“Yes, and…”

What We Can Learn from Improv

Photocredit: Jopwell

During one of our Intellectual Capital team’s recent retreats, we had an improv session that forced us out of our comfort zones through a set of interactive and often humorous exercises. The activity was a lot of fun, but what was surprising about this team building session was how applicable it was to our learning processes.

The facilitator led us through a range of exercises such as telling a story as a group with each person adding one word at a time and, my favorite, two people sharing a pen and drawing one pen stroke at a time.

The exercises we did set up a conversation about some fundamental learning principles in a way that allowed us to discover the principle rather than having it told to us. Of course, now I will tell you five of the Improvisation Principles relevant to learning, hoping you have already discovered them for yourselves.

  1. Embrace Uncertainty — Much of life, as with improv, is unpredictable. It is subject to a host of unknown factors, and there is little value in pretending we know what the result will be when we don’t. Let’s trade the illusion of control for the reality of influence. Living in a world of uncertainty puts a premium on pausing, reflecting, and learning about what you are seeing since so much is unpredictable. Paradoxically, by accepting less certainty, you can gain more confidence.
  2. Freedom Within Structure — We often assume that structure limits freedom, but my experience with improv was that the right structure could actually increase freedom and encourage creativity. Complete freedom often leads to “freezing” (too many options) or chaos, whereas basic guidelines for an exercise gave us comfortable space to grow and imagine!
  3. Accept and Build — This principle is captured in the classic improv phrase, “Yes, and…”. Accepting is not the same as agreeing. Accepting is hearing what is offered and building upon it. When applied to team discussions, it allows groups to be generative and create an atmosphere embracing creativity.
  4. Inhabit the Moment — We found that being fully engaged in exercises enabled greater creativity and getting into the “here and now” allowed us to be free from thoughts and concerns about the future or past. Simply being present led to better (and funnier) interactions.
  5. Short Turn Taking — Being able to rapidly switch between leading and following is the fast track to flow. This dynamic is consistent with the lean startup mantra around failing fast and enabled us to iterate and get better very quickly.
Credit: CartoonStock.com

Improv doesn’t seek perfection and instead just asks groups to collaborate and bring something new into existence. I believe improv principles are very relevant to anyone working within complex, dynamic environments and recommend this activity for those looking to bring more creativity into their team retreats.

Here are some final questions to reflect on how you can implement these principles into your learning:

In what part of your day can you embrace greater uncertainty?

What are ways you can say, “Yes…and,” in your next meeting?

In which tasks are you most present? How can you hold that same focus in other tasks?



Our Friday Learning Notes series is designed to share insights from Omidyar Network’s journey to become a best-in-class learning organization. Grab a cup of coffee and start your own Friday morning learning journey! *warning: side effects of regular reading may include improved mood, upswing in dinner party conversation, and/or increased desire to cultivate learning for social impact