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Yes, and: How Improv is Like Working on Client Projects

Ashley Putnam

Improve... and improve

I’m a big fan of improv comedy—I love seeing how each troupe works with varying rules, actors and kinds of performances. Here in Atlanta, we’re lucky to have several improv groups to check out. And when I’m traveling, I seek out different groups to visit. In fact, a group of us at Big Nerd Ranch participated in an internal improv workshop. We learned some of the basics of improv, but most importantly, we learned to fail fast—and that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to building and designing projects for clients.

Keeping it Classy

When we work with clients on app development projects, we stress that effective communication and flexibility are key. To help broaden those skills, our group met with a local improv instructor over four weeks to pretend, listen and laugh. As we worked on the challenges, we quickly realized that improv was actually a lot like our client projects: staying on your toes and working together are necessary for success.

One of the key exercises in improv is “Yes, and…”. When presented with a topic or change in scene, the actor is encouraged to use this mantra. Instead of denying the change, you take the change in stride and build upon it. Initially, this was a little hard to swallow, but with practice, our scenes became easier and funnier.

Spaghetti on the Wall

Every week, we built upon our prior lessons. Short scenes turned into longer scenes. Single performances turned into group performances. Actors had to listen to each other in order to keep the scene moving.

Scenes were built upon listening and trusting your team. No ideas were rejected. It was always “Yes, and…”

When you’re working on a project, it’s good to noodle on ideas. As my coworkers can attest, puns are an everyday thing with me (editor’s note: true story). I know that not every idea or joke will work, but I keep trying until something sticks to the wall.

The same thing applies to my work method. There is no wrong answer. I will keep brainstorming, testing ideas and throwing them out until something works. My Sketch files include a ton of artboards, each with a different twist, building upon the last version.

Learning to Fail

My favorite lesson from improv? That it’s ok to fail. And when you do fail, you should fail fast.

During our class, team members would forget to repeat something, or lose a train of thought. We would applaud them and they’d try again. When you apply this method of thinking to your project team and organization, the benefits are limitless. To learn from failure, you have to effectively communicate with your team and your client—talking and listening. In the end, the only wrong answer is “No”.

Fail Yes

I learned a lot about myself and my coworkers during our improv classes. Each member of a project brings a unique perspective to a project. By listening to and trusting your team, you can always be prepared to say “Yes, and…”.

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