While we’re certain you don’t want an accountant who improvises with your numbers, we are positive our team gained a new perspective on communication from the Improvisation exercise we tried at our firm retreat on Monday.
The theme of our retreat was communication and the exercise came from The Improv Handbook  by Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White.The idea was to put one of the core concepts of Improvisation (the idea of “yes, and…”) to the test using three different simulated conversations. We matched everyone in the room with a teammate and instructed each pair to plan an imaginary trip, event, or picnic. The goal was to generate as many ideas as possible during the timed exercise.
In the first exercise, we instructed each member of the pair to shoot down every idea their partner proposed.
We gave them this example:
Person A :” let’s go on a balloon ride in Napa.”
Person B : “oooh no, I’m afraid of heights. I don’t like to fly in a plane much less a tiny wicker basket. How about going to a movie?”
Person A : “There’s nothing good on. I wait for movies to come out in DVD, then I can watch them on NetFlix. How about a trip to Stinson Beach ? “
Each pair had three minutes to come up with ideas.
In the second exercise we instructed the pairs to work on the same outing.
This time they were to agree with their partner’s suggestion but to do so in a grudging way:
Person A : “let’s go on a balloon ride in Napa.”
Person B: ” Um, well, those things are really expensive, but OK. I’ll up my life insurance policy so my wife and small children don’t have to suffer if something bad happens. How about a nice, safe meal at Bottega  after that?”
For the third exercise, teams were again told to work on the same imaginary outing but this time they were told to enthusiastically agree with their partner’s suggestion and then build on it.
They had the same three minutes to generate ideas:
Person A: “Let’s go on a ballon outing in Napa.”
Person B: ” That sounds like a blast! While we’re up there, we can scout out wineries that we can go visit in the area. “
At the end of the third exercise, we asked the group how the different scenarios compared. The consensus was that more ideas happened when team members were able to build on their partner’s suggested activity. It was pretty obvious from the energy in the room during the middle exercise that grudging agreement does not support creative ideas. Several of the teams even ran out of steam before the three minutes were up for that scenario.
While most of us find it pretty easy to kill every suggestion our partners make, one of our team members found it hard to do so during the first exercise. His female teammate kept coming up with great ideas so he had a hard time feigning negativity. (We plan to make her chair of our event committee.)
The group agreed that grudging acceptance was the least productive environment for generating ideas while the “yes, and…” approach which includes positive agreement and building on a suggestion makes for more creative ideas. It is interesting that even strong disagreement is easier to work with than passive, unhappy agreement.
In your next meeting or brainstorming session, try this exercise as a way of showing participants how to help their teammates generate more ideas. And the next time someone (your spouse, co-worker, or child) comes up with an idea or suggestion, try not to be the one who squashes their creativity.