The Way We Work
March 5, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

You probably don’t look at new hires for their Abbott and Costello routine — but maybe you should. As laughable as it sounds, a person’s ability to tap into their inner comedian on the spot is an indication that they might be a great fit — especially for your distributed team.

Improvisation (known as 'improv') is a form of spontaneous comedy that ditches pre-determined scripts. Instead, improv performers ad lib their way through the development of scenes during a live show. These skills don’t usually make it into the typical resume, but otherwise decorous businesses are increasingly looking beyond the same old interview questions to find contractors with a knack for improv.

One such company is TeamSnap, which produces web-based software that makes it easier to manage sports teams and other groups. Their development team is distributed across the U.S., and when they’re looking to fill a position they often seek individuals who can bring on the laughs.

Not Just for Laughs

The focus on spontaneous comedy skills at TeamSnap comes from the top: The company’s vice president of product management, Andrew Berkowitz, performs at least once a week in a Portland, Oregon improv troupe and also works as a theater’s artistic director.

“It's very, very fun!" said Berkowitz. "Improv keeps your brain limber, makes it easier to think on your feet and keeps you in a positive frame of mind. Performing in front of an audience with no script, just the trust of your fellow actors, is amazing."

But improv is about so much more than comedy, as he readily admits. “There's no script for life or work, so we improvise all day in everything we do. Using improv techniques can make it much easier to face unexpected challenges, deal with surprises and work better with others.”

And when it comes to distributed teams, Berkowitz emphasized that those skills are especially important. “You miss the kind of non-verbal cues from in-person communication that help you read tone and meaning. Improv teaches us to ‘listen between the lines’ and catch the subtext and tone. Good improvisers are great listeners.”

How To Strengthen Your Team’s Improv Abilities

There are plenty of skilled contractors who don’t have improv skills — but that doesn’t mean you can’t still lighten up your team culture.

Here are a few ways to strengthen your remote team’s camaraderie and effectiveness by incorporating some improv techniques and games into your company’s culture.

Keep moving forward with “Yes, and…”
One rule that Berkowitz pulls from improv is the “Yes, and...” mindset. He says that in improv, “[Saying this to your fellow performers] helps scenes move forward without blocking or grinding things to a halt. Approaching your work environment with the same ‘Yes and...!’ attitude helps projects move forward and lets you give a positive spin to problem solving.”

Shift mindsets from “me” to “us.”
According to John Sexton, a consultant with GroupMind, improv is so powerful because it shifts mindsets from being about “me” to being about “us.” In a blog post he wrote on the subject, he said, “...in improv, when someone compromises the integrity of the scene for a joke or a self-promoting laugh, they let everyone else down. Conversely, successful teams and respected leaders are those who honor and support the contributions of others and who give and take equally.”

Lead the charge by signing up for classes.
Berkowitz suggests taking a class yourself. “It will open your eyes and change your life forever,” he enthused. Many cities have improv groups that offer classes. If your city doesn’t have one, then you might find it helpful to read Business Improv by Val Gee and Sarah Gee, or Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo.

Give people creative breathing room.
Berkowitz says a great way to initiate change within your team is to have a rule in meetings that nobody can disagree with any idea that’s proposed until all the ideas are out on the table.” Have a 10-minute brainstorming session where you put two dozen ideas in a shared Google Doc as fast as you can, and THEN start discussing,” he recommended. “You'll be amazed at how much better your corporate ideation is when you empower people to come up with solutions.”

The Distributed Troupe

Aside from strengthening collaboration, a good sense of humor will help keep your distributed team connected; the lack of in-person interaction can be offset by the camaraderie of fun.

Writer and academic Eva Hoffman once observed that "there is nothing like a gleam of humor to reassure you that a fellow human being is ticking inside a strange face." The same holds true for your online team: There is nothing like a few wisecracks to remind us that a real human being is typing away on the other side of that computer screen.

Are you involved in improv? If so, what parallels do you see between comedy and business? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.