already, we’ve been incorporating some of the things we learned into our meetings, and we’ve found that we encourage each other more and drum up more ideas.

If you want to incorporate this type of thinking on your own team, here are some tips we learned:

Tip 1: Let go of judgment.

This is certainly the hardest part, and it is two-fold: the fear of being judged and one’s own judgments and preconceptions of what the experience will be.

In the “Yes, and” improv game, we got into small groups and together generated a “dream vacation.” The first person offered a location and the next person had to reply starting with “Yes, and” to add an activity to the trip. The requirement to begin with “yes, and” prohibits discounting the ideas that came before and allows you to help mold your group’s imaginary vacation.

Tip 2: Remove your uncreative filter.

Everyone is creative. Instead of thinking that you have to be creative (i.e. adding creativity), focus on removing the personal filter that says your idea is wrong. This alone will bring out ideas that you would have previously held back and will spark new conversations.

In improv class, we were put into pairs and one person was tasked with pulling imaginary items out of a box (cheese, the ocean, your friend Dave, etc.) while the other person cheered them on and gave them hints when they had trouble coming up with new items. It’s unbelievable how difficult it can be to generate a list of random items when you’re put on the spot, but your partner’s cheering and encouragement make all the different in working through the task. The goal is to pull as many things out of the box as possible, and there are no right or wrong answers!

Tip 3: Listen fully and be resourceful.

Listening is a key aspect of improv and it serves the same function in brainstorming. The more you listen, the more material you will have from which to craft new ideas.

Our last activity of the day was to build the best office copy machine using our bodies. I know, it sounds crazy, but it was great fun and forced us to keep track of what had been added and determine what would be useful to contribute. One person stood in the middle as the standard copy machine. In turn, we added onto the copy machine aspects that would make it more efficient, eco-friendly, or simply more enjoyable. In the end, our machine was transparent, so we could see when there was a paper jam, had an attached tray to recycle paper, and had a cup holder for your coffee mug. As you can imagine, it was particularly hilarious to watch and be a part of the building of our futuristic copy machine.

The moral of the story is that improv is daunting, even terrifying, but the results are worth the few moments of fear. I can confidently say that the Global team had a great time and will definitely use all of the skills we learned, both in and out of the office.

Thanks to our resident improv master and co-director of training programs at Burness, Nick Seaver, for inspiring the Global team to take on this challenge! You can read a Q&A he did with the Washington Improv Theater here.