Using improv games to foster creativity and collaboration: part 1 of 3
I’ve been taking improvisational theater classes for years, mostly because I find them energizing and extremely fun, but also because I started noticing that the skills I was practicing in improv were helping me navigate challenging meetings and difficult team dynamics at work. More recently, I’ve begun incorporating improvisational theater games into my design thinking workshops.
Whether I’m trying to get a skeptical curator to unfold her arms and participate, or an indifferent designer to look up from his iPhone and share his ideas, I’ve become increasingly mindful about which games can be used to foster creativity, model collaboration, support shared inquiry, boost energy, and support the design thinking process.
This is the first of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games; this post covers games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. The second post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.
A general note about all the games I cover here and in subsequent posts is that it’s helpful to have a timer (one on your mobile phone is fine).
Games to Kick-Off a Meeting or Workshop
Everyone knows the feeling: you look out at the faces in the conference room, and you know that no one wants to be there. When this happens to me (and it does, even when I’m coming in as an outside consultant and the people in the room are there voluntarily!), I have the group play one of these games when we first come together. Even if I’m with a group of colleagues who know each other well, these are fun ways to get everyone out of their chairs, break the ice, get people talking—and, most importantly, signal that this gathering is going to be different from all the other endless meetings.
1) Three Things in Common in Three Minutes
In addition to being a great ice breaker that gets everyone looking up from their phones and engaged with each other, this game is also helpful to use before you do empathy interviews with users or visitors. It’s a nice way to warm up for a one-on-one conversation, and it helps people understand what it feels like to establish rapport quickly, which is critical when conducting user interviews.
Ask everyone to get a partner (preferably someone they don’t know well). Each pair has three minutes to discover three things they have in common. They can’t be obvious things one could discover without having a conversation (e.g. “We’re both in this conference room” or “We’re both wearing glasses”). The conversation has to go deeper.
After three minutes, call time and ask people to volunteer to share out something they learned. I’ve had colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)
This game is usually done standing, but if it’s a particularly shy or reserved group, you can lower the stakes by letting people remain seated.
2) Come Over Here If…
This one is also a great ice breaker and it gets people out of their chairs and engaged with each other. Ask everyone to start walking around the room, and then, one-by-one, share something that is true for them and invite others who agree to join them. For example, I might shout out, “Come over here if your dream vacation is hiking in Patagonia” and a self-selected group of people will rush over to stand near me. As soon as they get into place, someone else will share out something new, and the group might rush away.
The idea is to get people sharing things out quickly so that everyone is moving around, but you don’t want the pace to be so frantic that no one can be heard. It’s meant to be fun and energizing, and also allows people to learn more about their colleagues. I always model examples that are not too personal, however, as this is meant to be appropriate for work!
3) You’re Awesome
This is a quick warm-up (that is not recommended for serious types in suits). Everyone finds a partner and stands facing him/her. They then high-five each other with both hands and say, “You’re Awesome!” as enthusiastically as possible. They keep high-fiving each other and saying “You’re Awesome” until you call time (10-20 seconds) and ask people to find another partner and do the same thing.
Yes, it’s silly, but seeing a museum director high-five a front-line employee and tell her she’s awesome (and vice versa) can make even the must determined curmudgeon smile.
Note: most of these are games I’ve learned from the talented improviser and teacher Rebecca Stockley, while others are courtesy of other fantastic teachers I’ve had at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Berkeley Rep School of Theater over the years.