S3E35. Improv Exercises to Build Stronger Teams

We all have been on a dysfunctional team. And, when we are, we dread driving to work or zooming in; we dread being part of the team meeting because everyone is talking over each other; we dread dealing with members of the team who are disengaged. There is always one person who thinks they are the smartest person in the room, and they continuously tell everyone. Team members are missing deadlines, making excuses, exhibiting negative body language, and are abundantly clear with their “I don’t care” attitude. No one is being held accountable, and everyone is doing what they think is right, despite what they have been asked or told to do. 

I’ve previously touched on using powerful improv exercises to build stronger teams, and I want to add on three more exercises you can use with your team: “Beach ball, bouncy ball, frog, and more,” “Emotions,” and “Yes And to solve a problem.”

Beach ball, Bouncy ball, Frog, and more

  • 5 – 7 participants
  • Items needed: Beach ball, Medium-sized ball that can be bounced (think kickball), and three other small items or balls that can be thrown (squishy ball, whiffle ball, toy frog, etc.). You will need one more item than you have participants.

The participants form a circle. The first step is introducing a beach ball to the team. The group’s instructions are to pass the beach ball to another person by tossing the beach ball over their head.

When they start to throw the beach ball, they announce “beach ball,” make eye contact with a participant and throw it to that person. When the person catches the beach ball, they reply, “Thank You.” Then they look for another teammate to pass the beach ball to by announcing “Beach ball,” making eye contact, and throwing the beach ball to the participant. When caught, the participant announces, “Thank you,” and the sequence starts over.

After about a minute, you stop the exercise and introduce into the exercise a bouncy ball. The participant passes the bouncy ball to another person by bouncing it on the floor. The same methodology used with the beach ball is to pass and receive the bouncy ball – announcing the bouncy ball, making eye contact, and passing. When receiving the bouncy ball, the participant replies, “Thank you,” and the sequence starts again.

Here is the challenge: the beach ball and bouncy ball are in the exercise simultaneously. After about a minute with both balls being passed, stop the activity and introduce the toy frog. Instruct the group that the frog prefers to be tossed underhanded using the same – announcing, eye contact, passing the object, and thank as before.

There are three objects in the exercise at the same time. Now watch the chaos begin. After about a minute or so – introduce another object passed underhanded like the frog and using the same rules.

Keep adding objects as you see fit depending on the size of the team. Once you’ve added all objects, let the chaos unfold a bit before calling the activity to an end and debriefing the team, and audience, on what happened.

Questions to ask:

  • What did you witness? Looking for someone to say that one of the participants had three or more objects at a time while others had none.
  • Has this ever happened to you, or have you done this to another teammate?
  • How do you correct this behavior?

The purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate the need for eye contact when distributing or communicating with a teammate to ensure they understand. Also, when receiving information to thank the person delivering it to you. More importantly, we as leaders should see which teammates have much more on their plate and distribute the work more evenly amongst the team.

Emotions Exercise

  • 3 participants

Emotional intelligence is one of the top 5 skills that leaders need to develop and continually develop. EI consists of self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. The emotions exercise touches on all these topics.

The exercise begins with two people having a conversation about anything they choose. After about 15-20 seconds, the moderator randomly picks a new emotion (happy, sad, angry, enthusiastic, depressed, despondent, etc.). Whatever emotion the moderator picks, the participants must take on that emotion’s body language and tone until a new emotion is introduced. The exercise lasts between 3 -5 minutes with new emotions added and the conversation must stay the same—but the mood and tone must switch to the emotion introduced.

The purpose of the exercise is to help increase your emotional intelligence. We all need to be more self-aware of our emotions and become more socially aware of others’ emotions. A leader’s responsibility is to assess the team’s emotional context and address those emotions that might become detrimental to the team’s success, all the while, managing their response to other’s emotions and maintaining the cohesiveness of the team.

‘Yes! And’ to solve a problem

  • 5-7 participants

The philosophy of ‘Yes! And,’ is a wonderful exercise in helping the team solve problems quickly when they arise. The key here, as in all improv exercises, is to park your ego at the door, suspend your judgment, listen to understand, accept what a teammate says as a possibility, and add on to it. Accept the idea as if it is true and then what else can be true. Create a culture of phycological safety where the team is able to speak their mind and feel safe taking risks in front of each other.

Decide on a problem that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. Have the team find a conference room, zoom room, or someplace where they can work and not be interrupted. Set a timer for 15 minutes. The leader will state the problem at hand and ask for ideas. Another teammate will be the scribe capturing all of this information. Better yet, use the artificial intelligence app, Otter, to capture the conversation. When an idea is introduced, agree with the idea – no matter how crazy it is and add on to it. In improv, we say bad ideas are bridges to good ideas. No ideas lead to nothing. Explore and add to everyone’s idea. After 15 minutes look at what you have come up with and decide what is worthy of exploring further.

The purpose of the exercise is to reduce the time it takes to solve a problem through divergent thinking. You are looking for quantity, not quality. Remember, you can’t create and criticize in the same space.

Remember the keys to building a successful team are: respect, trust, support, listen, be present, adapt, and always adhere to the ‘Yes! And’ principle.