Shift Yes: Using improv to improve company culture

Improv is just as useful in a board room as it is in a comedy club.

That’s the message behind Galen Emanuele’s new company, Shift Yes, where he uses improv principles in keynote speeches, small workshops and company retreats to help businesses improve their employees’ interpersonal communication and collaboration skills.

“People really are every company’s most valuable asset,” Emanuele said. “There isn’t any group that wouldn’t benefit from being more cohesive or more connected.”

Emanuele, who has performed and taught improv for nearly a decade, founded Shift Yes in late 2013.

He has performed improv throughout North America and has made hundreds of appearances at the Upfront Theatre in downtown Bellingham, where he has also worked as a sales director. In addition to his performing career, Emanuele has 16 years of marketing experience.

Shift Yes allows him to combine two of his greatest interests and skills, he said.

Improv exercises revolve around hypothetical situations, where participants work together to create “off the cuff” scenarios. Emanuele said all improv is based on an ethos commonly summed up as “yes, and,” the idea being that participants never reject their peers’ ideas or contributions to a particular scenario. Instead, they roll with them, and try to add their own elements.

Incorporating improv into business-school  classrooms has become popular in recent years, as instructors view the practice as a way to develop better cooperation, innovation and listening skills. More companies are also turning to improv for the same reasons.

While improv is usually associated with comedy, at Shift Yes, being funny isn’t necessarily the object, Emanuele said.

Exercises are designed to encourage participants to collaborate, embrace change and adapt to quickly changing scenarios and input from their peers. The ultimate goal is to encourage ingenuity and optimism, pushing company executives and employees to focus on ways ideas might work, rather than ways they might fail, Emanuele said.

It’s also about sparking companies to recognize the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds among their employees, he added.

Having already worked with several large employers around the Pacific Northwest, including Microsoft and Western Washington University, Emanuele said he has noticed more company executives becoming mindful of their business’ culture—the intangible elements of a workplace that allow employees to feel valued and have a sense of investment in their jobs that goes beyond a paycheck.

Emanuele said Shift Yes encourages businesses to create an “intentional culture” in their offices, one that is explicit about the company’s values and its direction. Having excellent company values, ones that employees actually buy into, can be the difference between thriving as a business versus merely existing, he said.

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

Update: April 9 , 2014

An attribution for photographer Jolene Hanson has been added to the photo included in this article. 


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