15 Improv games to develop leadership skills and ensemble thinking in your group (part one)

There’s nothing like a last minute push to plan a meeting. You’re dying for that perfect game you played that one time (when? where?) to shake up your staff meeting, but you can’t quite remember how it goes.

Unabashedly philosophical rant

We – like all facilitators who use improv – are often asked for game instructions. We used to just wriggle out of the question. It’s not that we’re unhelpful people. It’s that games are constantly being invented, morphed and re-invented just by virtue of the fact that multiple people with diverse perspectives play them under a variety of circumstances. Improv is an open-source, evolutionary art form. Writing step-by-step game instructions feels a bit like pinning down ideas that are in perpetual metamorphosis.

If we’re really honest (and we are), we also had a sneaking suspicion that when  people asked for game instructions, what some of them were really asking for was certainty. Can you give me the no-fail, exact, hedge-against-every-contingency instructions? What do I have to do to make sure this works with my team? How can I guarantee they’ll play?

We know (humbly, from experience) the only way to get past the desire for certainty is to take risks. We suspect you’re here because you’re interested in thriving during change and uncertainty – which means you’re probably happy to embrace a little of both while facilitating an improv game. So let us stop wriggling and help.

15 of our faves

As you know, you can use improv games to develop ensemble thinking in groups, encourage leadership thinking within the ensemble, and help groups approach challenges in a new way. These games are meant to practice group co-creation and release the collective intelligence of the group, in order to make obvious how the whole of any group is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

What really makes these games FUNNER though, is how they banish status from the room. As primates, human beings naturally vy for status. When we level the playing field with play, we keep that inclination toward hierarchy outside the room, allowing players to share equal status in the here and now.

There are terrific writeups for many of these games on the Improv Toolkit for Educators hosted by dschool, the Institute of Design at Stanford (where they’re linked below, you’ll want to scroll through or do a Find command for the specific game). Other games are written up at the ad hoc clearinghouse of games, Improv Encyclopedia. A few games are specific to DFCP collaborators past and present, with writeups that, as far as we know, you can only get right here. Have at it! And feel free to pass them along.

Have at it!

  1. Word at a time story – A challenging game that’s terrific for developing group listening, destroying the desire to pre-plan, and getting a group to work together toward a common goal.
    1. Shake things up with an orchestrated variation, putting your participants into a choir-style arrangement. As facilitator, point to people one at a time – as long as you’re pointing at them, they have to keep telling the story. Unpredictably, point to someone else, who must immediately pick up the story from where the last person left off. As the pointer, change speakers mid-sentence to keep your group sharp.
    2. Word at a time expert or proverb – A variation on the above that allows for less cohesion and more absurdity, often yielding hilarious results.
  2. I am a tree – This is a physical game that gets people up and to their feet as much as it gets their brains working. By using physically/visually stimulated tableaux, group members brainstorm story ideas and work together without knowing that’s what they’re doing.

    By using physically/visually stimulated tableaux, group members brainstorm story ideas and work together without knowing that’s what they’re doing.

  3. Zip/zap/zop/groovalicious – A good energy stirrer, this game is safe and easy in its beginning stages while cultivating group listening and instinctive reactions. Adding variations allows participants to cut loose as much as they dare.
  4. Pass the clap – Yeah, we know. Don’t think too much about it. This simple exercise can draw the group together quickly, and allow you to laugh at each other as you improve reaction times.
  5. Enemy/defender – A rousing game that always surprises us with the investment from players it inspires. Best if you’ve to enough room for the group to get a bit rambunctious.
  6. Physical telephone – Gestural movement combines with ensemble listening in this silent game. Metaphors for communication – and its capacity to become garbled through multiple people – emerge in a funny way. Check out an oldie-but-goodie DFCP post from 2009 with a sweet video of this game in action. 
  7. Swedish story – A great way to look at storytelling and the power of incorporating input from others. “Swedish Story forces new connections,” as Gary Hirsch says in the linked interview. “It slams agendas and expectations together and allows the unexpected to emerge. It’s created by more than one person. It’s co-created (yes, that word again) and it’s a hell of a lot more fun to tell.” 

    Call us mischevious, but somehow we always end up playing Otter Slap after lunch. Something about lying on your bellies together after you’ve just eaten shakes up everyone’s expectations about entering a comfy food coma. 

  8. Otter slap – Participants lie on their bellies on the floor, with heads toward the center of the circle. Propped up on their elbows, they interlace arms so that each person has their two neighbors’ hands underneath them. Decide which way the slap will travel, then have one person slap (pat) the floor strongly with their hand. The slap must travel around the circle without pauses (much like “Pass the clap). A double slap means the slap changes direction. The object is to keep the slap going quickly around the circle, but the interlacing of the hands can be disorienting! When someone’s hand is too slow, eliminate it by withdrawing it from the circle. The final three compete for a championship title.
  9. Yes/and story – Terrific exercise for developing how players can build off of one another’s ideas.
    1. Variation: Each sentence must refer to one statement from the previous sentence.
    2. If someone forgets to start their sentence with “Yes, and…” then the group functions as a friendly human buzzer, saying “Buzzzz.”
    3. Alternate description, from the Office of Human Resource Development at the University of Wisconsin, is contained within a Word doc here.

This, of course, is just a sample of all the improv games that might work well for your purposes. And if you’re counting, we’re not even to 15 yet. To keep this digestible, we’re making it a two-parter. Watch for five more next week. (And try these in the mean time.)

One thought on “15 Improv games to develop leadership skills and ensemble thinking in your group (part one)

  1. Thanks for sharing these faves, they sparked some great memories for me!

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