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On The Job Improvising

IT departments use improv techniques to improve communication skills

by Sandra Bolan
Reprinted From Computing Canada

Improvising is being able to act and respond to change in creative and effective ways – something IT professionals do on a daily basis. If IT professionals took improvisational skills and used them with their co-workers, it could translate into more employees responding to urgent matters, in a more effective way. But there is just one small problem: communication has to improve in the workplace and that is one skill IT professionals are not always known for.

"A lot of companies are saying we've got really exciting, dynamic people who have done a great job but we need them to come together and learn to share information and pass ideas on to each other," said Deborah Kimmett, facilitator with Toronto-based improv troop The Second City, which, when not entertaining the masses, conduct corporate training sessions.

While any organization can benefit from improv skills, according Andy Burnham, director of Toronto-based Improv at Work, those skills are especially critical in IT departments.

"The specific fast pace and change of technology and the industries involved in technology and communications requires IT staff and companies to create teams that can (build ideas and options through saying yes instead of what if)," he said. "If those teams and companies are unable to think under pressure, build ideas and challenge assumptions and think creatively, their survival will be hampered."

Burnham, who has a bachelor of arts with honours in management, has been honing his improv skills since high school, and decided to combine his two skills about three years ago because "I saw the tools that we use (in improv) to accept each others ideas, explore them and move them forward, were exactly the tools that a team inside an organization would have to develop (in order) to develop ideas under pressure."

Anne Thornley-Brown, president of The Training Oasis in Richmond Hill, Ont. is also a proponent of humour in the workplace and said it can help companies that have retention problems.

"The demands are just so heavy right now - workload and pace. So if companies don't find a way to give their people a lift, they're going to have difficulties," she said.

According to Burnham and Kimmett, corporate improv training has been designed to teach people to lighten up but to also listen better and accept other people's ideas.

"We have a tendency to judge ideas before the team has a chance to develop and explore the ideas," said Burnham.

Late last year, Toronto-based Astound Inc.'s IT department found itself quickly growing and in need of communicative icebreakers.

"We wanted to get people talking to each other and working with each other," said Don Hellyer, director of professional services at Astound.

He said there was one exercise in particular The Second City did with Astound's IT department that paired people off. Each person in the duo then had to repeat and anticipate what the other person was going to say.

"It actually caused people to pay a lot more attention to the other person. Instead of listening to someone talk you were very focused and watching what they were saying and listening and trying to predict what they would be saying next," said Hellyer. "I think it was very useful to get people to actually think about what was being said as opposed to just listening to what was being said."

Hellyer said the half-day session resulted in the IT department becoming more comfortable speaking with each other as well as with co-workers outside their own department.

"Some of the bigger changes (I've noticed) are someone is much more willing to share with the group what they have accomplished in the last number of weeks, when they feel they've done something worth sharing. Whereas, before they may not have ever mentioned it to other people — whether it's in the form of an e-mail or just casual conversation," said Hellyer.

While Hellyer said he can't say for certain if productivity has improved, he did note, "It is much easier to make decisions when you know what's going on around you" because people are sharing information.

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