improvisation AND high performing team

A few months back I wrote an article that explored the link between improvisation and psychological safety. In it I shared my experience of performing improvisation and how, through the structure, rules and principles of improv, I was experiencing the benefits of psychological safety. I must have written something good given that the article peaked at over 4,000 views in one day. 

In this article I want to look more deeply at improvisation and high performing teams (HPT), and how improv provides an experience of being part of an HPT. To do so, I have chosen to use the 6 Team Conditions framework. This framework is one of the few peer reviewed models, comes from decades of research and is the best validated model for predicting performance in real world teams. For those new to the framework, I have put together a simple overview of the framework that you can download by clicking on the button below. 

Dr Ruth Wagemen, co-author of the 6 Team Conditions framework, often speaks of the art and science of high performing teams. Perhaps improv is a way of bringing an element of the art into the science.

What is Improv

In simple terms, improvisational theatre is the art of creating change spontaneously while on stage. It is the magic that happens when performing without a script and the thrill of not knowing what is going to happen.

Although improv is spontaneous creativity, it does happen within a context or framework. Improv is more than simply thinking on your feet. It is a skill that can be improved and, paradoxically, requires a degree of preparation.

Improv 2


To illustrate the link between the 6 Team Conditions and Improvisation, below I provide a short definition of each condition and how I see the connection with improv.  Remember that this is only my perspective and experience, and I invite you to share your thoughts.

6 Team Conditions Link to Improvisation
Real Team

Everyone knows who is on the team and has an awareness that the work of the team requires interdependency

It is clear that the players who step are the team who will be playing the game. The success of all improv games requires building on each other’s offers and allowing ourselves to be influenced by our fellow players. This give and take is a clear example of interdependency.

As on any team, the success of improvisation depends on healthy team relationships and dynamics because the scene evolves from the interdependent work of the players
Compelling Purpose

Every team needs a purpose that is clear, sets direction, is challenging and engages commitment.

In improv, the primary purpose is to have fun, learn and along the way possibly entertain an audience. This is achieved through the various games played, which each has clear guidelines to be followed.
Right People

A team with the right people has the range of perspectives needed to do the work, and the skills, including teamwork skills, to bring those perspectives to the work.

Improvisation is at its best when unlimited perspectives are allowed to emerge. To be truly successful, players need to have some improv skills that the bring to the stage. The more complex the games (purpose) the more skill is required.

Having said that, experienced players are always there to save newer players and help them shine.
Structures & Processes

Every team benefits from a few elements of healthy structure including identifying a handful of explicit norms about what they should and should not do when working together.

Beyond the rules of the various games, improv has a number of core principles (or norms) that all players follow. By doing so, we know what we can expect from each other and the type of interactions we will have.

In his book “Everything’s an Offer”, Robert Poynton focuses on these three principles:
• Let Go
• Notice More
• Use Everything
Supportive Context

Every team operates in a larger context, and the structures and systems in that context can either promote great teamwork, or create obstacles to excellent collaboration.
The moment of performance is our context. This includes the supportive audience and fellow players. Knowing that those faces looking back at us want us to succeed creates a powerful bond. Further, much of improv relies on the audience for ideas and suggestions, again creating a bond between the team and the crowd.
Team Coaching

Well-designed teams benefit from an expert coach who can help the team make excellent use of its resources.

Improv is a skill that can be learned. Like all skills, it requires practice and reflective feedback. The best improvisers will work with each other, or an external coach, to review their performance and identify opportunities for improvement.

Applied Improvisation - This is for the nerds

At first glance it may appear that improv is all about fun and games. And at one level it is. However, there is a growing body of research into applied improvisation (Vera & Crossen, 2004, 2005; Rossing & Longtin, 2016). Applied improv can be defined as “The use of principles, tools, practices, skills and mindsets of improvisational theatre in non-theatrical settings, that may result in personal development, team building, creativity, innovation, and/or meaning.”  (Tint & Froerer, 2014).

The studies by Vera & Crossen (2004, 2005) found that where the work of a team requires a degree of innovation, improvisation training can have an impact on team performance as long as the conditions for the team are place and the context is clear; namely the 6 Team Conditions.

Further, the principles of collaboration, which are at the heart of improv, are often called for in the workplace but hard to achieve. The improv principles that require collaboration, and associated skills, has important implications for workplace cooperation and teamwork especially for self-managing teams.

Imagine what could be achieved if teams that really needed to be innovative completed a improv course as a team! The evidence would suggest this would have a positive influence.

Time for you to step up and say “yes…and”

What I’ve tried to offer is a simple way to better understand, or experience, the conditions required to be a high performing team. It is not often that we really have an opportunity to work in high performing teams. And, not every improv performance is a success. But with each performance, teams grow and improv.  An advantage of improv is if it all comes crashing down, we shake it off, get up, play again!

So, what are you waiting for?

If you and your team would like to experience what it means to be a high performing team through the fun of improvisation, or just have an amazing fun experience, get in contact or reach out to easylaughs. They are an amazing group who perform as well as put on improvisation courses and workshops. 

Improvisation and High Performing Teams – References:

Tint, B and Froerer, A. (2014), Delphi Study Summary presented to the Applied Improvisation Network. Available online:

Wageman, R., Nunes, D., Burruss, J., & Hackman, R. (2008). Senior leadership teams : what it takes to make them great. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Vera, D., & Crossan, M. (2005). Improvisation and innovative performance in teams. Organization Science, 16(3), 203–224.

Rossing, J. P., & Longtin, K. H. (2016). Improv(ing) the Academy: Applied Improvisation as a Strategy for Educational Development. A Journal of Education Development, (2).

Poynton, R (2008) . Everything’s An Offer: How to do more with less. On Your feet. Kindle Edition.

Spolin, V. (1963). Improvisation for the Theatre. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL

Vera, D., & Crossan, M. (2004). Theatrical improvisation: Lessons for organizations. Organization Studies, 25(5), 727–749.

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[…] in Amsterdam. For those who have been living under a rock or not reading my LinkedIn posts and articles, easylaughs is a volunteer run school for improvisation and stand up. My first encounter with […]

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6 Team conditions overview

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