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March 31, 2014

How improv comedy skills became a must-have for entrepreneurs

NEW YORK — A few years ago, for complex reasons, I attended the orientation week for Columbia Business School students. The week involved team-building exercises that forced us to solve problems together. It included a module on ethics, in which we were asked to respond to hypothetical dilemmas. There was, of course, a near-lethal amount of alcohol consumption. And, one morning, as we gathered (quite hung over) in the auditorium, we did improv.

Improvisational comedy workshops have become a staple at business schools, and in the corporate world in general. Bob Kulhan, co-founder of Business Improvisations, helped originate the trend. In 2000, drawing on his experience performing on the Chicago sketch comedy scene, Kulhan partnered with a professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business to launch an improv training program tailored to MBA students. The program expanded to the business schools at UCLA, Columbia, and Indiana, among other universities.

Kulhan later moved beyond academia to lead organized workshops for employees of companies such as American Express, Dupont, Ford, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble. "Through improv," says Kulhan, "we can work on anything from leadership, to influence, to adaptability, to crisis management. We can help people's communication skills. We can show them how to stay focused, in the present moment, at a very high level."

At first glance, zany improv and the straight-laced corporate world might seem to be unlikely bedfellows. But the cross-pollination between comedy and business has led both to fruitful managerial skills development for executives and to fruitful employment for funny folks. Comedians have not only led training workshops, but have begun to infiltrate marketing departments and advertising agencies. They have even, in at least one case, put their stamp on an entire workplace culture.

"Improv workshops used to be a tougher sell," says Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution and its corporate-targeted offshoot Imergence. "People thought of wigs and props. But now a lot of companies are very open to it. They see the benefits."

What can improv teach worker bees? The secret is in the "yes, and" ethos. When they're collaborating onstage, improv performers never reject one another's ideas - they say "yes, and" to accept and build upon each new contribution. "It's a total philosophy of creativity," says Mandel. " 'Yes, and' creates, while 'no' stops the flow."

That's an important lesson in any business setting that demands cooperation and innovation. Improv also requires excellent listening skills, rewards those who shed their inhibitions and leap into the middle of the group dynamic, and offers valuable lessons about the wisdom of shrugging off setbacks.

"When I lead these sessions, typically people start out scared to make mistakes," says Mandel. "They self-edit. Maybe there's a hierarchy in the office where some people never get heard and some people squelch the conversation. Maybe the boss is scared to look stupid, so he acts too cool for the exercise. But over the course of the workshop, you see camaraderie build between co-workers. They start to hear each other. They gain the confidence to speak freely and take risks."

"There's a lot of power around yes versus no," says Chet Harding, co-founder of Boston's Improv Asylum comedy group. "If I say no, I might get a laugh at your expense. But it stops the idea. And it creates a bad culture, both onstage and in an office setting. Next time, you might wait for me to start so that you can rip the rug out from under me, as opposed to a relationship where we're trying to advance shared ideas and make each other look good."

Harding says demand for workshops is growing. Improv Asylum has been running regular programs for employees of Twitter's Boston campus and has also worked with Google, Fidelity, Raytheon and Harvard Business School. Its latest venture is an international expansion, with a new Improv Asylum theater and corporate training group based in Dublin to offer workshops for the many multinationals headquartered there. Harding has already worked with European-based companies including Jägermeister, Carl Zeiss and Nokia.

Harding's background is in advertising; he worked first at the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago (where he took improv classes in his spare time) and later as the advertising director for Polaroid. Which suggests another natural intersection point for comedy and business. Harding says that Improv Asylum has lately been creating a series of online ads for Dunkin' Donuts, collaborating with Boston ad agency Hill Holliday on scripts, casting, and production.

According to Nate Dern of Upright Citizens Brigade, the legendary New York improv group, advertising and PR firms frequently hire UCB for "punch-up" sessions, to inject more humor into a pitch for a client or an idea for a campaign. At least a couple of UCB performers maintain day jobs as creatives at advertising firms. And sometimes UCB will actually deliver the end product, as in a series of Web videos for the fast food chain Arby's.

Humorist Daniel Kibblesmith writes and directs funny Web material for companies including Home Depot and Adobe, as well as providing other contributions to the advertising and brand-consulting wing of The Onion. But he got his start at Groupon, becoming one of the company's first 50 employees when he answered a Craiglist ad asking for comedy writers. Their initial job was to spruce up the language in the discount deals that Groupon emailed to its customers. They next turned to the employee handbook, adding levity to its do's and don'ts. Groupon's then-CEO Andrew Mason was "a young and quirky guy," says Kibblesmith, "and he wanted us to experiment with things. He plugged us into different roles to see where our voice could benefit the company."

Eventually, Kibblesmith and his comedian co-workers were given the keys to the corporate culture. They were asked to bring "surprise and delight" into the workplace. One day, this meant hiring a seventysomething actor in a cardigan to be a "Groupon Grandpa" who strolled around telling pleasant but pointless stories to everyone he encountered. "The goal was to make working in an office less like Groundhog Day," says Kibblesmith, "with the possibility that something interesting might happen at any time."

Unfortunately, a few of these efforts backfired. "The low point," says Kibblesmith, "was early on, when we had a guy wearing a tutu walk silently around the office. People found it annoying, and they didn't know how to engage with it. They felt like they were being pranked."

Current Groupon employees say the stunts have since been toned down. Perhaps there are limits, after all, to the confluence of comedy and corporate world. It turns out that unfunny is still unfunny, whether it's on a stage or it's walking past your cubicle.



 

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