by Kerri Cissna
The book Yes, And (Leonard & Yorton, 2015) describes how improvisational comedy can be used in a business setting for team development and leadership by “following the follower.” There are seven elements of improv introduced by this text, which have become foundational for me in teaching followership to business students. In this blog, I share activities that I use to teach followership through improv and some of the student responses. These techniques align with my course objectives to build creative confidence, generate many possible solutions to complex business problems, iterate and pivot, and collaborate and co-create.
1. One Word Story: Have students create a story together, one word/phrase at a time, starting with, “Once upon a time…” Options for subsequent rounds to have students create the story in groups, have them write the story out (without talking), and/or give them a topic for the story (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 42).
The first element of improvisation requires a “yes, and…” mindset so that all ideas are considered and built upon rather than being shot down (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). This type of open-mindedness is also important for design thinking and creative problem solving in business and educational settings (Kelley & Kelley, 2014). A culture of yes is not the same thing as “saying yes to everything.” Instead, it is a recognition that the best ideas come from an environment that generates multiple ways to approach something (known as divergent thinking). If the seemingly “bad” ideas are shot down right away, people start to filter themselves and withhold. A yes culture is collaborative, inventive, inclusive, and safe for members to express differences in opinions and ideas. By having students create a story together one word/phrase at a time, they realize that all ideas are valid and that a dialogue is more powerful than a monologue when it comes to generating new ideas. They also begin to recognize the importance of trusting their teammates to set them up for success, and they learn to recover from perceived failure when things don’t go as planned.
2. There’s No “I” in Team: Have students converse in dyads without using the word “I.” (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 58)
The second element of improv is to introduce the concept of ensemble rather than team (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). There are no star players in an ensemble, and every voice matters in the creation of an improv activity. Improv teaches followership by changing expectations so that everyone takes turns leading and following. For this improv activity, students find it difficult to speak without using the word “I” because they are so accustomed to focusing on their own contributions to a team, rather than the co-creation of an ensemble. The students who embrace improv have commented that it feels like “we are all on equal footing” or “we are all valued for our contributions.”
3. You’ve Got a Friend in Me: Have students write ideas (silently) for what the next Pixar film should be about. Next, have students share their ideas with a few of their classmates. Finally, have them create the next Pixar movie together as a group and share the storyline with the entire class.
The concept of co-creation is the third element in improvisation, which can easily be applied to followership (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). A leader alone is limited to their own ideas, but in followership, an ensemble can approach a situation from a lot of different angles. This improv activity helps students recognize that collective ideas are far more creative and novel than anything they come up with on their own. Some groups take the best idea that was shared and then co-create an even better tale, while others combine all ideas to create something new. Through improv, it becomes obvious in a short amount of time that diversity of thought can lead to creativity and innovation through co-creation.
4. Exposure: Students are asked to stare at each other for one minute and then stare at the wall (or count ceiling tiles) for the next minute (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 22).
Authenticity is the fourth essential element of improv (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). Students who thrive at improv will feel safe to bring their authentic self to the ensemble. This authenticity makes them more equipped to include others for co-creation and collaboration. This improv activity helps students move beyond self-consciousness towards authenticity because they are more comfortable when their attention is placed on a task rather than on what others think of them.
5. Rube Goldberg: Have students work together using whatever materials they have to create a complicated gadget or contraption that performs a simple task.
Embracing failure is the fifth element of improv (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). The biggest threat to creativity is fear, especially a fear of failure. Improv requires students to reframe failure as feedback, so that they can learn lessons from mistakes and move on. The Rube Goldberg assignment teaches students what it is like to fail and reframe, but they also report having a lot of fun and making new friends along the way.
6. Who Is The Leader?: Have students get into a circle with one person making sounds/gestures that all others follow. One student in the middle must guess who the leader is (Kelley, & Kelley, 2014, p. 189).
The sixth element of improv describes “following the follower” (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). This principle allows flexibility in structure so that anyone can assume leadership as long as their expertise aligns with the needs of the group. Success in improv never comes from hierarchy. Organizations who invest in these types of followership models are experiencing increased creativity and innovation, and research has shown that heterarchical structures can increase creativity when the expression of power actively shifts among team members according to their capabilities (Aime et al., 2014). This improv activity allows students to discuss the ways that leadership and followership can blend together, often making it difficult to guess who is really influencing the entire group.
7. The Bug List: Have students write (silently) for five minutes about their pet peeves or the things that bother them. Next, students stand up in front of the class for three minutes each to share the stories behind the things that “bug” them.
Deep listening is the final element of improv, which requires empathy from anyone who wants to create, communicate, lead, or manage effectively (Leonard & Yorton, 2015). Listening requires being present and engaged in the moment. The “bug list” gets students listening to each other, laughing together, and becoming comfortable with public speaking. This activity aligns with design thinking, as students listen to their peers and identify themes for their creative problem-solving endeavors.
I have found the courage to teach followership by engaging students in cultivating a culture of yes through improvisational comedy. In order to succeed at improv, students must be fully present in the moment, which can be challenging in an age of constant distraction. Together, improv helps us build a classroom environment where all ideas are welcome. Students take turns leading and following as we co-create stories, dialogue, and meaning as a group. The space feels psychologically safe to share whatever comes to mind and mistakes are easily reframed into lessons learned along the way. If you are interested in cultivating a culture of yes, or you want to teach followership through improvisational comedy, grab a copy of Yes, And (Leonard & Yorton, 2015), which describes a variety of use cases and has a list of improv activities readily available in the back of the book.
Improv Reflection Questions
The following are a list of questions that you can use at the end of improv sessions to unpack the learning and transfer the skills to real life:
- What is your reaction to this exercise?
- In what ways did this exercise challenge you?
- What is the value added from this exercise?
- How could this activity have been improved?
- What are the transferable lessons from this exercise to your team project(s)?
This article was originally written for ILA’s PAUSE for Pedagogy column edited by Dan Jenkins and Lisa Endersby with Lyndee Phillips. View all of the past PAUSE columns by logging into ILA’s members only portal.
Aime, F., Humphrey, S., DeRue, D. S., & Paul, J. B. (2014). The Riddle of Heterarchy: Power Transitions in Cross-Functional Teams. Academy of Management Journal, 57(2), 327-352. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2011.0756
Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2014). Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. William Collins.
Leonard, K., & Yorton, T. (2015). Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons From The Second City. HarperCollins.
Kerri Cissna is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University where she teaches creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. She received her PhD in Global Leadership and Change from Pepperdine University, and her research explores the intersection of inclusive leadership, faith, and entrepreneurship.