Improv for Interviewers - A FastCompany Interview

Dave Collins, Founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds, was interviewed in Fast Company on ways to integrate improv into a company's interview process. Below is an excerpt of his thoughts (you can read the full interview here):

Brainstorm the questions you need to ask to get the information you need about the candidate beforehand. Have those ready, but also be prepared to go off-script if the opportunity arises. Collins uses a "question-asking funnel," where the interview starts with very broad questions, then more specific, probing questions are used as various lines of discussion develop. The key is to keep the conversation fluid, listen intently, and to be ready to follow an interesting thread when it emerges, he says.
"What I like to teach in improv is called ‘color and advance,’" he says. Use an open-ended question to get the color that the person will share in the story, then use an "advance" question to drill down into the specific skills about which you need to know.

Goop

At Goop, the lifestyle magazine famously founded by Gwynneth Paltrow, CEO Lisa Gersh leads her teams using improv techniques. In an interview with the New York Times, Gersh describes how taking an improv class led to her rethinking the way she runs meetings, divides focused and collaborative time and gains buy-in from executives.

Palantir

This article describes how Palantir, a secretive data-science company in Silicon Valley, uses improv to craft its corporate culture. The article fascinatingly connects the dots of Palantir's culture (flat hierarchy, small teams and a fanatical devotion to the work at hand) to the rules of improv ("yes, and", a focus on "status transactions" and always deferring individual recognition for the good of the group). The author presents this case study as an example of how improv can be used, for better or for worse, as a cultural glue that helps to retain and motivate employees.

Also mentioned in this article is Keith Johnstone's "Impro", a must-read for anyone looking to delver deeper into the inner workings of improvisation on stage.

End Boring Meetings With Eight Simple Ideas

Take a moment and ask yourself: What was the best meeting you've attended this week? Who was there, what did you do and why was it so good? 

With so much of our time at work spent in conference rooms, it's important to think clearly and creatively about the way we spend our time together at work. Below i've put together eight simple ways you can use basic improv techniques to be more productive, engaged and entertained in your next meeting.

1. While everyone arrives, use a warm-up activity to set a collaborative tone

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Meetings almost never start exactly on time, so instead of silently checking your email, why not use those first five minutes productively? In groups of 3-4, challenge teams to come up with as many ideas as possible for this year’s company holiday party. For the first two minutes, every sentence during the brainstorm must start with “yes, but”. For the next round, all sentences must start with “yes, and”. After both rounds are done, discuss as a group how changing “but” to “yes” altered the way you worked together. 

2. During the meeting, assign points of view

If your meeting involves brainstorming or providing feedback on ideas, try assigning “roles” to participants. Normal titles like “CFO”, “President”, “Finance Director” or more creative roles like “Elon Musk”, “The Queen of England”, or “An Excitable Eight-Year-Old” allow people to step outside their own experiences to think about how other people might perceive an idea. This technique encourages outside perspectives and new ideas that may not otherwise make it into the conversation.

3. Turn your challenge into a story

In eight sentences, you can tell the beginning/middle/end of any business objective by filling in the following blanks: “Once upon a time...Every day...But, one day...Because of that...Because of that...Because of that... Until, finally...And, ever since then…”. Try writing a few different versions out loud as a group and see if you can spark a new line of thinking on your KPIs and goals. 

4. Take turns asking “dumb” questions

We often say “there are no dumb questions” but still find that nobody asks any questions for fear of, well, looking dumb. Take a moment the next time someone explains a new or complex topic and propose that everyone in the room ask at least one “dumb” question. This helps mask any embarrassment and may provide important answers people might otherwise never receive.

5. Acknowledge that body language is part of a meeting’s dialogue.

If someone is learning back in their chair, staring off into space, or checking their phone, these are clear indicators that they are not engaged. When this happens, pause and check in with disengaged attendees and ask what they’re trying to say with their body language. “I noticed that a few of us are not engaged in the discussion, is this topic valuable for you?” is a way to address this kind of issue. Conversely, if people are making eye contact, leaning in towards the speaker and nodding their heads, acknowledge these behaviors and confirm that what you’re seeing is in line with what you’re hearing. Connecting the dots between what people are saying with their bodies and with their words helps to ensure that all meeting participants understand and agree to the decisions made in the room.

6. Help virtual participants feel included by describing the room

It’s very easy to lose track or forget about the people on the phone. Remember to regularly verbalize what’s going on in the room to make sure that remote participants are aware of the current mood and energy. Quick comments like “Everyone seems to be nodding”, “I see a lot of smiles around the table” or “Omar just brought in a delicious looking burrito and now we’re all jealously watching him eat it” help remote participants contribute to the conversation in more precise and productive ways.

7. Brainstorm “bad” ideas

Brainstorm Bad Ideas

The next time you and your team are stuck on a tough problem, try a “reverse brainstorm”. As a group, write down ten terrible ideas that would only make the problem worse. Often these terrible ideas are just a tweak or two away from a creative idea that would actually solve the problem.

8. Create an agenda and send it out ahead of time

I know this isn’t improv, but it seriously works! Every meeting needs an agenda, and if you’re struggling to come up with one, you probably don’t need to meet. Often the most productive meetings are the ones that never occur.