Workers learn to roll with the punches

Jean Delano, Denis Buttimer, Allison Gilmore and Elisabeth Beasley

l-r-Jean Delano, Denis Buttimer, Allison Gilmore and Elisabeth Beasley all take part in a group improv exercise at Piedmont Hospital. Allison and Elizabeth are the Du More Improv team and teach improv skills to groups and companies to build leadership skills and teamwork. Dennis is a counselor and coach with Piedmont Hospital. Photo by Leita Cowart, for the AJC.

Laura Raines, for the AJC

Theoretically, American businesses run on a plan. There’s a budget, a mission statement, a sales strategy and a corporate structure with leaders and workers. It looks good on paper.

But what happens when the main plant goes down, the leading client leaves, the company merges with another, departments get realigned and jobs get cut? You improvise.

“Life and business are a lot like improv theater. You don’t get a script. A lot of what happens is unplanned, and it helps if you have the skills to make the most of it,” said Allison Gilmore, director of the Ph.D. in Business Program at the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University. She’s also the founder of DuMore Improv, a group that provides leadership and team-building training to corporations and organizations using improvisational techniques.

Gilmore, a founding member of Laughing Matters and one of the Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy, uses her business and comedy experience to teach people how to think on their feet, know their strengths, be more intuitive, listen actively and communicate better.

“These are life tools you can keep, whether you’re a CEO, a pastor or a cancer patient who needs to learn how to take control of his own care,” Gilmore said.

Taking people out of their comfort zone, she teaches them basic leadership and team-building concepts in a fun and memorable way. In one exercise, a circle of 10 or 12 people are asked to throw an imaginary blue ball saying when they throw it and catch it. Then she adds an imaginary red ball. It gets crazier as she adds a virtual wet baby, and later, a chain saw.

“There’s a lot of laughter and shouts like, ‘Whose got the wet baby?’ ” Gilmore said. Afterward, Gilmore will help them look at what made the exercise easier — things like listening to each other, making eye contact and acknowledging when someone was passing off and receiving the wet baby, which serves as an apt metaphor for any assignment.

“Gilmore’s improv seminar was valuable because it got stodgy executive types to loosen up and work together. I learned tips and techniques for handling situations that I still use today,” said John Burdett, who took the seminar as part of his executive MBA program at Emory.

Today, he’s the chief operating officer at TicketBiscuit, an online ticketing company in Birmingham.

“The best take-away lesson was seeing how using the words ‘Yes, and’ rather than ‘No, but’ leads to more creative problem solving and better outcomes in tough negotiations,” he said.

Online-training modules and traditional classes have their place, but Gilmore sees great success with her lighter approach.

“People coming together to learn about themselves and their behavior, to laugh and de-stress, that’s valuable. I think we need more innovation today,” she said.

“People tend to remember what they learn when they are relaxed and using all their senses,” said Karin Zarin, sales executive for Drum Café in Atlanta. Begun in Johannesburg, South Africa, 13 years ago, the Drum Café concept uses interactive drumming to break down barriers and bring people together.

Drum Café in Atlanta works with organizational and corporate clients to design programs that will help them build stronger teams and morale.

“Drumming gets people through the fear of doing something they think they can’t do. I’ve seen a shy, introverted engineer take a tambourine and dance across the stage to the surprise and cheers of his peers. You can’t put a price tag on that,” Zarin said. “It opens up people’s creative side, helps them to see co-workers in a new light and is a great stress booster. The experience can be transformational on a personal and organizational level.”

Collective drumming requires good listening, learning to trust, working together cooperatively and seeing when to be a leader and a follower.

“It’s a wonderful metaphor for encouraging teamwork and building trust. The ultimate outcome is to get people to work well together, because when they do that, they are happier and more productive,” Zarin said. “Music is a universal language, so the activity is also effective for international groups.”

In today’s uncertain business world, companies who develop stronger teams and employees through training are making a good investment, Zarin said. Keeping it light and adding a little fun wouldn’t hurt, either.

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