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How One Federal Official Uses Comedy Techniques to Teach 'Innovation'

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Federal offices aren't known for being comedy hotspots, but one senior official thinks comedic techniques could help employees improve collaboration skills.

At the Transportation Department, Chief Innovation Officer Chris Gerdes sometimes starts meetings with a brief improvisational drill, part of a deliberate effort to get team members to listen to each other.

In one exercise, a team member presents a statement; a second team member then accepts that statement and adds something to it—a philosophy known in improv circles as "yes, and." In another exercise, a team member offers one word, and each subsequent member adds a new word, creating a sentence.

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Speaking at GovExec and Nextgov's Fedstival event, which kicked off Tuesday morning, Gerdes said these exercises, which he learned from an improvisation class, force employees to think through others' ideas, even if they don't seem feasible. Sometimes, he instructs teams to try variations on the "yes, and," including "no, but."

He tried out the approach in a recent meeting with all department attorneys.

 “Within an organization, somebody may have a great idea and that great idea may flagrantly violate all manner of federal statutes," Gerdes said. "They don’t want to move forward with that, but if you basically have the feedback that 'this is the worst idea ever,' that person has just been shut down, as opposed to saying 'yes, I hear what you’re trying to accomplish, and we have to make sure that we satisfy the Americans with Disabilities Act.'"

Gerdes said he's noticed employees are actively engaged in activities lasting between 20 and 75 minutes. If a meeting lasts more than 20 minutes, he spends about 5 minutes leading those improvisational exercises, he said. Often, teams are encouraged to suggest statements or words related to any topic, but occasionally it's restricted to DOT business.

"Sometimes, we've actually structured meetings that way, examining what challenges are," he said.

The technique is especially interesting when representatives from teams with diverse focuses, such as aviation, highway, rail or public transit, are attending a meeting together, Gerdes added.

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