It might seem a long way from the comedy stage to the corporate world, but one organisation that's working to close that gap is Improv Asylum, a Boston-based group that recently set up in Ireland.
Founded in 1988, the organisation established a European corporate training entity known as IA Innovation in Dublin last September. It's deadly serious about making workplace education both more engaging and more instructive.
"Our slogan is that we teach your head to think on its feet. Our training is about more than just having fun and it's most definitely not about teaching people how to be funny. The main focus is on how to be good at listening and responding more effectively so that you can be more innovative," explained Improv Asylum co-founder Chet Harding.
He suggests that learning how the tools and techniques of improv can not only help individuals communicate and listen more successfully, but also inspire them to work better together as a team and build on the ideas of others.
As anyone who remembers the television series Whose Line Is It Anyway? will recall, this type of comedy is often based on performers responding quickly and smartly to suggestions from audience members, with one person adding and building on what the previous person said.
While the type of training provided by companies such as Improv Asylum mirrors this to a degree, it obviously seeks to impart learning and encourage teamwork among participants, rather than just trying to raise laughs.
“On stage, we try to make someone else’s idea better by working together. As comedians we have to be innovative and respond quickly, and the skillset used in this type of comedy is transferable to the corporate world,” says Harding.
“Much of corporate culture is built on a ‘yes but’ approach, whereas we’re trying to promote a ‘yes and’ culture in which collaboration and innovation is key to success. While the skillset we use is primarily for comedy, it drives creative ideas and results elsewhere,” he added.
While it's hard to imagine the dull, grey conservative world of the corporates embracing improvisation, it is happening. In the US in particular, this type of training is now regularly being used to coach people in so-called softer skills such as better communication and leadership.
“Corporate leaders recognise that today’s business environment is a rapidly changing global marketplace that requires employees to be adaptable, ready to respond to the unexpected, and able to build strong relationships.
"These abilities happen to be the fundamental skills of improvisation and many companies are gravitating towards improv training because it offers a hands-on 'active learning' experience that cultivates these capabilities," said Daena Giardella, an actress and voiceover artist who teaches an improvisational leadership class at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
“Participants who take part in improvisational training develop a greater ability to be in the moment and be comfortable in their own skin as they learn to think and speak on their feet with greater confidence and spontaneity. Companies gain the advantage of having more agile employees who are better listeners, more creative and stronger team members, and who are willing to take risks and think outside the box,” she added.
Improv Asylum is one of a number of organisations Stateside that offers improvisation-centred learning. With its multinational clients including Prudential, Fidelity, Gillette, Unilever, Google, Raytheon, Lilly, Twitter and Silicon Valley Bank, the company now wants to win business in Europe through Ireland. Since moving to Dublin, it has won plaudits from the likes of the American Chamber of Commerce, Google Ireland and Irish law firm William Fry. Harding is optimistic about the group’s prospects.
“Irish people have been very receptive to the type of work we do so far. Obviously, there’s a great connection between Boston and here and in fact, one of our first corporate customers in the US was Guinness so we always felt we could do well in Ireland but we’re been taken aback by the level of interest to date,” he said.
As anyone who has ever been forced to undergo training in the workplace will tell you, it can be dull and painful. Being forced to take part in improv might seem better to some, but would be anathema to those afraid of looking stupid.
According to many who have encountered Improv Asylum’s work, there’s little to fear, however.
Boston College, which has a presence in Ireland, has worked with the group on a number of its leadership programmes.
"We work with Chet and the team early on as it helps to break the ice and also fits in with our focus on innovation and creativity," said Robert Mauro, director of the Global Leadership Institute at Boston College.
“Improvisational skills are used to advance conversations until a group reaches a consensus on what they are trying to do. This is important particularly at the start of programmes because some senior executives can initially be a little standoffish and protective of their own interests. As well as not being keen on sharing, these individuals can sometimes think they know all the answers. The work that Improv Asylum does breaks down barriers and encourages collaboration.”
The reaction from Irish-based organisations to Improv Asylum’s corporate training approach has also been positive.
"They came to our attention through my sister who had seen them in the US. They were coming to Ireland and we met with them and thought their product sounded great. I saw one of their demonstrations and felt it would be great for us, because their work is engaging and there's a great learning aspect to it," said Rachel Stanton, a partner in William Fry's banking and financial services department.
“We felt the training worked very well as a concept. We used it for internal training and also for a business development event we ran for clients, which proved to be very successful.
“Any hesitations I would have had quickly vanished because they were very professional and obviously attuned to the corporate environment. No one was ever put in a position where they felt awkward or made to be the butt of a joke and while people might have felt a little awkward initially, that quickly fell away,” she added.
The organisation has also done some demonstrations of its work at American Chamber of Commerce in Ireland events over the past year. The chamber’s programmes director Miriam O’Keeffe, has been won over by their approach.
“Corporate training can often feel contrived whereas the guys bring a freshness to the way they deliver content,” she said. “I think they are going to be very successful here because it’s a whole new world in terms of training and the ability to be able to communicate directly and clearly has never been so important. This is what Improv Asylum is teaching and they are doing it really well,” she added.
As Harding fell into comedy after working as director of North American advertising and PR with Polaroid, it's not surprising that he understands corporate culture well. While he said it was hard work promoting the group's training initially, once people understand how the process works, they are keen to take part.
“The best compliments we get are usually from introverts who tell us that it wasn’t as bad an experience as they thought it would be. Funnily enough, these people are the ones who hire us most because they generally hate training of any kind. They’re so surprised to find themselves enjoying themselves that they’re quickly sold on the idea,” he said. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkIa2E2ZCa8