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Thinking Outside the Chair

sculpture made of several chairs

The client called asking about our teambuilding program. Their team had become blocked and had the dreaded fear of “thinking outside of the box.” Communication was guarded, making working collaboratively a forced activity. The client (let’s call him Bob) wanted an explanation of what a teambuilding program entails and a description of some of the activities involved.

Jeff Kramer, the owner and manager of the San Jose ComedySportz® team, says “explaining improv activities for teambuilding is like explaining baseball to someone that’s never seen a game before. There’s a guy standing on a mound with a ball in his hand, the pitcher, and he throws the ball at another guy, the hitter. The hitter has to hit the ball with a bat, or long stick and run to a base without someone catching it.” Now doesn’t that make sense?

Nonetheless, I explained one of the improv activities to Bob. The game is called Pat Ball. Using a beach ball, I’ll explain that there are three rules.

  1. Pat the Ball.

  2. Count how many times they pat the ball.

  3. If the ball lands on the floor, game over. Bring the ball back to me.

Nine out of ten times, after explaining the game, the ball is tossed into the group, and no one will pat the ball. They’ll wait for someone else to hit it, and then when asked what happened, they’ll blame the facilitator for not “throwing” the ball right. Someone has to be at fault, and that someone is the facilitator.

The facilitator will regroup and ask how can they improve. They’ll brainstorm an idea or two. When the facilitator begins again, the ball will drop and the group will blame someone else. The point is the group needs to take ownership and understand that if one person fails we all fail. Eventually, the team connects and begins to collaborate, communicate, and freely brainstorm ideas for improvement. They’ll move out of their chairs, and fill out around the room. One client’s team reached 200 pats in this game.

Bob seemed satisfied with this explanation and the teambuilding event was booked for 30 or so top executives of the company.

At the training, everyone sat in the office chairs with wheels in a semicircle, reluctant to participate. We always explain that the training isn’t designed to teach people to be funny or to harass, insult, or heckle anyone. The purpose and philosophy of improv is collaboration at its best.

The game Pat Ball was introduced, and as I explained to Bob when the ball fell the blame was placed on me. Bob, sat there in disbelief, looked at the floor and shook his head.

The second time around they blamed Sarah because she plays volleyball and should have dove for it. Sarah was on the other side of the circle from where the ball dropped, but still, it was her fault.

When asked how can the group improve, one guy, while staying in his chair crept into the center of the semicircle. I asked what he was doing and he replied “strategy.”

I had to laugh and explained that the purpose of the teambuilding was to help them think outside of the box, and they were still not thinking outside of their chair.

They all laughed, and one person said “we can stand up?” Another shouted, “We need more rules!” I exclaimed “only in corporate USA is there a need for more rules in a game played with a beach ball filled with air” and everyone laughed again.

Eventually, the team came together, shifting from defensive behaviors and self-preservation to collaborative behaviors with compassion towards one and other.

Bob and I discussed the results a few weeks later. I asked why he looked down and shook his head after the first round of Pat Ball. After hearing my description of the game, he frankly thought that his team would not behave as described. Their company prides themselves on hiring the brightest and best of the bunch. Yet when the group did behave as described in that first phone conversation he was completely baffled.

All in all, Bob was delighted with the results of the team. The team coined the phrase “Think Outside of the Chair” as a new motto for getting out of their head. There was much more constructive communication and unity with the group and it all happened through lessons of laughter.

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