When I graduated from the University of Guelph in 2015 with a degree in Biotechnology and Marketing, I never imagined that my Alma Mater would very soon become a client of a company I co-created. More surprisingly, is why our start-up would be hired and the impact we would have.
The University of Guelph is now one of The Making-Box’s largest clients and champions. We’ve produced a dozen or so campus comedy events but entertainment makes up a mere 10% of how we support the university. The other 90% is through applied improv training programs that we design and facilitate with staff and students.
“Improv For Business delivered against my expectations and then some.” Kathleen Rodenburg, Associate Professor, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, University of Guelph
In this capacity, The Making-Box has helped the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, Ontario Agricultural College, The School of Computer Science, The Research Innovation Office, Counselling Services, The Central Students Association and many more. In three different colleges an Improv For Business session is a recurring component of the curriculum - notably absent is the College of Arts. So why are these future business leaders, aggies and programmers practicing improv?
Improv principles can enrich the classroom experience in more ways than one. However professors are often looking for help in cultivating an environment where students can confidently present bold ideas, respect the diversity of new ideas, and collaborate productively. In all sessions we aim for students to have fun, feel connected (to themselves and others) and leave inspired to apply a toolkit of communication practice that foster team cohesion, creative-thinking, agile leadership and active listening.
The bane of many student’s academic experience is group projects. They either go inexplicably well for no apparent reason, or magnificently bad, devolving into finger-pointing and late marks. We believe this is because many classrooms, leave group cohesion up to chance. Courses rarely explore clear and easily applicable tools to facilitate productive collaboration. While failed collaborations can certainly be a fantastic learning tool, a handful of University of Guelph professors are taking a more proactive approach. And, they are doing it using improv.
"Improv provides the tools to help me communicate more effectively with other academics, and with people outside the academic bubble. This is a critical skill that is necessary for effective science communication.”
Dan Gillis, Associate Professor, School of Computer Science, University of Guelph
Learning to improvise more effectively is an active classroom experience. Students explore a series of game-based exercises in pairs, small groups that are suitable for all personality-types. After each exercise, we collectively unpack discoveries and highlight applications. Here’s a high-level look at three key improv concepts we explore in the classroom in order to promote group cohesion and productive collaboration.
Listening to Understand Rather Than To Respond
Giving attention takes practice. It’s habit for many to listen just long enough to to reply, retort, or get back to your own ideas. This undermines your ability attune yourself to the moment, others and the project at hand. High-quality improvisation requires of present-state awareness and a focus on supporting others contributions.
Fostering a Yes Culture
This means actively fostering a culture of acceptance. Improv encourages you to temporarily suspend your critic for the sake of elevating others creative impulses. It’s easy to focus on your own ideas and forget to empathize and build upon another’s viewpoint. Instead of immediately evaluating why someone is wrong, a Yes Culture puts the focus on connections, strategies to get on the same side of the table. This does not imply instant agreement, an absence of evaluation, or an invitation for a group-think disaster. Practicing a Yes Culture is a way to means to check your ego, trust your teammates are offering what they deem as valuable information and help promote psychological safety.
Adopting a Yes And… Mindset
At elementary level this means starting a sentence with the words: “Yes And…”
Student 1: “I think I need to take a break”
Student 2: “Yes and... let’s all go together now, so we can refocus together after.”
At higher level this principle means respecting and appreciating a diversity of new ideas, then seeking to add to, heighten, clarify or integrate them into the ideas and information that is present. Ideas become more fully-formed through subsequent and collective “Yes And…” additions and from there, we can evaluate and then perhaps offer a opposing or new idea. However, if we are to immediately shut down another’s contribution things become combative. With this tool, we avoid saying “Yes But…” and “Yes, Or…” which implies instant critique and devalues the input of others.
“This blew other professional development sessions out the water.”
Pauline Sinclair, Director, Office of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies, University of Guelph
Let it be known that applying improv techniques within the university classroom is not exclusive to the University of Guelph. Many American business schools (Duke, UCLA, MIT) have core improv training components. Canadian business programs within McGill, Waterloo and UBC all state they offer elective or required improv lessons. Furthermore, Mary Crossan of Western’s Ivey Business School is a prominent researcher in the field. What seems unique about the University of Guelph is their appetite to apply improv across disciplines. To us, this makes sense because nearly all areas of study require group collaboration.
Professor Pro Tip: Research shows that having improv in your class could lead to better class evaluations too.