Establishing a Collaborative Culture

One of my favorite shows of all time has to be “Whose Line is it Anyway?” The show ran from 1998 – 2006 on ABC and can still be found in reruns every now and then. If you haven’t seen it, the premise was to pull in several guest actors along with a regular cast and have them “improv” scenes either pulled from a hat or suggested by the audience on the spot. I would watch every episode and wonder, “How are they able to be so creative, funny, and interesting without knowing what will come next?” The more I watched the show, the more I realized that the skills of improv and the skills of effective collaboration are very much the same. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the skills you see in the best improv artists are identical to the ones you see in the best team members.

In the book, Training to Imagine, improv artist Kat Koppett discusses the six principles of improvisation and how they relate to creativity and teamwork. As I work more and more with online tools and global groups, I realized that many of these same skills make the difference between successful collaboration and ritual participation. Three in particular are at the core of what we’re building in this group. So what are these magical skills and how can you use them to build a collaborative environment even when working in a virtual space?

Skill 1: Trust
In order to function productively as a group, there must be a tangible trust between all members. Setting group norms and defining group values is an important first step. Once those norms are set, members must make the agreement to abide by them. Talking the talk without walking the walk is a fast ticket to breaking the trust you’ve built. When I lead groups through improv activities, the first attempts are usually halting and hesitant, because the foundation of trust hasn’t yet been established. Participants spend time self-censoring because they worry about how and if their contributions will be perceived by the group. Building trust leads to the willingness to take risks and ultimately to a more productive team.

Skill 2: Accepting Offers
Yes, and…. thinking is the number one rule in improv work, so much so that one of the most popular improv forums is named after the concept. Yes, and… thinking is the concept of accepting an idea and then building on it. This power of positive thinking is one we all acknowledge, but its power is often underestimated when working with others. Keith Johnstone, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary and founder of TheatreSports says:
“There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no.’ Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

I often think about this quote when working with young children (or even ornery teens…). Perhaps the no’s they produce with such regularity are actually a need for safety when trust hasn’t been established. You’ll find some people are naturals at using “Yes, and…” and others have to work at it. But, it’s a skill worth building if you want a collaborative effort to thrive. I’ve found this skill so valuable, that we made “Yes, and…” bracelets for the participants in our district’s annual “Digital Learning Summer Institute.” They serve as a physical reminder of the need to build trust through acceptance.

Skill 3: Listening and Awareness
Early on in most teams, individuals focus on their own personal needs. Questions like, “What can I get out of this exercise?” and “What status do I have in this group?” are uppermost in the minds of participants. Gradually though, a productive team begins to see a shift. Members begin to build a natural rhythm of give and take so that their needs are met while meeting the needs of others. There are many ways to build this awareness in a team, but the easiest is to practice being fully present. Take the time to read between the lines and find out what others are looking to give and what they need to receive. Ask questions and give answers in return. Make sure to balance your time contributing to the common output with your time taking in.

So what do you think? How important are these skills to you? Are there others that you’d add to the list? Share your thoughts!

Apply it!
1. Be a random voice of positivity this week. Take a minute and find a blog post somewhere on the web and Yes, and… the ideas you see there. Do the same during your next planning session with your team. See how far you can take an idea if you accept and build on it!

2. Go back and take a look at the norms you’ve built in your teams. Do you think they help engender trust within the group or are there other things you need in order to feel trust?


Fred Mindlin on July 6, 2010 at 11:48 pm.

Love your resources, I’m curious that you haven’t actually reused the title phrase “beyond digital storytelling,” anywhere on the site with that name that I’ve found so far, and I wonder where you get to when you go beyond DS…Seems like most of what I’ve seen so far will help a lot to get INTO digital storytelling! Thanks for the suggestions.

I’d like to link to your work from my sites and

Cheers, Fred

Fred Mindlin
Associate Director for Technology Integration
Central California Writing Project
“Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” — John Holt


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