When someone says the word “improv” aloud, most people turn to run in the opposite direction. The word alone sounds scary. We imagine stand-up comics, fast thinking and witty conversations, and the fear of performing in front of large audiences. For the attendees of our “Improv and an Innovative Mindset” event hosted a few weeks ago, these hesitant feelings were definitely at the front of their minds. Thankfully however, they were quickly dispelled. This was an event designed to denounce preconceived notions about improv and to try and re-introduce the concept in a brand new light. We wanted to introduce improv as tool that teachers can use in their classrooms – to better engage students and foster creativity and compassion. That evening our participants discovered personal insights into a whole new mindset that they didn’t even know existed.

Lured by their curiosity, educators, architects, and education industry partners arrived one-by-one to our Oakland Center for Active Learning on a surprisingly warm evening last November. Much to their surprise, they were greeted with a red carpet, velvet ropes, balloons, a photo-booth, and plenty of food and drink. The event theme was “Improv + an Innovative Mindset”, which was met with curiosity and some slight hesitation.

Our facilitator for the evening, Ellen Deutscher, an educator and design thinking consultant, kicked off the event with a few ice breaker activities. Once the prompt was set, the group immediately joined together to laugh and discover insights as they were asked an eclectic mix of questions related to their personal preferences/alignments such as “coffee or tea”, “night owl or early riser” and “Yosemite or Las Vegas”. The group started to gain understanding into their peers and develop both empathy and affinities with them.  Clear patterns emerged as those who chose a preference for Las Vegas just happened to also be night owls, and those who would rather visit Yosemite were more likely to enjoy early mornings. We naturally started to brainstorm how to use this information about ourselves in the classroom and how it might align with specific subject related materials, curriculum, and coursework.

The group then moved on to a partner game that required active listening, promoting a bias towards action, and encouraging mistakes. The simple task of counting to 3 with a partner was made into a surprisingly fun and challenging game. We also learned the importance of not only recognizing when we made mistakes, but celebrating and owning them, defying the natural tendency to cover them up and quickly continuing on to the next task. The mood lightened and all of our participants initial hesitations started to fade.

Directly following the ice breaker were a series of activities intended to promote an innovative mindset. The exercises ranged from full group participation, to small group, to partner work. The games were inclusive, built trust, and inspired a sense of entertaining fun. Attendees forgot that they were learning, and were instead engaging in an energetic experience with their peers.

In the few short hours of this workshop we all discovered that improv is far more than just stand-up comedy in the vein of Whose Line Is It Anyway and Saturday Night Live. Improv is about making our collaborators look brilliant and not letting them or their ideas fail. It is about building trust and accepting the crazy obstacles or ideas thrown at us. It is about accepting the unexpected and building upon and improving ideas. We learned that through improv, and by adopting this mindset, we were able to better understand and interact with each other and to better discover insights into our learning, make unexpected connections with our subject matter, and generate unexpected ideas and solutions. So, how can we implement improv and an innovative mindset in your classroom, workspace, or community?

It’s all about applying these key mindsets:

  • Bias to Action: react before thinking and do not be afraid to make mistakes; it’s how we learn.
    -Have a culture of prototyping
    -Fail Up and Fail Forward
    -Fail Early and Fail Often
  • Mindful of Process: gain insights into how you or your group arrived at a solution.
  • Be Observant / Curious: look at something through a new pair of eyes to gain different insights and perspectives. Observe reactions and impulses, always be curious and ask questions.
    -Beginners Eyes
  • Be Open-Minded / Vulnerable: it takes a lot of trust to put your idea out there. Be open minded when your teammates put forth their ideas and continue that community of trust.
  • Be Human-Centered: gain empathy and a deep understanding of your group or the people for whom you’re trying to solve.
    -Build Empathy

If you apply all of these mindsets actively and intentionally in your group, you will build creativity. You will create a community of trust and acceptance that can positively reshape your culture. The more acceptance and trust you can develop within in your group, the more impact you will generate from brainstorming and creating. You will no longer be afraid to pitch “crazy” ideas, and will be more likely to help re-shape underdeveloped ones. More often than we realize, it is the craziest of ideas that end up providing the most breakthrough solutions.

Attached to the bottom this blog is a summary of the exercises we participated in as well as some resources and references for you to adapt and adopt improv into your everyday life. We hope these ideas help foster a community of trust and creativity.

If you have questions, please reach out to us or our expert facilitator, Ellen. We’re happy to work with you to develop a strong improv and innovative culture.