There’s no “I” in team, but there is an “I” in improv. Improvisational theatre has been around since the ancient Greeks and is currently experiencing a surge in popularity across the globe as a hobby and profession. But improv isn’t just for comedians. Improv activities are a powerful tool for team building in any group, whether on a stage, in a conference room, or on the moon (not recommended).
Below are three beginner improv games to help your team build great teamwork.
What You’ll Need:
• a large, open space
• 4-10 willing participants (if your team is bigger, break into smaller groups)
• 1 facilitator who has read this article at least once
1. Count to 20
In this warmup, your team will count to 20 together to practice listening and teamwork.
Part of working together as a team is dealing with setbacks.
Each group stands in a circle, looks at the ground, and closes their eyes. The goal of the exercise is to count to 20 as a team. Sound easy? The challenge is that no one knows who will speak each number, and if two or more people speak at once, the entire group starts back at 1. Once in position, anyone at all starts the warm-up by saying “one.” Then, another person continues with “two.” The warm up is complete when the group reaches 20 together.
• Encourage everyone in the group to participate, even if they’re nervous or shy. One person shouldn’t rattle off ten numbers in a row. Instead, everyone is responsible for doing his or her part, however small, to help the team reach its goal.
• Inevitably, people will say the same number at the same time. When two people speak together, there’s no need to get frustrated or disappointed. Simply begin back at one again without judgment. Part of working together as a team is dealing with setbacks in a way that builds momentum rather than disappointment.
• Take a deep breath before starting again at one. If the group got close to 20, but has to return to the beginning, a moment of calm, collected energy will help the group toward the goal.
2. Da Do Da Do
This is a free association exercise designed to loosen your team up and help cultivate an ensemble mentality.
Assemble your group in a circle. To begin, one person says any word at all – girl, Tuesday, broccoli, awesome, zebra – anything. The person to their left then says the first word they associate with that word – girl…friend, Tuesday…meeting, broccoli…delicious, awesome…ness, zebra…okay. Then, the group as a whole repeats the two words together “Tuesday meeting” and chants “do-do-da-do.”
Remind your team that there is no right or wrong word.
This continues around the circle, with the person who said the second word starting a new word, which is free associated by the third person. Then, as before, the team chants the two words in unison and “da-do-da-do.” Continue going around the circle at least three times. The exercise should last around five minutes.
• Remind your team that there is no right or wrong word – participants say the first thing that they think of. This celebrates the unique point of view each person has and demonstrates how together the group can create things no one person would’ve thought of alone. This activity encourages students to think on their toes while simultaneously strengthening their teamwork skills.
• Establish a rhythm, if possible, with slow snaps. This encourages the team to say the first thing that comes to mind on the beat, rather than pre-planning something funny or smart.
• Embrace absurd or silly phrases. The exercise is meant to warm the team up to create together, and the chanting shows that group accepts and celebrates whatever the idea.
3. Conducted Story
In this exercise, your team will cooperate in order to narrate a made-up story together.
Four to six members of the team stand in a line, next to each other, facing the “audience,” if any. The team will be telling a story, but only one person will speak at a time. A conductor, standing or squatting where everyone can see him or her, will point to whomever should be speaking to progress the story.
First, the conductor gets a suggestion from the rest for the team of the title of the story. The title can be anything, but it’s usually helpful if it includes the main character’s name so the participants can easily follow his or her story (i.e. “Amad’s Big Break” or “Mary and the Helicopter”)
People are able to discover stories that one person alone wouldn’t have told.
Once you have the suggestion, the conductor points to the first person in line who begins the story. “John woke up, ready to take on the day. He had a full night’s sleep and couldn’t wait for breakfast.” After about 10-15 seconds of speaking, the conductor points to the second participant, who picks up the story from the same point: “He went downstairs and began preparing his breakfast: scrambled eggs, cereal, and-“ The conductor points to the third participant: “waffles. John wasn’t concerned with eating healthy, just eating a lot.” Once the conductor has pointed at every participant in the line, he or she is free to point to anyone in any order. The team needs to actively listen to the story, and be prepared to pick up right where it left off. The exercise ends when the story reaches a natural conclusion, usually within 3-5 minutes.
Repeat this exercise with different groups until everyone on your team has had an opportunity. Praise moments that show team members actively listening to what immediately came before. The “audience” will probably laugh when something unexpected is discovered by people working together.
• Try to tell a simple, linear story as a group. Zany items will naturally appear in the story, so it’s important to try to follow this person on an adventure that makes sense in the world that the team is creating.
• Initially, the conductor shouldn’t try to trick or fool the participants into messing up. Once the team shows they grasp the basic game, he or she can make it more challenging by switching the order around or shortening the length of time each person speaks.
• The goal of Conducted Story is for each participant to listen to their fellow participants and pay attention to the story being told. By actively listening and not pre-planning what they think will make a good story, they are able to follow what came immediately before. It’s through creating the story together that people are able to discover stories that one person alone wouldn’t have told, and to build something together as a team.
By the end of the above exercises, your team will feel a bit goofier and more connected, and will have a lot to think and talk about. A great way to end a series of improv activities is to have a discussion about the workshop. Here are some leading questions for your discussion:
• So…what did you think?
• What was your favorite exercise? Why?
• What skills did the exercises strengthen?
• What was the hardest exercise for you? Why?
Making It Happen
You might be thinking, “That’s all great and good, Zach, but how am I going to get my team to do something like this?” I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips on making it happen and overcoming any hesitation your team might have on these theater games:
• Share this article with participants ahead of time, so everyone can understand the value. One initial barrier will be convincing people about the value of these exercises, and that you’re not just goofing around.
• Schedule 45 minutes with your team to go through the above exercises. Choose a time that makes sense with schedules, not immediately before a big deadline, and not at 8 a.m.
• Select a facilitator comfortable with leading the exercises, preferably not a manager or boss. You can also rotate the facilitator responsibility among different team members, or consider hiring a facilitator from a local or touring improv comedy theatre to lead the team.
• Find a good, open space, where people can feel free to be goofy. Move desks and chairs to a corner of the room to create a space for the workshop.
• Have fun! If your team has never done something like this before, it might feel awkward or strange at first. Embrace and live in the awkwardness; it’ll vanish naturally as the team lets down its barriers and begins to forge strong bonds.
Let us know in the comments what you think of improv in the workplace. Have you done improv games with your team before? What barriers are there to making it happen? How did the exercises go? What did your team take away? We can’t wait to hear from you!
Zach Zimmerman is a writer, performer, improviser, and marketer in Chicago who is kindly lending his talents to the QLP blog. He loves cats, puzzles, and plays. He's a vegetarian and once didn't speak for a week. Like at all. Connect with him on Twitter or Google+.
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