Culture   //   February 8, 2024  ■  5 min read

WTF is applied improvisation? (and why it’s popular in RTO transitions)

Corporate workplaces are increasingly borrowing techniques from the performing arts industry, as leaders and their staff look to brush up on their social and presentation skills as they go back to in-person work.

Theatrical improvisation is a tactic of lightning-quick creative thinking and has long been a foundation skill cultivated by stand-up comedians. To adapt it to the corporate world, it has been relabelled “applied improvisation.” Major companies including Google, McKinsey, and PepsiCo have all invested in this form of training for several years. It’s now gaining more traction in the corporate world, according to Theodore Klein, managing partner at Boston Strategy Group, which delivers organizational development programs to companies.

Learning these skills on the job is also helping foster deeper connections and strengthening company culture — two key reasons for returning to the office in the first place, and comes as more in-person interactions lead to disagreements and conflicts in the workplace that are expected to continue. As such, more companies are putting their workers through improv and stand-up comedy training.

When a group does a successful theatrical improv performance together, “they’re really listening carefully, they are dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, they are agreeing with each other, there’s a great deal of trust amongst the cast, they’re making lots of eye contact and they are listening carefully, they are collaborating and cooperating, they’re not contending with each other,” said Klein. When executives see that, they think “Oh my god, that’s what I want my people to be doing,” he added.

So what exactly is it?

While theatrical improv is more of a product that aims to entertain, amuse and enlighten, applied improvisation is a process that builds collaboration, communication, creativity, emotional awareness and trust, Klein said. That trust element is key, as it’s often lost in workplaces yet necessary to ensure staff are truly engaged and therefore productive, he said. 

Improv is done under a set of conditions often faced in workplaces: it’s team-based, there are a significant number of unknowns, limited or no resources, uncertainty and constant pivoting.

Beyond conquering some stage fright, improv training helps make general conversation more comfortable — with a focus on listening, agreeing and adding on, and finding areas for compromise. All attributes that are vital for working within and managing teams, as well as more senior executives.

"The key is psychological safety, people have to feel comfortable. They have to feel that they're not being judged. They have to feel that they can be honest so that they can really reveal themselves, listen to themselves, and adjust their behavior or adjust their thinking as necessary."
Theodore Klein, managing partner at Boston Strategy Group.

How does it work in the corporate world?

Companies leveraging applied improvisation through improv training might go about it a couple of ways. “There’s no one size fits all, every organization does it a little bit differently,” Klein said.

Having a work environment in which psychological safety is cultivated is key — a concept that most companies still grapple with incorporating into their cultures.

“The key is psychological safety, people have to feel comfortable. They have to feel that they’re not being judged. They have to feel that they can be honest so that they can really reveal themselves, listen to themselves, and adjust their behavior or adjust their thinking as necessary,” Klein said. 

Klein has seen some companies offering improv classes over eight weeks to truly build the skills, and worked with one company, a global information technology software firm, putting executives through the training during an annual strategic corporate retreat, he said.

Peppercomm, a New York-based communication agency with about 40 employees, recently put its staff through group improv training for the first time. But the agency has more experience using stand-up comedy training, which is a part of its onboarding process for staff.

Improv and stand-up comedy are somewhat complementary: while improv focuses on group interactions, stand-up comedy techniques help build the basics for improv that ultimately help at the individual level. Peppercomm CEO Steve Cody started the stand-up training program after dabbling in stand-up comedy himself when he realized “a lot of the skills I was learning were making me a better business executive,” Cody said. 

“Everything from presentation skills, listening and responding to the audience, deepening rapport, knowing where and when to inject comedy to maybe turn a meeting around,” he said.

The program at Peppercomm works like this: a cohort of workers go to a local comedy club for training in the middle of a workday, and spend about four hours learning all about stand-up before doing a short performance by themselves. Peppercomm also hosts an annual charity fundraiser at the comedy club where about nine employees performed last year, Cody said.

How exactly is it helping workers?

Madison Gallo, now an account associate at Peppercomm, did her training in the summer of 2022 as an intern. When she returned to school that fall she saw a remarkable difference in the way she could carry conversations and speak up in class, she said. “It’s just a great background of knowing when to interject, and really how to speak with people,” Gallo said, noting she uses the skills now often on client calls. 

“It's just a great background of knowing when to interject, and really how to speak with people."
Madison Gallo, an account associate at PR firm Peppercomm.

The training at Peppercomm is cross-level, meaning some of the newest entrants early in their careers often end up training alongside those at higher levels in the company. One interesting impact of the program is that staff end up learning more personal details about each other that can make for great follow-up conversations and help foster stronger connections, Cody said.

Last fall Peppercomm worked with one of its clients, a major bank, to help its marketing and corporate communications team get on the same page with messaging for target audiences, and suggested they leverage improv training. 

“What we needed to do was to break down those silos. Take them through improv exercises, mix and match them, and then at the end, get them to agree on a narrative that they would tell on the bank’s behalf,” Cody said. After improv training they were able to do just that, he said.