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Bruce and Gail Montgomery

How improvisation can improve your team dynamic

By nature, improv troupes must be quick, sharp and ready to pivot at a moment’s notice, all while working together toward a common goal. That group dynamic might sound familiar to anyone who has been part of a business team, and that’s because they’re traits that both improvisers and organizations can harness to achieve success.

“As you think about leadership of the future, so much of it is dependent on our capacity to be nimble, agile, adaptable and in the moment … all of the things that improv actors are trained to do,” said Ali Boyd,  assistant professor of the practice and director of leadership and professional development at the Daniels College of Business.

To underscore the enriching, team-building elements of improv, Boyd and the University of Denver Department of Theatre created a co-curriculum for Daniels programs, demonstrating how developing leaders can harness improvisational acting techniques within a business context to improve their team dynamic and, ultimately, deliver better results.

The team-building aspects of improv are also invaluable for organizations, says Daniels Executive MBA alumnus Bruce Montgomery (MBA 2013) and his wife Gail Montgomery. The couple worked for years as professional actors in New York City before moving to Colorado and founding ExperienceYes, a company that helps leaders and teams translate improv techniques into tangible businesses solutions.

Adopting improv fundamentals within a business, Gail Montgomery says, helps establish a “shared language” between leaders and teams, helping to eliminate silos, boost creativity and improve communication and efficiency. That shared language centers around four main “rules” of improv that Boyd and the Montgomerys use to guide their workshops, classes and even their own careers—and you can too.

They offer these insider tips, which they outline in their book The Improv Mindset, so you can use improv to be a better teammate too:

(1) Say “yes and…”

There’s more to saying “yes and” than simply agreeing with someone—it means you’re acknowledging what a teammate said and expanding upon it. “You’re jumping in to support the ideas and the forward action of your teammates,” Boyd said. “You’re willing to catch people and not leave them hanging out on a limb.”

(2) Listen with intent to serve

“We’re constantly listening to respond,” Gail Montgomery said. “But in improv, it’s important that you’re serving the other people on the team.” That means asking people what you can do for them, or how you can make them look better.

“Improv actors have to take in not only what’s being said, but also what’s not being said,” Boyd said. “If you can hear what’s not being said, you can respond helpfully and appropriately.”

(3) Support your teammates at all costs

Like many business situations, stakes run high during a live improv performance, but a good teammate will be there to set you up for success. “If a joke falls flat, somebody will come out and rescue you,” Gail Montgomery said. “It means ‘I’ve got your back.’” In an organization, it’s easy to blame another person or team for a blunder, but the Montgomerys encourage leaders to take accountability and make their teams feel both valued and valuable.

(4) Trust your instincts

“In improv, we often say ‘first thought, best thought,’” Gail Montgomery said. “But in business, we’re often told to think before we speak. You need to have a culture where folks feel like they can speak up and offer something. It opens fertile ground for creativity and innovation to happen.”

When practiced regularly, these guiding principles can help your team and organization achieve whatever goal is before them, because they’re designed to do just that. “I think part of the reason we work in teams is ideally to bring out the best in one another so that we’re operating at the highest possible potential,” Boyd said. “If we’re engaging in these practices with members of a team, we’ve got the best shot at harnessing the best in everybody.”

Executive Education at the Daniels College offers several leadership workshops to learn more about team-building. The next Denver Leadership Experience will be held May 10, 2021. Visit the Executive Education website for more information.