Improv lessons translate well to business culture


“Whose Line Is It Anyway?” might be more than just a fun show; it might be the key to transforming a toxic company culture into an exemplary one.

Most people are familiar with the show or with improv comedy, in general, in which a group of actors create characters and a storyline on the spot while entertaining audiences with their spontaneity and creativity. But how do they do that?

Mary Jane Pories, president of Fishladder Inc. in Grand Rapids, joined Chicago’s famed The Second City improv studio after more than a decade of teaching English and art to high school students. While there, Pories began to think about how the techniques she was learning as an improv actor might serve the business community.

“We worked so quickly and well as a cast, even though we were very different — completely different backgrounds and perspectives, and even core values and lifestyles — and yet, when we got in there, we had a job to do,” Pories said.

“Our job was to write a great show, perform a great show, so we had a mission. It was a business: We had to fill the seats every time in order for the theater to be sustainable.”

Once Pories left Second City, she returned to Grand Rapids to begin a consulting business using applied improv techniques and games to help businesses improve their culture, teambuilding and leadership.

“While I was performing, I was also teaching there and doing some corporate stuff, and I just felt like there was a real opportunity to bring this kind of learning — active discovery learning — into the workplace. … As far as I knew, there wasn’t anything like it in Grand Rapids.”

Since 1999, Pories has worked with an impressive roster of corporate, educational and nonprofit clients including Amway, Crystal Flash Energy, Herman Miller, Priority Health, State Bar of Michigan, Wolverine Worldwide, Calvin College, Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University, Kendall College of Art and Design, American Red Cross, Association for Human Resource Management, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Spectrum Health, Van Andel Institute and Young Presidents’ Organization.

“There are a lot of different things you can do with applied improv, but my interest is really in transforming behavior and culture,” Pories said.

She noted two of the biggest factors that can help transform a toxic work environment into a high-functioning, high-performing one are improved communication and trust. Additionally, Fishladder helps companies focus on four key areas: communication, creativity or innovation, teambuilding and cooperation, and leadership.

She noted that, as an improv student, she was taught to view everyone on the stage as brilliant performers with whom she was lucky to be working. She said this idea can do wonders for the work environment.

“People are creative when they are in a supportive environment — when the people around them think they are brilliant and fun and want to hear their ideas,” Pories said.

Leaders are often the biggest culprits when it comes to shutting down ideas or facilitating an environment that allows co-workers to stifle another’s brainstorming on a project, and for that reason, Pories does a lot of leadership training.

“If you want that kind of culture — a culture of collaboration, communication and innovation — you have to also grow the leaders to both live it and welcome it in other people,” she said.

One of the most important improv techniques Pories teaches is the “yes, and” concept. The idea is to develop openness to new ideas and solutions through accepting the conditions and circumstances that exist, while agreeing to work together and explore the ideas everyone is bringing to the table.

In one improv exercise, partners agree to follow anything the other says and build on that imagined scenario. During the recent Play Symposium hosted by Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Pories demonstrated this concept with a partner who agreed to go on a safari adventure with her. They scouted the Saharan terrain, spotting all sorts of wildlife and creating an imagined world of adventure. The interesting thing was the level of excitement. They were having fun creating together, eagerly moving each other’s ideas forward.

“I don’t come in and fix things for people,” Pories said. “I give them the tools and behaviors to do it themselves. That’s where I think the most sustainable change is. The whole concept of “yes, and” is really important because that’s how we get to the action.”

Companies that incorporate improv techniques into their daily operations see results, according to Pories. She said that, while the two-hour workshops provide a fun experience, most companies will want to invest more time to learning and experimenting with the techniques.

“We have follow-up exercises that they can take and use on their own,” she said. “That means that their internal leaders are leading experiences — and that’s a great leadership practice— and it also means it’s coming from within, which is nice.”

Fishladder provides workbooks filled with additional exercises and weekly “Fishladder Flashpoints” tailored to a company’s particular needs.

Why make the investment?

“People don’t typically leave a job. They leave a manager or they leave a culture or the place where they are stifled,” Pories said. “When people trust each other and are committed to the same things, they want to stay, and they want to stay where they think they can make a difference.”

Several of the country’s top business schools have bought into the lessons of improv. Duke, UCLA, MIT and Stanford are a few of the colleges that offer improv classes in their business programs.

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