John Sweeney, co-owner of Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis

Know How: Improving business through improv

Companies like 3M, General Mills, Google, and Microsoft use the Brave New Workshop as a form of professional development

By Erica Rivera

What could comedy possibly have to do with improving business? Plenty, according to John Sweeney, co-owner of the improvisational and sketch comedy theater Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. Founded in 1958 by Dudley Riggs, it’s the longest-running comedy theater in the United States.
About 15 years ago, Sweeney, a longtime veteran of the theater’s stage and a co-owner since 1997, began teaching the skills, behaviors, and mind-set of improvisation. The resulting Creative Outreach programs offer public speaking training, women’s workshops, leadership development, event consulting, and innovation seminars.
The programs incorporate exercises that teach and model the Big Five: listening, declaring, deferring judgment, reframing, and jumping in. A culture incorporating these behaviors allows people to embrace mistakes, seek out change, experiment, co-create, and celebrate diversity, all of which ultimately leads to innovation and increased productivity.
The Creative Outreach programs also teach the “Yes, and,” perspective, a bedrock of successful improv. When an actor launches in a new direction during a scene, saying “no” is not an option. “Yes, and,” however, is. The latter opens up the conversation and encourages non-judgmental brainstorming and fresh ideas. 
Businesses go through a consultative process when they contact the theater’s Creative Outreach. An initial interview with Sweeney begins with two queries: “What does it look like when your team isn’t performing very well?” and “What would it look like when your team is performing really well?” 
After 12 years and 1,500 engagements with companies — among them 3M, General Mills, Google, Microsoft, and Thomson Reuters — Sweeney concluded that the most common roadblock to innovation is employees who are “checked out.” The primary desire of employers is for people to stop hesitating and jump in. 
Whatever the transformative goal of the training is, “We create those trackable metrics and then we teach toward those,” Sweeney says. The goal could be anything from “We want this group of 500 people to increase the amount of new product ideas that they produce” to “We want better scores on our customer satisfaction survey.” 
The bulk of the programs are conducted out of state, and are utilized by companies ranging in size from 25 to 20,000 employees. Sweeney works with other facilitators who are also veterans of the theater’s stage. 
Typically a program begins with a keynote speech from Sweeney. Education follows in one of three program formats: Open Mind (for individuals), Open Space (for mid- to upper-level managers), and Open Culture (for executives).
The most cost-effective way for large organizations to use Creative Outreach is by selecting representatives to participate in a two-day “train the trainer” boot camp. After being certified in the program’s technique, the facilitator takes that knowledge back to the company and trains colleagues. An ongoing program called Open Gym allows the organization to sustain the new behaviors and make them more habitual, while the Ambassador program unites facilitators with others trained in improv techniques. 
The training is designed so that corporate reps don’t need a background in improvisation to be successful facilitators. They just have to be articulate and passionate. 
The exercises are targeted to the company’s industry and its specific needs. What is taught to members of the health care sector might differ from the training for a retail company. “The [exercises] that we use are specific to each of the programs, but also customized to the audience and what those folks do for a living,” Sweeney says. 
Susan Brust, vice president of business development at Nordic Ware, booked Creative Outreach for the company’s national sales meeting in January. The Minneapolis-based kitchenware maker (best known for the Bundt Pan) has been in business since 1946, “and the reason we’ve been able to do that is because we are changing with the times,” says Brust, also one of the company’s five owners. “We were trying to encourage our sales team, who come in from all over the country, to be able to think on their feet. They get in a selling situation and they’re only given a few minutes to meet with the buyer. It’s fast. You’ve got to be able to go with the flow, and that’s what improvisation is all about.” 
Ad-libbing and word association were just two of the exercises the sales team experimented with. “I was amazed at the amount of material and detail that were specific to our company and our needs that John wove into the improvisation,” Brust says. She feels the program instilled confidence in the participants and empowered them. 
One common denominator of the various programs is that the facilitators create an environment that helps participants feel safe. Within the first 10 minutes, Sweeney reassures the group that “part of our progress, like any fitness program, is that things might be awkward or sore or uncomfortable and we might stretch,” he says. “We just reframe their hesitation and reluctance into the clear and drastic symptom of a mind of fear. We do everything we can to ease their anxiousness.” 
In his keynote training, Sweeney, who has given over 1,000 keynote speeches (and watched just as many) over the course of his career, encourages speakers to present a simple set of principles, skills, or insights that the audience can grasp in a short amount of time. He also emphasizes making a clear bridge from the topic of the speech to how it can be put to immediate use by the listener. 
“The keynote speaker needs to understand their role is to serve the audience,” Sweeney says. “If you haven’t given them a couple of things that they can literally do the next day to improve their productivity at work, there’s no functionality in that.” 
All of the Creative Outreach programs aim to shift participants into a mind-set of discovery. When the program is complete, businesses often report back to Sweeney that engagement and collaboration increase, solutions arise more easily, and general well-being improves. 
Participants, says Sweeney, “blossom in their productivity and in their ability to work with others.”