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Brave New Workshop teaches how the magic behind improv can help businesses

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 6/16/2021 Catherine Roberts, Star Tribune
a group of people standing in a room: Doctors took part in an improv session at Brave New Workshop as part of a HealthPartners program on communication and stress. © RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • renee Doctors took part in an improv session at Brave New Workshop as part of a HealthPartners program on communication and stress.

As the Twin Cities and the nation pull out of a pandemic economy, what is apparent to almost everyone is both the need and opportunity for change.

It's the same feeling as when the country pulled out of the last recession: How can companies rebuild differently?

For some, it might mean a hybrid work model to add more work/life flexibility. For others, who by the nature of their businesses or jobs have been in-person all along, that flexibility and innovation will look very different.

Many of the companies that are on this year's Top Workplaces list are there because they get how company culture can affect change and have tried to be even more transparent with employees on business decisions throughout the past year.

It takes more than the right technology and skills — although those are important — to cement shifts. If you don't have the right mind-set, the tool kit and skill set will falter.

"Companies tend to focus their training on the top two, because they are more concrete, and easier to measure with metrics or return on investment," said John Sweeney, CEO of the Brave New Workshop. "We ignore that bottom one."

But mind-set is what allows employees to do their best — no matter if the company is going through a hard time or has the resources to grow into new areas.

Brave New Workshop is a 63-year-old improvisational theater company, making it one of the oldest in the U.S. About two decades ago, the theater realized the skills behind improv could be applied to business and started offering training and emceeing programs (including this year's Top Workplaces event).

What surprises Sweeney the most after 23 years of workshops with 127 corporations is "how much need there still is."

Improv is a lot of fighting against the unknown. You have a starter kit of some developed characters, some lines that work in different situations, some song and dance bits, Sweeney said. "But you don't know your next step. It could be playing JFK or a park bench."

In life, we have a fight-or-flight instinct that evolved thousands of years ago. Built in was a fear of the different, for good reason then, he said.

That set of instincts does not serve us well today. People who look different from us, or a set of circumstances that are a first for you — those now are opportunities for enrichment and success, he said. But people need to learn how to get past that fear point.

a group of people standing in a room: Doctors took part in an improv session at Brave New Workshop as part of a HealthPartners program on communication and stress. © RENÉE JONES SCHNEIDER • renee Doctors took part in an improv session at Brave New Workshop as part of a HealthPartners program on communication and stress.

So people need to set goals for mind-set in the same way you set them for learning new skills and technology, he said.

Connection was key

How companies support innovation and curiosity is one point in the Top Workplaces survey.

The Star Tribune works with Pennsylvania-based Energage each year to produce the Top Workplaces list. To qualify, companies must have 50 employees in Minnesota and agree to participate in an employee survey administered by Energage.

Energage administers the Top Workplaces program in 57 markets. This year, 2,960 companies in the state were nominated. Of those, 396 followed through with the survey, a record for the Star Tribune program.

Nearly 125,800 employees in Minnesota received surveys, and 77,779 returned them. In the end, 175 companies were ranked and 122 others made the national standard setters list.

The 24-question scientific survey gathered information on several broad issues relating to workplace culture: company alignment, coaching, connection, engagement, leadership, performance and basics such as pay and benefits.

Comments on the survey emphasize that the culture and workers' connection to their employer were key to getting through the pandemic year — and to the way businesses will function going forward.

Sweeney agrees that mind-set made a difference in how a company was able to weather all challenges.

It was especially important with the last year, he said, both the changes because of COVID-19 but also the racial reckoning after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Catherine Roberts • 612-673-4292

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