November 2017
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TD Magazine

Karen Hough

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Founder and CEO, ImprovEdge


Columbus, Ohio

Karen Hough has been using improvisation as the foundation for business training and consulting for more than 10 years. In addition to wearing the hat of entrepreneur at ImprovEdge, she is a keynote speaker, world-class facilitator, and bestselling author. Her recent book, Go With It: Embrace the Unexpected to Drive Change (ATD Press), was released in October.

You worked with Wharton on the psychology and sociology of improv and how it applies to high-performing leaders and teams. Can you share a couple of things that were revealed?

Absolutely. And some of this is based on our ongoing research. At ImprovEdge, we are so lucky because we get to study and test with local schools like Otterbein, which is a place I mentor young women, and where we are constantly coming up with new exercises and materials.

The University of Massachusetts is another place where we have done a lot of work. For me, some of the most interesting things that came out of our research was looking at, for example, how people learn and how they actually develop. What we found was that, in using improvisation, you really pushed people who were experts in their field far out of their comfort zone. What that did was it allowed the adult human brain to create new neural pathways.

People love to be experts—we love to stay in the area where we feel comfortable, smart, and accomplished—so it always causes some physical and mental discomfort to move out of those areas. But that is where we actually create new capabilities and strengthen everything. It is always interesting to me to see how elastic and how much the brain can grow. Even in people who are much older—and brain science is now proving it—we don't necessarily see a decline at that stage. We just have been using the same neural pathways too long. It was fantastic to find out that adults have the capacity to learn, but they have to work a little harder at it than children do, for sure. That's just one example. To me it's just human behavior: Why do people do what they do? It's a fascinating area.

Team equity is a term you talk about rather extensively in your presentations and instruction. Tell us a bit about what it means to you.

It's the secret sauce. Anyone who is on any kind of a group who's had an incredible moment will understand what it means. It can be a sports team, it can be an improv group, it can be a working team. But it's that sort of magic that happens when everybody is all in. Everybody knows that we're either going to go down together or we are going to win together, and everybody is using everything that they have; they are supporting the person who needs to be out front in that moment. Egos go by the wayside.

We talk a lot about how team equity is really about, number one, having a team that brings all the talent that you need to get the job done, which is incredibly important. You've got to be willing to be with people who are much better than you in some things, who have different talents, who have different backgrounds, in order to create something really interesting and innovative.

The next part of team equity is that everybody feels like they have some ownership, that's the equity piece. We all want it to go really well, that we feel like we're an important part, we feel valued. That is so critical right now. I've been reading a lot of research on the effects of incivility in the workplace, people being rude, and it makes other people not feel valued. Guess what? When that goes on, people can't bring their best to the table.

Have you ever been in a group that performed so incredibly well, it was that moment where everybody was all in, doing the hardest work they could? Even just being with a group of people who are cooking together, it's so much fun. And suddenly you realize it's done, it's fantastic. You're not quite sure how it happened, but it did.

People who are more connected are more resilient, research finds. How would you advise organizations or their leaders to help incubate those connections?

Part of it is being willing to give time and space to people to have connections. I love the organizations that really honor the individual's ability to be comfortable in their workplace, where there are places for mothers to have a lactation room, for people to have coffee together, for people from different departments to interact comfortably—where there are environmental spaces for people to come together. It's really critical.

There's an example that I outlined in my new book about a firm I worked with whose leaders and employees realized that they were in a historic building that was all chopped up into little tiny offices, and how much that was getting in the way of collaboration. So they invested a significant amount of effort and money into creating common spaces so their people could come together. They realized it was so important to them to have those connections, have a shared understanding of information, and then be able to move forward more effectively.

Environment is so much more important than people realize. You need to have spaces where people are comfortable and want to come together. I think that, believe it or not, watercooler chat and getting to know about people's families is very critical to a high-performing work team. You need the trust and connectedness.

You note that people can't learn when they feel stressed because they don't make the best decisions. How can learning professionals serve as models, so learners are best able to learn?

This sounds elemental, but it's amazing to me how often I run across facilitators who don't care or take time to make sure that their learners are comfortable. Learners need to be comfortable, they need to be able to see, they need the room they're in not to be either freezing or too hot, they need to be able to hear, they need to have access to a restroom.

I've been in rooms that you walk into and the facilitator says, "Oh well, the facilities weren't set up right so we're just going have to deal with it." There might be junk everywhere or tables in the way. I have moved tables, chairs, changed lights, opened windows, and cleaned places. I never arrive anywhere less than an hour in advance because you never know what you're walking into. Make sure participants have access to water and food, and look after the comfort of their bodies. Because if they are uncomfortable or stressed, they can't learn, and they won't feel safe. That's number one.

Number two is understanding it's about them. You are there in the service of those people learning. Sometimes that means that you're not the smartest one, that you may have to change your agenda, that you need to be willing to be flexible so the people in the room get what they need, not what you need. And that's the hardest thing to accomplish.


That really is the deciding factor when we're working with a new facilitator and we're hoping they will stay with us at ImprovEdge. Their willingness to put themselves secondarily and change some things so that the learners are learning what they need to, and it's not about that facilitator. The more you watch, the more you can see if facilitators have it or they don't.

Given that confidence comes, in part, from the release of testosterone, how do you advise women to gather up their confidence?

Confidence is definitely something that can be improved based on how you choose to hold your body. There's a lot more to it than just the testosterone, which is a naturally occurring hormone in both men and women. We focus on that because it's called the confidence hormone. But I think that—and not just for women, for all people—you need to be willing to take care of yourself and think about your confidence, and take the time to give yourself any kind of a leg up that you can.

If being healthy and eating something that makes you feel like you have control of your health makes you feel more confident, then do it. If dressing in a certain way makes you feel more confident or ready to go, absolutely do it. If feeling prepared or talking to certain people gets you excited and energized, do the things that make you feel like you have control, that you are together, that you're excited. Start to spend as much time being in that space whenever you can because confidence is something you do have to work on, you do have to build, so give it the time it deserves.

What led you to undertake your studies at the Université Paris-Sorbonne?

I loved being at Yale, but I always knew that I wanted to study abroad and French had been my language. I had visited Paris before and I wanted to spend some time there. Then I found out that I would be able to not only study at the Sorbonne because I applied and got in, but that I could actually earn a certificate. The certificate was in French language and history, and that level of work was really challenging, but was also very exciting. I got to do challenging work and I got to live in Paris. So for me it was a win-win all the way around. And I even got to live with a French family so that was just marvelous.

You've recently released your book, so what's next for you?

Putting out a book takes a lot of time and energy and focus. But it doesn't mean that I stopped having ideas, so I'm really thrilled now to be able to write some shorter things, go back to my Huffington Post writing, create some more research.

We're also looking at ways to reach our customers virtually in a more effective manner. We've been using virtual platforms for years now. We started using them a long time before lots of other folks did. But now we're really trying to partner and find exciting ways to go to people live virtually, to think about how to partner more effectively. We're looking and talking to a lot of organizations where we bring the content, and they bring the format, or some similar fashion. So it is endless for me. I'm excited to write on some different subjects, to continue to expand my team, to work with new partners, to look at online and virtual delivery more deeply.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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