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Over the past few years, improv has become more and more accepted in the business world. Not only is it seen as a way for teams to connect on a deeper level but also as a way for everyone in an organization to improve how they work together. On today's show, Gary Ware shares his story of finding improv and embracing its powerful and positive impact on collaboration and culture.

Be sure and see Gary's talk on Leveraging Improvisation to Improve Collaboration Across Teams at the Digital PM Summit this October 15-17 in Las Vegas. Get your tickets now!

Announcer: 
Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital and Organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support they never had. Each episode we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey, everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl, and with me today, I have the man whose name, you can't just say his first name. It's Gary Ware. It just pulls you in.

Gary is the chief strategy officer at Tower33, he is an improv comic, and he's the founder of Breakthrough Play, which may be my favorite company of the year, as I started looking around on there.

So how's it going today, Gary?

Gary Ware:
I'm doing fantastic. How are you doing, Carl?

Carl Smith:
I'm doing well. And anybody who knows me will be impressed that I said well instead of great.

Gary Ware:
Ah, that is awesome. I almost said effing fantastic, so I had to censor myself for a split second.

Carl Smith:
You can do that. We need it. We need for the ratings, Gary.

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Drop some f-bombs.

Carl Smith:
You're going to have to drop some, and I'll clean up the collateral damage. Don't even worry about it. But you're going to be joining us in Vegas at Digital PM Summit. Pretty cool.

Gary Ware:
Yes. I'm super excited.

Gary Ware:
And I'm going to have to contain myself to stay just within the boundaries of the summit and try to avoid any casinos, but I am extremely excited.

Carl Smith:
Well, and there are some pretty amazing stand-up places around there too.

Gary Ware:
Exactly.

Carl Smith:
Some pretty good comedy shops over there.

Gary Ware:
Yep.

Carl Smith:
Now I wanted to asked you, I know you're at Tower33. That's kind of your day job, right?

Gary Ware:
Correct.

Carl Smith:
Tell us about Tower33 a little bit.

Gary Ware:
Yeah, so we're a small team, we've been around for three years, and we do digital marketing. Our thing is, we call it Customer Journey Marketing, so anything that has to do with acquisition of customers, I am the chief strategy officer, and me and my co-founder, the reason why we created it was we wanted to do digital differently.

Carl Smith:
Okay. So how do you do digital differently?

Gary Ware:
I think one of the big things how we approach it is, and we hear this all the time, consumer first, consumer first, consumer first. Having come from a large agency background, a lot of times, you get away from that, and it becomes more about bottom line, and what can we sell into our clients, regardless if we think it's going to be a good fit, and we, me and my business partner, when we decided to create this, we wanted to just be, do something that provides value. So the types of clients that we like to work with are the ones who have similar values to ours, and it's our mission, we call it do good, be great.

Carl Smith:
I saw on the site. That was classic.

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
So now you've always done improv, or is this something that hit you later in life?

Gary Ware:
As far as improv, I've only been doing improvisation for the last six years, and I got into it by accident.

Carl Smith:
So how'd you get into it? What was the accident?

Gary Ware:
Yeah, it was ... I didn't like Toastmasters. I wanted to be a better public speaker. I took Toastmasters, and don't get me wrong. Toastmasters taught me really good foundation as far as delivery and whatnot. It's just I felt so anxious and so stressed out going to these meetings because I felt like I was being judged, and I wanted to be right, and I didn't want to make mistakes.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Gary Ware:
Yeah, and it was just so nerve-wracking, and then a mentor of mine said, "Hey, Gary. What about improv?" And I thought to myself, "I don't think I'm funny. I'm not like a Wayne Brady. I'm not a Drew Carey. Like, that's not me." And he said, "Just, just give it a shot. Give it a shot. I'm confident you're going to really love it. It's not what you think." 

And yeah. I did, and I fell in love with it. It became my antidrug. I wanted to do improv all day every day, and the magical thing about improv, and I bring it to the work that I do when I do improv workshops with companies, is it allowed me to improve every aspect of my life. And I'm not exaggerating.

Carl Smith:
And I will say, Drew Carey could be the poster child for not being funny and doing improv, so you were being very nice to him.

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And Wayne Brady, Ryan Stiles, those guys are hilarious.

Gary Ware:
Yes. Yeah, they are. Yeah.

Carl Smith:
Drew, meh, not so much.

Gary Ware:
Meh, nothing much.

Carl Smith:
So every aspect of your life?

Gary Ware:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
So give me an example of that. Like how does it help you in the morning, like when you're just getting up?

Gary Ware:
Yeah, so before I talk about that, I want to preface it by saying in order to do improvisation, I had to learn some principles. I'm not going to really give away all the principles, but there are certain principles that improvisers learn that allow them to do magic on stage by being witty and making things up, and it's really funny, because I have this strong belief that how you do anything is how you do everything, and so it's not like once I was done with improv class or improv performing, I could just turn that off.

Carl Smith:
Right.

Gary Ware:
And so I, one of the principles of improvisation is fail fast, and that just means that you're willing to make mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen, and you just got to just go with the flow.

And so think about, you asked me how does improv help me in the morning? Well, a lot of times, I like to have a very, this is the things I'm going to do. You read about productivity, and they talk about planning your day out and having some things that you want to do. Well, I'm a new dad. I have a three-month year old, and as much as I like to have structure, I have to be willing to be agile and be willing to be flexible. And that's, again, you could be very rigid and just be cynical and mad when things don't go your way, or you can just see everything as a gift and be willing to shift.

Carl Smith:
Well, and if you've got a three-month old, then improv, you have got a great audience there.

Gary Ware:
Yeah, exactly. He, my son, thinks I'm the most funniest guy ever, and I hope that stays that way, but from what I hear, I only have a few more years of that, and then it's that he's probably not going to think that I'm that funny anymore.

Carl Smith:
Well, now I would say you probably have until seven, maybe nine.

Gary Ware:
That's what I hear.

Carl Smith:
Yeah, I was going to say, because it's, somebody explained this to me, the early years are your god years. You can do no wrong. You're the funniest. You're the strongest. You're the smartest. Then you go straight from god years to idiot years. You're immediately an idiot, and that, Gary, is when I think you should get a show on the road.

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Exactly. That's what I need to start toward, and that's when I need to transition to the stand-up comedy and start writing some this stuff out.

Carl Smith:
So you go through, you take improv classes, you decide, "This is something that I need in my life," and then what happens next? Do you start doing improv comedy, or do you dive into breakthrough play?

Gary Ware:
Yeah, I started doing shows, and at the same time ... So I auditioned, and I got picked up from a number of theaters here in San Diego, and at the same time, because I was such a fanboy of improv and how it made me feel, I started taking it to the games that we were playing, started taking it back to my teams. And I've always led teams within digital marketing, some big teams, some small teams, and those games that were just fun games that I was just like, "Hey, we should play this," just to break up the monotony of the day, actually started making our teams jell better. We were listening better, we were being more creative, performance started improving, we were more engaged with each other and with our clients, and it's, as I've been doing this for half a decade now, and then I really geek out on the science of this, I thought it was just a coincidence. But there's no coincidence in the science that goes behind why this works.

Carl Smith:
I can tell you that we had what we would call a culture call at nGen, my company, and if we did not have a moment on this call, which was just the team and the client, before we took a check, before we signed any papers, if there wasn't a moment of laughter, we normally wouldn't take the project.

If something didn't happen in those 30, 45 minutes that we could look back on and go, "No, we share something. We share a sense of humor. We thought that was funny," the project is going to suck, you know?

Gary Ware:
I agree.

Carl Smith:
Because nothing bad has happened yet. What happens when things go bad?

Gary Ware:
Yes. Yeah, exactly. And one of the things that it taught us, it actually made us closer, and the one thing that I realized looking back was nothing changed. Clients were still clients. We had good days, and we had bad days. We just had a different perspective. We saw it differently.

And another thing that we did that is really funny, we had a client that was a terror, and now, having my own agency, we can be a little bit more selective with clients, but back then, you worked on the accounts that you worked on, and this account, the client wasn't the nicest to us. I personally thought that that person saw their agency as their scapegoat, and I felt bad for them, because they were in a tough spot. The company wasn't necessarily doing that great, and they were under a lot of pressure.

So we would have calls, and before us playing improv games, stuff like that, it would just be, we would end these calls just feeling so exhausted, so beat down. And we played a game during one of these calls, and it actually, when I saw this study later on, I realized that it wasn't ... It may be seen as something like disobedience, but it actually helps people be more engaged, and we played, we called it Buzzword Bingo. So every time the client said certain buzzwords, we would make a little check mark, and then afterwards, we all would go take shots.

And so I read a study that if people play some sort of bingo game during a talk, it actually forces them to be more engaged and pay attention, and they retain more. And the fact that we have each others' back, and we realize, "You know what? The client may be beating us up, but you know, we have to support each other," it really just helped us continue to do the work and do good work.

Carl Smith:
So now that you've got your own shop, do you bring the client in on games?

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Matter of fact, we like to do a lot of icebreaker games before meetings, and I like to say this. If you're doing a sport, an athletic sport, isn't it an intelligent thing to warm up? And most people say, "Yes." And I say, "Well, a meeting, though, is not a sport like running. You need to warm yourself up. You need to get in the right state so that you can be engaged and have a very productive meeting. And if you go into these meetings cold, you have no idea what happened before the meeting, what's on people's minds, and so it's a good way to just clear the air, get everyone in rapport so that you can have a very effective meeting."

Carl Smith:
I like that a lot. I think that's brilliant. Now is that something that you just came up with as you guys were going through, or does this get back to kind of the science of what you've been talking about?

Gary Ware:
Yeah, it's something that, again, a lot of these things, I did on accident, and then as I became more proficient in the field, I learned that there's a lot of science behind that of ... They talk about this, and persuasion is ... Persuasion, if you want to be a persuasive person, someone that can communicate very effectively, and it doesn't mean that you are coercing someone to do something outside their will. It's getting someone to do something that they want to do, you have to be in a state of rapport. And rapport just means that they're open to hear you out, and a lot of times, if someone is closed-minded, they're not going to hear or see things the way that they would have if they were just more relaxed.

So these games, they break the ice, they break the tension, and like you said, Carl, it gets people laughing, giggling, and when you do that, it produces all those amazing drugs in your body, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and all those things that are going to put everyone on the same page, and make for a very engaging, productive, and effective meeting.

Carl Smith:
So you start to see how this is impacting you at work. At what point do you decide, "I want to create my own company where we focus on this."?

Gary Ware:
This happened, I think, two or three years afterwards where I started being in the marketing industry, doing a number of different talks on behalf of clients and customers, and I'm the type of person, like if you get to know me, you get to know everything about me. And I can't help but to talk about the fact that I do improv, and a lot of times, people, they get that feeling like, "Oh my god. Improv? Oh my god. I can't believe you do improv. That's so scary." And I say, "It seems that way, and I thought the same thing, but it's just really plain." And then they said, "Oh, really?" And I got offers to come to various companies to do an improv workshop.

And the reason afterwards, when I do the debrief, and I talk about, we recap and talk about the experience and what they got from it, and I kept getting the same feedback over and over again is that they liked the fact that I had been in the industry, that I have led teams, I have grown teams, I have been a team player, I've worked for crappy bosses and amazing bosses, because I can see things from their perspective, and I can design experiences that would really take advantage of the things that they're dealing with.

Carl Smith:
So when you're going through this, and you're doing the workshop, I know that one of the things I've heard you talk about is the breakthrough moment.

Gary Ware:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Carl Smith:
You know, that moment where you're just like, "Oh." So do you see that in the workshops?

Gary Ware:
Yes, and this is, it's really magical when this happens. And again, everything, I like to say it's always part art, part science, and the science behind this is your brain is not a linear thinker. Your brain is always trying to connect the dots, and if you set up an experience that will allow you to focus on an area that you're trying to work through, and it's in a very playful manner, you're turning off your judgment part of your brain, and you're opening up your prefrontal cortex that is responsible for creativity and imagination, and your brain will immediately start to make those connections. That's just how the brain works.

And those breakthrough moments that I talk about is when we set up a game, set up an environment that is dealing with a challenge, normally, if you're going to talk about, "You know what? We need to work on communication. We're not open communicators. There's a lot of bogarting and stuff like that." And if you just normally had that conversation, people are going to put up walls, they're going to be defensive, because they're protecting themselves. However, with these experiences and these games, they're just silly games that, to the player, they just think it's unrelated to anything. They're just having a great time, and then the magic happens when you do the debrief.

After we play the game, I ask a number of questions. "How was that to play that game? Anything come out from you? And more importantly, how can you relate this back to your day to day job?" Or whatever the scenario of the experience is, and that's when people start saying, "Wow." The cool thing is they start seeing it from a different perspective, and then that's, when you see something from a different perspective, you're open to a new possibility.

Carl Smith:
And if they're doing this with people that they work with, there's probably a new level of connection and a new level of care.

Gary Ware:
Exactly.

Carl Smith:
I know that when, for a distributed team, when you have those moments, those annual retreats or whatever, there is a period when you get back to work of improved productivity, because people aren't seeing pixels anymore. "That's Larry. He plays trombone." Right?

Gary Ware:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
It's not really Larry. I don't know a Larry. I know people that play trombone.

Gary Ware:
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

Carl Smith:
But it's one of those. You're like, now you're working with a human being, not with a coworker.

Gary Ware:
Exactly, and you're going to have more empathy for them, you're going to see things from their point of view, and the things that might have irritated you or made you feel resentful, you're going to start to see it differently. And that, again, is why this happens, is when you have a peak emotional experience, a PEE, any sort of arousal, whether it's positive or negative, your brain in that moment takes snapshots. It's almost like it's HD video, 4k video of everything that's going on. Who is in the situation, how you're feeling, where are you, and it starts to make associations.

And you're right. When you're having a great time, you're going to say, "Wow. I'm having a great time. I'm with Larry. I must like Larry." That's just how our brains work. We've been wired like that for tens of thousands of years. Before we were able to communicate with language, we were able to figure that out, and then you just start seeing things differently.

That's why they say, "Go have happy hour. Go do some stuff." You're right. Just by having a great time, you're going to feel closer with someone. The added benefit of some of the experiences that I provide is that not only are you going to feel closer, but you're going to work out some common challenges that a lot of companies face.

Carl Smith:
And you're going to be putting on a interactive session at the Digital PM Summit, and correct if I'm wrong, but it's all around improvisation as a way, as a tool, really, to get better collaboration?

Gary Ware:
Correct. Yeah, Digital PM's, I feel for them. They have a very challenging job. They're, I like to say, they're like the conductor. They have to be able to speak different languages, and not just different languages as in English or something else. They have to be able to speak to programmers and to clients. They have to be able to navigate these tough waters, and they have to be able to help people get stuff done and be able to collaborate.

And the cool thing about improvisation and play, it gives you a nomenclature, and it gives you a framework that will allow you to have very repeatable performance.

Carl Smith:
Well, Gary, I'm excited to see the workshop. Hopefully, I'll get to participate in the workshop. We'll see, you know? I mean, I'll be at work, but my job's pretty cool, pretty flexible.

Gary Ware:
Exactly.

Carl Smith:
It's going to be this October 15th through 17th in Vegas, and we look forward to having you there, and thank you so much for being on the show today.

Gary Ware:
Yeah. Thank you for having me, Carl. I really appreciate it.

Carl Smith:
And to everybody listening, show up in Vegas. Gary is hilarious. It's going to be a lot of fun, and you'll be better at collaborating when you get back.

Gary Ware:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
How bad would that be?

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