Improv and Comedy Can Infuse Companies With an Inventive Spirit

Theater techniques can teach startups a thing or two about developing an openness to new ideas.

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By John Harthorne • Jul 7, 2014 Originally published Jul 7, 2014

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Entrepreneurship doesn't have to be about big egos, stuffy board meetings, solemn faces and high-strung, apocalyptic attitudes. From time to time, companies like Google, Unilever and Liberty Mutual have employed a fair amount of comedic talent, according to The Boston Globe.

On the surface, business and comedy could not be more different. But the performance skill sets used in comedy routines are directly relevant to creating and maintaining a strong business culture. Straight-laced corporate culture is becoming a thing of the past as sketch comedy makes its mark on the business world.

Improv training can teach startup founders and future entrepreneurs a thing or two about interacting with employees, investors and mentors. That's why my startup-accelerator organization, MassChallenge, welcomed its latest class of startup finalists with an improv group on hand to lead training sessions.

Here are some lessons that startup founders can learn through improv training:

Related: Entrepreneurs Must Skillfully Perform on Two Stages, Not Forfeiting Home for Company

1. Remove the word no.

A company's culture depends on how employees communicate with one another. Proper communication is key, especially for an early-stage startup where clashing personalities and egos of two to four employees can greatly affect the direction of the company.

One recent improv workshop at MassChallenge engaged its audience of volunteers in conversations only to have improv cast members deliberately shut down all their ideas. While the scenes were comical, the laughs came at the expense of each person offering up an idea.

The flow of conversation halted and no great ideas or actions resulted. This type of culture in a workplace leads to people rejecting the ideas of others and ultimately not wanting to work together.

Improv work can demonstrate techniques for how to effectively follow up on ideas quickly. For another activity, volunteers were instructed to carefully listen to one another and respond by saying, "Yes, and" with a statement building on the previous comment. This exercise steered participants to think of better, more creative ideas. Participants kept an open mind and thought quickly on their feet to move ideas forward, while holding stimulating, collaborative discussions and eliminating ego from the equation.

In comedy routines and at the office, people are more willing to put unique ideas on the table and expand their thoughts in a creative manner if they know they'll have support and won't hear the word no.

Related: 'Alright, Alright, Alright': What Matthew McConaughey Can Teach Entrepreneurs

2. Encourage innovation. Go out on a limb.

Business meetings in years past used to involve individuals arguing for their specific idea and then voting on the best one. Companies are now realizing that improv tactics can set the stage for better ideas to emerge and not just what's in the mind of one person.

"When you listen and work off each other, sometimes you can unlock those ideas that weren't even there when you started," says Chet Harding, co-owner and director of corporate training at Improv Asylum, the company tapped by MassChallenge. "You would have ownership over it and you would want to work with that person again because you just found success."

Improv fosters innovation, since people are more likely to go out on a limb if they don't fear criticism. It also helps people understand their role in contributing. Colleagues can build points off of the idea raised by one person, who then must adjust if the brainstorming takes another direction. That's instead of one person trying to force his or her opinion where it might not fit.

3. Lighten up the boardroom.

Improv training is crucial for entrepreneurs in shaping company culture in the early stages. "Thinking with improv can help our business be more open to new ideas, build on those ideas and work together as a collaborative team to produce results that we would've never gotten to as individuals," says Ken Deckinger, a co-founder of Jess, Meet Ken, a participant in MassChallenge's accelerator program this year and the improv training.

Entrepreneurs, lighten up and laugh: It's good for business.

Related: How to Use Humor at Work Without Acting Like a Jerk

John Harthorne

Founder and CEO of MassChallenge

John Harthorne is the founder and CEO of Boston-based MassChallenge, an accelerator set up with the aim of catalyzing a global renaissance by connecting high-impact startups from around the world with the resources they need to launch and succeed as rapidly as possible.


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