Why L&D Needs Play, Fun, and Improv

Doug Hutton, VP of Operations at Second City Works, shares why corporate learning and development benefits from improv, adding fun & fostering empathy

Published on 23 August, 2016 | Last modified on 1 November, 2022
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by Doug Hutton, VP Operations, Second City Works

Show of (virtual) hands – would your learners describe their most recent L&D interaction as fun? In a non-sarcastic way? Perhaps we’ll get more hands (clicks?) with this question – did you incorporate play and games into your last learning event? Our client experiences – before engaging with Second City Works – tell me we could use a few more hands.

At Second City Works, we know our clients want their teams to work smart, work creatively, and collaborate with purpose. And the clients that keep coming back want to have fun doing it. Yet, many L&D professionals are stymied by the conventions and dysfunction of traditional corporate learning. We can all cite those dysfunctions in our sleep – it’s boring, it’s overloaded with PowerPoint, it’s far removed from a learner’s day-to-day, it’s forgotten too quickly, and more. The real question for L&D leaders is this – what are we actually going to do about it?

Here’s what we believe. Don’t ignore the dysfunction – that’s the comedy part. Change the conventions – that’s the improvisation part. We can make learning far better for our organizations and teams – if we face the fear and bring play, fun, and improv into our learning experiences.

Why Improv is Relevant Today (More Than Ever)

There are many reasons why the importance of fun, immersive, and experiential learning is only increasing, beyond the rote desire to decrease boredom. In fact, there are several factors at play that 10-15 years ago, L&D didn’t need to consider nearly as much:

  • More diverse and multi-generational teams struggle to bridge communication divides at precisely the time when more collaboration requires clear, concise communication
  • Individuals seek greater emotional connection and empowerment in all areas of life, including our work, yet increasing digitization of learning often subtracts the human touch
  • Our teams expect to get in on the act. They are no longer a passive audience. Education, entertainment, and audience-driven narratives are coming together in new ways.

Second City Improv Content

How to Use Improv in L&D

So how does improvisation bring fun into the world of L&D? I’m glad you asked.

Improv Is Education

Second City may be known for its famous names and faces, but it comes from humble origins. Viola Spolin, the mother of Second City founder Paul Sills, used improvisational games to help immigrant children better assimilate into their new surroundings. Providing these learning experiences in behaving collaboratively and empathetically gave the children the tools they needed for success. These deep roots in learning make improvisation a unique tool for L&D leaders.

Improv Is Play and Games

Viola Spolin ultimately codified her teaching in the book Theater Games. It literally has games in the title. Just as every comedic sketch on a Second City stage comes from improvised play, corporate learning can (and should!) begin from a space of openness, fearlessness, and creativity.

Improv Gets the Audience In On the Act

We too often develop curriculum in a vacuum, two steps removed from the reality our learners face on the job. Improv flips that model entirely. Audience suggestion always paves the way for a new sketch. Let your learners help lead the way and involve them in creation. Learners are far more likely to retain knowledge they had a hand in creating.

Improv Breaks Down Siloes

We create artificial barriers to authentic human connection at work, from cubicle walls to passive aggressive email. L&D needs to pave the way in designing programs that break those barriers, putting real communication and collaboration back on the learning agenda. Improvisation provides a common shared space in which to learn and create. Every ensemble member is equally important in their contribution to success.

Improv Creates Abundance

As L&D leaders, we profess a love for ongoing learning and yet our budgets often allow only point-in-time solutions. Improv can create an abundant, ongoing learning experience. Learners can practice improv-based skills every day, from living out ‘yes, and’ to demonstrating empathy. And when you leverage your audience for the next wave of content and programming, you’ll have more insight than you ever thought possible.

Learners today crave engagement desperately. They desire new ways to learn and retain that don’t require 30 minutes clicking through courseware or another afternoon of PowerPoint. Behind the social shell, we recognize the need to re-establish authentic human connection through powerful communication. L&D can lead the way with an improviser’s approach to learning, one that puts play, games, and fun front and center in the learner’s experience.

Doug Hutton leads the Second City Works’ product, marketing, and operations teams, bringing to market new solutions that use improvisation to make work better for individuals, teams, and organizations. These solutions help L&D leaders bring immersive, experiential learning to the organization in both live and digital formats. Prior to joining Second City Works, Doug spent 10 years at CEB, most recently leading product development teams in the talent management and sales effectiveness verticals. Although heretical to Chicago, Doug loves the New York Yankees (27 titles!) and New York Giants. He loves traveling, and thanks to his grandfather (a native Chicagoan), he can tell you the exact number of air miles he has flown since birth.

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