5 Ways to Use Improv and Play at Work

Improvisation at work seems incongruent. We certainly don’t want the payroll clerk or the crane operator to start improvising while they work. We want them to be methodical and regimented. We don’t want the payroll clerk adding a comma to someone’s pay or the crane operator to dump 10 tons of steel in the middle of a busy street. There are many ways that improvisation can be quite helpful at work; it can enhance output and the experience.


When I went to the ICF (International Coaching Federation) Converge conference, there were several speakers on improvisation and play and how to incorporate these ideas into training, coaching and meetings. I initially felt reluctant at the idea of using improv at work. Yet, when reframed by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Michelle Clark, I became a convert. The two different sessions I attended were the most engaging and, as I have learned, during engagement ,the most transformation happens.

Here are 5 ways to use improv and play at work:

Your body is an instrument

Sitting at a desk or around a boardroom table can be stifling, both for the body and mind. In both of the sessions that I went to on play and improv, we immediately stood up and gathered into teams of 4, 6 or 10. Standing and moving is liberating. I think back to my ORSC (Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching) training with CRR Global and at least 50 percent of the training took place while standing and interacting. Moving your body creates possibility. During Berger’s session, we stood in groups the entire 90 minutes. It was energizing and created new connections amongst the 70 or more participants. There was constant flow and movement. I met at least twenty new people during the session and I believe it happened because there were no boundaries like tables and chairs to keep us from engaging in conversation, movement and laughter. So, if it’s possible, have a stand-up meeting without barriers or have everyone meet in an open space; see what magic happens when you aren’t standing behind a barrier.

There are no mistakes

In Clark’s session, we broke into groups of 6 and came up with a clapping game. It was really interesting that when a group of 6 strangers got together with no rules but to come up with any clapping game we wanted, that we didn’t have preconceived notions about what was right or wrong. There were no limitations. I did not hear one other person say, “Oh no, that’s wrong” or “Let’s try it again the ‘right’ way.” The game we created was zany and crazy with 6 people from 6 different countries, but we had fun and there was never a preconceived mistake. We kept building on prior movements without concern about it being perfect. Letting go of making a mistake is liberating. Think about that in your next meeting. What ideas would come up if there were no mistakes? Nothing to try and hide from?

Yes and …

This is the key to improv. As written in Ladders, “The number one rule that we have is to strike the word ‘no’ and replace it with the two magic words ‘yes, and . . .’ It’s a philosophy, not a statement. It means that you don’t judge an idea. You agree with it by saying “yes,” and then you add your two cents so that it becomes a collective idea and both people have buy in to its success.” This lets new ideas grow and gets more buy in as it grows. We can find this difficult because of our negativity bias. It’s a muscle that needs to get worked. There are other ways to say it like, “Well, I wonder” or “You know what I like about that?” Use words and questions that make things grow, instead of dampening thoughts down. Selecting your words carefully and keeping a “yes and” philosophy can create all kinds of possibilities.

Use active listening

I believe that executive and life coaching has exploded in the last ten years because in our disconnected and distracted lifestyles, we are all looking for connection and to be heard. In my decade of coaching others, the act of actively listening to my clients is the most important thing that I do. The same can be said for improv at work. As written for Ladder, “As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we’ve learned that being a better listener actually makes you a better communicator. You’ve heard everyone out so you’re able to make decisions without overlooking things. You’re not thinking of the thing you were going to say next; you’re paying attention to what’s happening now.”

To be an active listener is to be present and in the moment. It’s also a sign of respect and authenticity. Think about being an active listener at your next meeting.

Embrace all ideas

When I think back to the conference, regardless of the group that I was “playing” with, we didn’t judge any ideas. We accepted all the ideas that bubbled up in the group. Short, tall, old, young, European, Asian or Middle Eastern, there were no bad ideas. It was really quite remarkable to see such a cultural mix and how I had no idea where someone was from. But if someone wanted to clap hands or slither on the floor, we all followed right along. Berger started us off by saying that: “We love each other.” These were our marching orders no matter what we did. I’m not sure of how to bring this into the modern office, but I think my part is to safeguard those who are on the margins and to bring them into the discussion. Diversity of thought is the antidote to status quo and to move new ideas forward.

I’ve never viewed the workplace as a safe space for play. These facilitators and coaches have shown me that there is a way to bring improv and play into the work place. What do you do to create an improvisational workplace?

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