I find teaching the “soft skill” of collaboration to be so difficult that I usually don’t even attempt it. I make the same mistake that many of us make when it comes to collaborative activities or assignments — divide the class into groups and then step back. Within their groups, students chop the project into discrete tasks that are distributed piecemeal, with each member of the group taking a small piece of the whole. The pieces then are jammed together into a finished product right before whatever deadline I’ve imposed. Most groups stumble through the process to the end, one or two groups succeed spectacularly, and one group always falls apart.
Improvisational comedy (known in the trade as improv) offers a more promising route to effective collaboration. Randy Nelson, who has worked at Pixar, Dreamworks, and Apple, distills improv down to two simple questions:
- How do I accept what my partner is offering? Refusing an offer is an automatic dead end, while accepting one preserves the existence of creative opportunities.
- How do I make my partner look good? A temporary suspension of judgment builds trust, altruism, and a sense of community, which also foster creativity.
The librarian Peter Bromberg’s list of ten principles of improv and why you should care also emphasizes the creative potential in accepting everything as an offer and building off of “whatever is given to us.”
There are some interesting second-order effects when these improv principles are put into practice. One, which is pointed out by Randy Nelson, is that attempting to avoid failure is much less productive than being able to recover from it. The best problem-solvers view failure as a learning opportunity. People who make avoiding failure their top priority usually end up becoming mired in it. More on failure here, here, and here.
Improv exercises — which are great icebreakers and team-building activities — can be found at the Improv Encyclopedia.