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Using Improv Comedy to Improve Organizational Culture

Posted on May 3, 2019
neon sign that says laugh

Fostering creativity in the workplace: Part II

In Part I of this blog piece, we discovered how creativity in the workplace not only yields business results, but it also increases innovation, opportunity and teamwork. In my role as CEO of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA), I was looking for a way to connect the many arms and services of our organization—from the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry and Betsy Ross Bridges to New Jersey’s Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO).

In other words, I wanted to build bridges for organizations whose job it is to build actual bridges and transport folks safely across them. I turned to a hobby-turned-professional-vocation, improvised comedy.

How can you apply improv comedy to the workplace?

In his 2012 book, To Sell is Human, Author Daniel Pink advocates for using three concepts from improvisational comedy to bridge differences and build rapport.:

1. Hear offers,

2. Say “Yes and . . .”, and

3. Always make your partner look good

We saw these ideas as transformative, and in January of 2014, I took the leap and began training in improvisational comedy at Philly Improv Theater. I saw first-hand how powerful the training and exercises are. The young people in my classes quickly connected and became friends. And although I was 30 years older than most of my teammates, they accepted me, and over the next few years we performed on two improv comedy ensembles together. 

We decided to build a program to stimulate creativity and collaboration at DRPA and PATCO based on the concepts of improvisational comedy. Our department of Strategic Initiatives developed training materials and we began to hold bi-weekly leadership sessions that introduced the concepts of improv and adapted them for use within our organization. We also did improv exercises – which are like team-building exercises on steroids – to create greater cohesion among our senior managers. The exercises emphasize the three concepts from improv. The program is voluntary, but is always well-attended.

Hear Offers

group laughing at work

Hearing offers is about listening to what others say for an invitation to collaborate. It means listening to understand, not to formulate a response; to put yourself into the other person’s shoes and try to see things from their point of view. Hearing offers demands curiosity – being interested and paying attention to the things your partners and co-workers say and do. Their tone, body language and way of moving all help to communicate an offer. When we understand our partner’s goals and their beliefs about our circumstances, the stage is set for collaboration. Then we can begin to communicate our goals and view of the situation in a way that moves us toward a solution that is created mutually.

What types of situations? In the business world, we might be negotiating a contract, doing a performance appraisal, or working out an interdepartmental conflict. In improv, we might be sitting in a friend’s new car or building a fort on the playground. Either way, the participants will all have their own goals, agendas and points of view. And either way, an approach that includes listening, empathy, humility and curiosity will best serve the interaction and relations of the participants. 

At DRPA and PATCO, we have emphasized this concept in our training. And we have found that just being aware of this possibility – that the things our stakeholders say are actually invitations to collaborate – has been very powerful. When we hear offers, we gain a better understanding of our co-workers, customers and stakeholders, and can even turn adversaries into collaborators. We know that listening conveys respect. We are getting better and better at listening to each other and building trust, and as we do this, collaboration and creative solutions are coming more easily.

Yes, and...

exclamation point and ampersand

In her book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson advises that, “Saying yes is an act of courage and optimism; it allows you to share control.” Saying “yes, and . . .” validates your partner and allows you to add something of your own. It is a commitment to work together to build a solution. “Yes, and” is about agreeing with your partner, customer, or co-worker in a way that says, “even if we don’t agree completely, let’s collaborate, not compete. We are in this together.” You agree and build something together, brick by brick. 

In the beginning of an improv scene, we use “yes, and” to establish the base reality of a scene – to understand what the scene is about and make sure the participants views are in alignment‚. This kind of understanding is important in business as well. Here are the first two lines of a scene I once performed in:

Improviser 1: (seated): Wow Maria, your new car is beautiful. I love this gray interior.

Improviser 2: (sits next to him): I know Ken, it’s fabulous, but I spent so much money on it now I can’t afford gas.

Notice how improviser 2 agrees and supports Improviser 1 with both words and actions. In addition, Improviser 1 learns that the scene is not about his new car, rather, it is about his extravagant spending habits. By employing these techniques, at DRPA and PATCO we have learned when we listen and “Yes, and,” we can show up at a meeting we think is going to be about a new piece of equipment and quickly switch gears and communicate effectively when we discern that the issue is really the departmental budget. Collaborating and developing a mutual understanding of the problem and constraints is the first step to creating an innovative solution. 

I’ve got your back!

Image of a work team at a table high-fiving one another over their computers.

Improvisers always support each other. Before every show I have ever performed in, the members of the team all pat each other on the back, make eye contact, and say, “I’ve got your back.” If your scene partner looks bad, you look bad too. It’s almost impossible for anyone to look good in a failing improv scene or business interaction. At DRPA and PATCO, this is the foundational concept we are working to adopt – that it is our job to make our co-workers and employees look good. We are working to develop those skills and to integrate this idea deep into our culture.

When people believe that their co-workers and leaders will support them and do their best to make them look good, they will be less afraid of failing or making a mistake. They will feel free to explore more creative and innovative solutions knowing that the rest of the team will be there to catch them if they fall. A skilled improviser can perform an entire show with a novice that is entertaining and makes her partner look good. By listening, agreeing, and adding to what the novice says – by supporting her partner’s efforts – the skilled improviser encourages the novice to a high level of performance he did not believe was possible. Your people know their jobs. Imagine how well they would perform if everyone supported them with the goal of making them look good. 


Image of a young women speaking into a microphone

How can you start a program like this that will change your culture and inspire collaboration, creativity and innovation? Take the advice of the improv duo of TJ & Dave. In their book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life, T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi exhort us to, “Do the next natural thing and let that moment inform us...”

In our program at DRPA and PATCO, we started off discussing how improv concepts can be applied in everyday life, and then doing improv exercises. Initially our existing staff prepared the PowerPoint slides and conducted the exercises. In a short time, we hired an improv coach from Philadelphia who works part-time with our leadership development team and conducts the exercises. More recently, we have begun discussing change leadership, ways to improve the organizational culture, and even how to have more productive meetings, along with our improv work.

So just get started! Take action and see what happens. Remain flexible about your approach. Let the moment inform you and adjust your course as necessary. According to TJ & Dave, improv is a culture, “. . .where learning, teaching, and performing are all part of the journey.” Isn’t that something we’d all like to be part of?


John Hanson

CEO, Delaware River Port Authority


Posted in innovation-workplace