Adventures in improv, VSA-style

by Carolyn Frazier

What do improv, design and project management have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Recently, a group of VSA project managers took part in an improv workshop led by The Second City—just one of the ways we’ve built our team’s skills. Other efforts have included completing Scrum and Project Management Professional, or PMP, certification. In fact, 67 percent of our PM team is either PMP or Scrum certified, though, admittedly, those very important skill-building efforts result in fewer laughs.

As we engaged in a variety of workshops and games with Second City’s hilarious pros, I was struck by how the spirit of improv (rooted in the idea of “Yes, and” thinking) mirrors the spirit of design thinking that is so central to VSA.

Design is focused on problem solving. So is improv.

Design is predicated on all ideas being valid. So is improv.

Design is based on examining the present state and anticipating the future. Yep—so is improv.

The parallels were uncanny. In fact, throughout the training, I found myself thinking, “Yes, and…” And, I wasn’t alone. Everyone on the team was connecting aspects of improv to their work at VSA, whether it has to do with our design-driven approach or project management. But what I found most interesting is that all of these things are rooted in effective communication, which was the main subject of the workshop.

Our project managers agreed that one of the most powerful insights they gained from the session was that we could all benefit from perceiving feedback as a gift. Saying “thank you” (not necessarily out loud) and really considering comments before reacting to them is a great way to process and build upon peers’ comments.

Another noteworthy takeaway: how much your body language and tone impact how people feel—and how one person’s negative actions can affect an entire team’s performance. “You may not agree with someone’s idea, but it’s important to appreciate the effort they are making to provide that idea. This keeps the room open and promotes teamwork,” observed VSA project manager Rachel Zelin.

Perhaps one of the most surprising revelations was that effective communication is more about how content is delivered than about the content itself, an idea supported by a study conducted by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, which was covered in the Harvard Business Review.

Researchers found that a team’s performance level depended less on the content of its discussions and more on the manner in which people interacted with each other. When it came to overall success as a group, the team members’ individual intelligence, personality and skills were all less important than their style of communicating with one another.

I often find myself coming back to another aphorism about communication—playwright and satirist George Bernard Shaw’s words: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” The key to success is human connection. Whether we are designing a solution for a business problem, managing a team, or improvising a sketch, to perform at our optimal level, we need to strive for optimal communication. Living by the mantra “Yes and…” is an excellent start.


Carolyn Frazier  is the project management practice lead across VSA’s offices in Chicago, New York and Detroit, overseeing 35 project managers. Weaving together analytical and problem solving skills with a passion for strategic marketing and mentoring team leaders, she ensures that VSA is successfully delivering work that enhances our clients’ brands and businesses.