Why There Are No Bad Ideas: The Connection Between Improv and Team Building

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Recently, our team at Invite Japan tested a new improv-based team building activity. “Improv” is short for “improvisational acting”, and it means acting on the spot without any script. It was facilitated by “Oshow-san”, an actor and improv coach in Tokyo who runs improv-based team building workshops, and his assistant Dera-san. The workshop activities centered around improvisation and self expression.

Throughout the event, we expressed ourselves with our bodies, our faces, and our voices. We told stories, lived dreams, and participated in interactive journeys. 

In this article I will relate how this experience helped us realise, as a team, how all ideas are important, how to reject an idea in a constructive way and why there is–definitively–no bad idea. 

A rejection of your idea is not a rejection of yourself

One of the exercises we participated in was to give to someone else a “gift”. Players take turns “giving each other” different made-up things. It could be anything–from a pen, to an island in the pacific–it doesn’t matter. The goal was to be fast and not think too much about the gift itself. In fact, the important part was not really the gift itself, but rather the reaction from the other person.

The person receiving the gift is instructed to react in two different ways. Either they can accept the gift and “play” with it a little bit, or reject the gift by figuratively throwing it in the air behind them, yelling “foooo” with a big smile on their face. 

The goal of the rejection reaction was to make it as friendly as possible– “I’m rejecting your gift, not you, you are still my friend.” This made the rejection easier to handle, even fun. 

If you translate that into a work team environment, the “gift” could be an idea, a suggestion, or input on the project you are working on together. When someone rejects your idea, for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean that you need to take it personally. The coworker rejecting your idea is not rejecting it because of you, but because they believe it’s not suited to the project, or it’s not the right time, or for any other reason you may not be aware of.

Maybe the idea is not good right now, maybe it will be in the future. And because you planted a seed, you made everyone on the team move forward. Every step counts, and there are no backward steps when giving an idea. And when there is a basis of trust on the team, individual members can feel more free to give ideas and opinions without worrying about rejection. 

Moving forward, making mistakes

Another exercise was a story-driven one, with everyone on the team together. The game master gives a starting point, a place, a context, for example, “We are at Disneyland”. Then, anyone on the team can suggest something to do.  For example, let’s say someone says:

“Let’s go to space mountain!”. 

Everyone is instructed to react to the suggestion in two ways. If you support the idea, you can answer with a loud “YES!” and mime the action suggested in a playful way. Or, if you don’t feel like doing this activity, you can pretend to fall dramatically and cut your video feed. 

Again, this is a way to “positively” reject a suggestion and make everyone on the team laugh at the rejection itself, not at the person suggesting it.

Another good take-away from this exercise is that not everyone will reject your ideas–you will find people interested in your suggestions! People are complex, and some will like some things and others won’t. It’s perfectly normal and human. 

This may seem like an overly obvious point, but sometimes, especially at work, it can be easy to go along with what everyone else is doing. Making a new suggestion might be scary because of the fear that no one will go along with you. However, you may in fact find an ally that you didn’t see before. 

For me though, one major realization to gain from this exercise is that the story can only move forward (and the game can only proceed) as team members give ideas. If no one talks, the story doesn’t continue. Put in the perspective of a work project, and you get that no project will ever go forward if everyone waits for it to advance by itself. Every project needs ideas and inputs, that makes it go forward. Again, every idea counts, even the ones that are left behind. They exist and are as important of a building block for your project as the ones that are kept in the final project. Mistakes makes us move forward as much, if not more than successes.

Idea paths and the brainstorming effect

Why can brainstorming be an effective method? Because in a brainstorming session, every idea counts.

How many times have you had an idea because someone else said something that sparked your brain? Ideas are most likely to appear because of other ideas.

In our story example, if someone says “Let’s ride Space Mountain!” you may not like Space Mountain, but the fact that it was suggested might make you think about another activity you’d love to do, like eating an ice cream. The “mountain” might make you think about winter, then ice, then ice cream. If this coworker hadn’t suggested their first idea, you wouldn’t have thought of your ice cream idea. Giving a bad idea can lead someone else to find a good one.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,”

an expression that can be traced back to the 12th century. It means that if we are able to make strides in our work, it is because of our predecessors’ previous work. We are sitting on their shoulders, and that’s why we can see what they couldn’t.

Any idea forms the building blocks on which others can climb, even the bad ones. Only those who go too far know how far we all can go. How would you know if an idea is bad if you don’t put it to the test?

What if this “bad idea” is bad now but will be great further in the project? Having the idea out there will help to remember it in the future. If it doesn’t even make it out of someone’s head, who knows what anyone else will think of it when the moment comes?

In team work, there truly are no bad ideas, only steps forward.

Conclusion

Humans work best in groups, but this also comes with all sorts of hurdles. One of them is being afraid to talk out fear that what we say can be taken as stupid or wrong by the rest of the group. Social pressure is indeed very powerful.

However, as our team learned, and as I have related here, there are no bad ideas. Therefore, we need to work together to make sure that no one feels fearful of speaking, whatever the idea may be.

By building strong teams and learning to accept and also reject in the proper way everyone’s input, your company will strive forward in every situation. When every team member is open and willing to give their input, your projects can only move forward!

Article by Guillaume

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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