The Start of the Improv + Design Thinking Workshop

This is the first in a series of blog posts showing how I developed the Business Improv for Design Thinkers workshop for Reflex Improv and OpenIDEO DC (posts tagged as BI +DT Workshop). It was a long process and involved developing the theory behind it and learning how to get a workshop launched.

A little backstory: After taking a few improv classes this spring, I realized that there is a lot of overlap with improv and Design Thinking. Improv’s explicit “yes, and” philosophy is implicitly followed in Design Thinking challenges. It occurred to me, that making “yes, and” explicit in Design Thinking opens opportunities to positively impact the social friction inherent in intensive ideating sessions.

Spoiler alert: I am still taking improv classes and have become an outspoken advocate.

This whole thing kicked off this spring when, completely out of character, I proactively approached one of the facilitators at the OpenIDEO Design Thinking event during the UX/DC 2017 conference. I laid out the basics and asked if they would be interested in an event pairing improv and Design Thinking.

It took over 5 months to get the workshop to happen, but it turned out fantastic. We had 30+ people there, including the facilitators, all whom were laughing for 3 straight hours.  Feedback was great and we’re getting requests to hold it again. During the event, Dan (the other facilitator) and I kept turning to each other in surprise and saying “this is really fun.”

How I developed the Workshop

To begin with, I wrote pages and pages of all the things I thought were related between Design Thinking and Improv. It was unwieldy, at best and I realized I had to narrow focus. Through several iterations, I managed to focus my workshop. Then, I ran it past an Agile trainer. Based on her feedback and my frustration with her feedback, I realized I needed to narrow even further. I had to narrow it much further than I thought to fit a three-hour workshop. A good guidelines is, an interactive workshop can only accommodate 2-3 concepts per hour.

An interactive workshop can only accommodate 2-3 concepts per hour.

I chose to focus on talking about teambuilding and disruptors using games. Because I didn’t know who would show up for this public workshop, I chose improv games that I call “low entry”; this which means a normal person would have to have minimal buy-in to participate. These games can be:

  • Non-verbal – I don’t have to worry about saying something stupid
  • Repetition games – everyone repeats the same phrase, I don’t have to choose words
  • Group games – I don’t have to “perform”; everyone else is doing it too

I developed the workshop using the model my improv teacher uses. Explain the premise, explain the game, do the game, then discuss the game as a group. This gives people usable chunks in context. We also kept the premise as straightforward as possible.

People worrying about standing up and making funny noises in front of everyone aren’t primed to be taking in complicated information.

One of the benefits about this workshop subject is that it is self-reinforcing. We talked about how games teambuild and build camaraderie; throughout the workshop, they felt this happening. People felt more connected to those in the room and felt looser to experiment.

We used the discussion of disruptors to call attention to the mood in the room. Deliberately taking a break after talking about using disruptors to break up low energy. Then, we ran a game that gets people overexcited followed quickly by an exercise to get people into a lower energy state.

I will continue to post more about improv and Design Thinking concepts in later posts.

If you are interested, below is the ad for the 3-hour workshop that was run through the OpenIDEO DC Meetup group.


How can you make Human-Centered Design (HCD) more fun? Let’s face it, thinking for 4-8 straight hours is hard work. What if you had an extra set of tools in your toolkit to relieve frustration, increase energy, and generally get people acting like a team? Reflex Improv and Open IDEO DC have joined forces to bring you a Business/Applied Improv workshop!

We will discuss common hurdles faced in HCD sessions (and in life in general) and guide everyone through improv games that can help remove those hurdles. There is absolutely no improv experience needed to attend. All the improv games are chosen to be easy to pick up and fun to participate in.

  • Participation isn’t mandatory, but is highly encouraged.
  • Introverted? No problem! Oddly enough, introverts love improv games.
  • No prior experience with HCD is necessary.

This workshop is developed and facilitated by Reflex Improv. We offer dynamic, fun, creative and informative organizational improv workshops for the workplace that promote collaboration, problem solving, conflict resolution, design thinking, and creativity. We can get any group working and laughing together very quickly! ReflexImprov.com

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