I owe our senior leadership team’s cohesion in part to comedian Mike Birbiglia.
For our company’s first remote offsite, my Chief of Staff suggested hiring Mike to do a set. I loved the idea. I’d been following his work for years—I’m a huge fan of standup and consider comedians to be masters of observation and modern-day philosophers.
I knew he’d be a great performer. But what I didn’t know—and what I suspect he didn’t know either—is that he and our team would experience an organic connection that led to some impromptu improv.
Later that night, he called me. He said he loved our company’s culture (especially our openness to spontaneity) and that he wanted to introduce me to Liz Allen, the improv coach who worked with the cast of Don’t Think Twice (Mike’s film about an improv team).
Liz and I had immediate chemistry. As she explained her philosophy on improv, I started seeing connections to a well-known business book I was reading at the time, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni talks about how, if corporate teams lack trust, everything else falls apart.
Liz illustrated how effective improv is in building trust among groups.
At the time, we had just raised our Series A and were in the process of assembling our senior leadership team at Catch+Release. Liz had taught corporate improv but always wanted to see how it could work at a company in its early building stages (and with a CEO who would participate in the sessions regularly instead of passing off the training to others).
We decided to give it a shot—and the results have been absolutely incredible.
How we practice improv:
1. Opening exercises. First, everyone goes around the room and says a word or phrase about how they’re feeling that day. It can be anything—positive, negative, emotional, psychological, “Excited,” “Frustrated,” “Tired,” “Hungry.” Then, everyone on the team takes turns repeating each person’s word.
Whatever words we use, we each end up feeling seen and heard. It lays a foundation of empathy for the deeper exercises to follow.
2. Targeted exercises. Liz’s improv curriculum includes exercises that cover a range of topics. In one recent session, we covered our team’s “root system”: the unique ways we operate, interact, and listen to one another.
Another covered the improv concept of “listening with your back turned.” In an improv show with seven performers, only two may be acting in a given scene but the other five need to stay up to speed so they can jump in at any time. Likewise, startups are constantly dividing and conquering, splitting into meetings with different goals. At the same time, we need to be conscious of other teams’ objectives so we don’t work against each other. Improv gives us a chance to practice and develop this dual awareness.
3. Written feedback. After each session, Liz summarizes what we did, what she observed, and how the team dynamics manifested. She comments on what we did well and areas to work on next time. So in addition to our firsthand experience, we get a bird’s-eye view of what happened from a coach’s perspective.
Outcomes of practicing improv:
1. Confirmation that we have the right people in the right seats. The greatest enemy of team cohesion is ego. Improv, by design, checks egos. Those unwilling to commit to the exercises are least likely to be good team players.
Our improv exercises have played a key role in weeding out a couple of SLT members who weren’t right for the team—fast (like, within a week).
2. Senior leadership alignment. A fully aligned SLT is a massive competitive advantage. As a startup, so much of what you do is on the fly. You’re trying to innovate and get results while building a healthy team dynamic. Improv accelerates the team-building process, enabling us to direct more constructive energy toward innovation.
3. Stronger collaboration. Collaboration is a muscle—and improv works it out. Even people who have natural chemistry need to work on their collaborative strength. Improv creates an environment of safety and vulnerability where people feel comfortable building trust.
4. An apolitical environment. In an improv exercise, there’s no CEO, no hierarchy, no titles. Everyone is an equal partner, contributing to the greater whole of the scene. What you bring to the group is what matters. And especially in tech companies, where there can be a lot of jockeying for personal agendas, improv is an exercise in relinquishing your needs to the needs of the group—and when everyone else in the group is doing the same, there are no personal agendas.
5. Better ideas, faster. When ego and politics are removed from the equation, you’re left with authenticity. People bring ideas to the table not because they want to hear themselves speak, or because they think they’re the smartest ones in the room, but because they’re seeing clearly and communicating openly in a safe environment.
Over time, the key benefits of improv—checking egos, practicing vulnerability, building trust—are becoming second nature to our team. Improv forces you to take off your “social mask” and the more we do it, the easier it gets. And the quicker we find ourselves in a collaborative flow.
I can easily imagine a world where having an improv coach on board as a Chief Teams Officer is the norm. The philosophical underpinnings of improv are adaptable to any team, and the corporate environment especially would benefit from apolitical, anti-egotistical work.
Our intention is to bring regular improv practice downstream within the company and get more and more people involved. And who knows, if we take Liz’s advice, you just might see the Catch+Release senior executives on a stage near you sometime soon!