Learning to improvise with Uber Design

Why if you want a stronger team, you teach them improv

The post-it notes really tie the room together.

Your team is everything

Chances are good that whether you work in law, technology, finance, or healthcare — you work as part of a team. After all, teams have become the dominant organizational unit in the modern workplace.

And all this teamwork is a good thing. In fact, according to an excellent article by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times Magazine titled “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”:

“[P]eople working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction. In a 2015 study, executives said that profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more…If a company wants to outstrip its competitors, it needs to influence not only how people work, but also how they work together.”

Classic teamwork pose.

Of course, not all teams are created equal: some teams mesh with an easy camaraderie, while others clash, and eventually splinter. How do you achieve the first and avoid the second?

Simple: you improvise. If you want your team to be happier, feel safer, and communicate more effectively, teach them how to improvise. Using improvisational techniques can bring myriad benefits to any team. But before delving into why, let’s first address a major question:

What makes a team happy?

Realizing I probably should have made this HAPPY look substantially happier.

According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, the secret to a happy team is psychological safety — what she defines as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

Edmondson writes, psychological safety “describes a climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves”. It’s the feeling that your team has your back, that you can push yourself and take risks and know that your team will be there to support you if you fall. Duhigg describes it well when he notes how an “enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking and having fun — allow[s] everyone to feel relaxed and energized.”

Pixar, plussing, and improv’s golden rule

Now noticing that you can totally see through this copy paper. #foreshadowing.

In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Studios posits that “[i]t’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.”

Pixar is an excellent example of a creative organization that has nurtured and codified this type of supportive environment, operating under the principle that it is not only appropriate, but necessary, for everyone to feel safe to offer ideas. This is represented perfectly by the practice they call “plussing”. Rather than hide works-in-progress, creative team members gather and share, exposing raw ideas and adding to those ideas, or plussing with their peers across the org. The point of plussing is not to tear down these fledgling ideas, but to identify weaknesses that can be worked on and strengthened, with the shared goal of making better work that everyone can be proud of.

Plussing crowdsources creative inputs by turning critics into makers, instilling a feeling of shared ownership around the table. The goal is to add to the idea, rather than to negate it — it’s like Amish barn-raising, only with Buzz Lightyear.

Not coincidentally, the act of plussing is remarkably similar to the golden rule of improv, the central tenet of “yes, and…” Rather than negating a choice, “yes, and…” and plussing both call for adding to that choice: “Yes, and…have you considered this?” “Yes, and…now that character can reach this goal.” Pixar, by creating the psychologically safe atmosphere of an improv troupe — or a healthy team — has successfully made some of the best movies in recent memory.

Secret to success=teamwork. Secret to teamwork=psychological safety. Secret to psychological safety=improv.

And that’s what a psychologically safe brain looks like.

So if the same things that make for good improv make for good teamwork, and if teams work better when they feel like everyone has each other’s backs, then how are you going to build happier and healthier teams?

On the Uber Design and Marketing teams one way we’re working on this is by taking skill-building improvisation workshops. The first was taught by Speechless, an excellent San Francisco-based organization. The second by Second City Works, the educational training wing of the famed Second City Improv. Both workshops did a great job of making people feel safe, open to interpersonal risk, and free of fear from punishment or embarrassment.

Within minutes, I watched groups of people, some of whom hadn’t known each other at all when we started, open up and embrace an atmosphere of sustaining positivity — improving their psychological safety levels in real time. It was amazing (and I’m happy to discuss it further if you’re interested in learning about how we planned and scoped the experience).

Here are a couple of key takeaways from our trainings:

Listen up!

Pretend those shapes represent sound.

In improv, listening is essential. You are in a scene built entirely out of information, on a stage held up by communication, with people who by definition do not think exactly like you do. And there’s no script. This means that every single choice that each teammate makes will influence the direction of the scene. And that means that listening is paramount.

Listen to empathize

Listening is ultimately about empathy, and once your team has practiced really listening to each other, it improves your organizational happiness in all directions: every team member feels listened to, which helps to increase and maintain their level of psychological safety, and the potential for fruitful collaboration is actually improved because true listening increases the odds of a successful cross-pollination of ideas.

Listen to understand

Don’t simply wait for your turn to talk. Instead, actively attend to the message. Stay open to possibility. When you’re not just waiting to respond with your perfect retort, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to empathize and align with the other members of your team.

Speak up!

These are speech bubbles, not poor examples of the Salesforce logo.

Just as an improv troupe needs the full participation of every member, your team needs everyone to feel encouraged to speak up. When people don’t know the plan or can’t see the reasons for decisions, they often assume the worst. Uncertainty breeds distrust, the kryptonite of psychological safety. It is crucial to maintain strong conversations and share candid feedback.

Speak to strengthen

When people trust that feedback is actually meant to strengthen them and improve overall performance, they are more receptive to using that feedback positively — you’re building a scene together, and during this process you’ll always have one another’s backs.

Speak to share

As both speakers and listeners, we need to take care of the message, protect it as we pass it along, and appreciate and recognize that ideas can and should come from all sources.

Risks? Yes, please!

Ultimately, improv is about trust, and the techniques used to build that trust can strengthen any team. By creating an environment where every team member feels a high degree of psychological safety, you are freeing your team to be bold, to take risks, to dare to push things forward, and you are freeing them to support each other’s work and to feel mutual ownership over a shared mission. By making sure that everyone knows they all have one another’s back, you create room for your team to become much more than a sum of its parts.

Improv, huh? So that’s the shortcut to building happier teams?

Yes, and thanks for listening.

P.S. Want to learn more about Uber Design? We’re always looking for great people to join the team. Lunch?
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