Improv Improves Problem-Solving


    GRAND RAPIDS — Public speaking is often referred to as the most common phobia among Americans. Slightly less common, but perhaps more terrifying, is the fear of being singled out in a group of seminar attendees and being put in the position of making a fool of oneself before a roomful of colleagues.

    Mary Jane Pories is aware of that. That’s why she spends the first 15 minutes of every one of her improvisational theater corporate training sessions assuring her clients that she will not be hypnotizing them, asking them to juggle, or subjecting them to any other form of theatrical tomfoolery.

    What they will be doing is learning to cooperate and to listen.

    “I’m not going to ask you to get up and perform. That’s not what we’re interested in,” said Pories. “We’re interested in problem solving. Because that’s what improvisation is about.”

    Pories is the founder of Fishladder Inc., West Michigan’s only improv-based training program. After her initial icebreaker, Pories gets her participants on their feet and gets them moving. She makes sure that the entire group is active — together or in small groups — as opposed to having one demonstration group “perform” while the rest of the participants look on. Depending on the focus of a particular workshop, Pories uses word games, question-and-answer exercises and physical movements such as pantomime to improve her clients’ skills. Those skills include team development, communication, creativity and leadership.

    Like the Grand River civil engineering feat of the same name, Fishladder’s goal is “facilitating upstream migration.” In fish terms, that means getting to peaceful waters further inland in order to create the next generation of fish. In business terms, it means “jumping over obstacles playfully” in order to improve the way a company does business. Hopefully that creates the next generation of profits. And for the former Second City comedian, that’s no laughing matter.

    When she meets with a client, she makes it clear that her goal is not to offer a day of comedy. Instead, she discusses the problems that the company is having and considers what help she might lend to solve those problems. Doing this work ahead of time allows her to better understand the client’s expectations. That means she can set specific, concrete goals that she and the participants can reach together.

    She’s also clear that she’s not giving acting lessons. If anything, they’re un-acting lessons. Pories said that people are often “posing,” even if they’re not aware of it. That can mean inadvertently playing into perceived roles based on their position in a company, their age, their gender, etc. The exercises she goes through with her clients work at stripping away those perceptions.

    “It’s taking away those layers. You know, just because I have a nice suit on and a nice office doesn’t necessarily mean I have all the answers, or that I’ve got it all together, or that I don’t need help,” she said. “We tend to pose because of those external things. So it takes away the posing.”

    Stripping away the “posing” often means stripping away notions of hierarchy. It’s much easier for Fishladder’s clients to collaborate when they see one another not as CEOs and secretaries, but simply as people.

    “It’s a great leveler. When you’re on stage, your job is to make the other players great. And their job is the same: to make you look great. And I don’t know many other things that come at (corporate training) from that direction.

    “My product as an entertainer is to play (an improvisational game) in a way that people laugh at it and it’s fun. Their product is, ‘I need to run this manufacturing line more efficiently,’ or ‘I need to get my team excited about a new project,’ or ‘We need to deal with an atmosphere after we’ve had this big reduction in force and the morale’s low.’ So I take those improv tools and apply them to specific business issues.”

    For example, Pories recently worked with a company that hoped to boost its floor sales at an upcoming trade show. Her job was to help them think on their feet, be more interactive and more personable. To measure how well her training would work, she found out the number of sales that came out of the last trade show — and set a goal of doubling that total. After the Fishladder training sessions, the company more than doubled sales at the next trade show.

    She has helped managers regain control of wild departments. She has helped meek middle managers become more assertive in order to move forward in their career paths. She’s even helped individual departments “sell themselves” in order for the larger company to recognize their value. At the base of all these examples is an improvement in human relations and interpersonal communication.

    “My goal is, when they’re back in the workplace, that they can work together in a more positive way. That means they’re more collaborative and they’re meeting customer needs better,” she said.

    Occasionally, Pories faces a jaw-dropping assignment. She said that she does turn down certain projects that are beyond her expertise, but she doesn’t turn them down because they’re too tough. Coming out of an initial client meeting where she has taken on a particularly daunting project, her thoughts are less “OK, let’s do this,” and more “Holy crap.”

    “The ‘holy crap’ factor is part of what makes it exciting,” she said. “Whenever I went on stage, not knowing exactly what was going to happen was the challenge. The same thing is true here.”

    Pories said that helping her clients get over that initial sense of fear can be the biggest challenge, and the most rewarding. Once that has happened, clients often know what work needs to be done and they set about doing it without too much prodding from Pories.

    “When they realize it’s problem-solving and we’re all in it together, their guard goes down,” she said. “And I really believe people want things to work. They want to come to work where it’s fun. They want to get along with people. They want to make more money. They want to be profitable. They want to be the best company around. And if you give them the opportunity to do it, they’ll try.”    

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