NEW YORK — A few years ago, for complex reasons, I attended the orientation week for Columbia Business School students. The week involved team-building exercises that forced us to solve problems together. It included a module on ethics, in which we were asked to respond to hypothetical dilemmas. There was, of course, a near-lethal amount of alcohol consumption. And, one morning, as we gathered (quite hung over) in the auditorium, we did improv.
Improvisational comedy workshops have become a staple at business schools, and in the corporate world in general. Bob Kulhan, co-founder of Business Improvisations, helped originate the trend. In 2000, drawing on his experience performing on the Chicago sketch comedy scene, Kulhan partnered with a professor at Duke's Fuqua School of Business to launch an improv training program tailored to MBA students. The program expanded to the business schools at UCLA, Columbia, and Indiana, among other universities.
Kulhan later moved beyond academia to lead organized workshops for employees of companies such as American Express, Dupont, Ford, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble. "Through improv," says Kulhan, "we can work on anything from leadership, to influence, to adaptability, to crisis management. We can help people's communication skills. We can show them how to stay focused, in the present moment, at a very high level."
At first glance, zany improv and the straight-laced corporate world might seem to be unlikely bedfellows. But the cross-pollination between comedy and business has led both to fruitful managerial skills development for executives and to fruitful employment for funny folks. Comedians have not only led training workshops, but have begun to infiltrate marketing departments and advertising agencies. They have even, in at least one case, put their stamp on an entire workplace culture.
"Improv workshops used to be a tougher sell," says Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution and its corporate-targeted offshoot Imergence. "People thought of wigs and props. But now a lot of companies are very open to it. They see the benefits."