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In Character with Patrick Short

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Forgive ComedySportz co-owner Patrick Short if he gets skeptical when a an airline agent tells him there are no connections available to where he wants to go. Short has built upon his business and comedy experience to grow a business workshop arm of ComedySportz that makes use of both.Patrick Short thinks there’s plenty of room for funny business in corporate America. In fact, he thinks it’s vital. For 24 years he’s been teaching comedy improv concepts to businesses around the country, when he’s not busy with the local ComedySportz Theater he co-owns in Northwest Portland.

Portland Tribune: You’ve co-authored a book on using improv techniques in business. Did you really get an airline customer service representative to give you a last minute re-routing for free?

Patrick Short: I did, but they did it without me telling them to because they thought I was going to start a revolution. They wanted me to fly to Denver. I knew there were no tickets from Denver to Portland. There was a big line because the flight was delayed. The exact same thing had happened the day before to the rest of my family.

Tribune: So you’re in line...

Short: They’re telling me the same things they had told my wife the day before and I knew they were not true. So I announced it to everybody around me. A bunch of people started yelling at them and in about three minutes they called me up and offered me this other routing.

Tribune: Wait a minute. All those other angry customers, did they get re-routed or flown to Denver where they would discover they couldn’t get a connection home?

Short: I can’t tell you because they got us out of there within like five minutes.

Tribune: So you started an airline counter revolution, inflamed the masses, then deserted them. The lesson here for business is?

Short: Fix the problem. Do whatever it takes. Now. The longer a problem goes on, the more expensive it is.

Tribune: In the book you talk about misuse of status in companies. Have you seen that in the business workshops you lead?

Short: I was doing a team-building workshop with a law firm and one of the senior partners, one of the name guys, decided he was going to assert his alpha dog status early. When somebody does that in our games, it’s kind of a built-in trap for them because everybody is there knows the subject is team building.

Tribune: What was he doing?

Short: It was like (he was) stepping out of a game and going, “This is stupid.” As we’re reflecting on the game, everybody else was saying, “It’s not, and here’s what I got out of it.” And I talked to some people afterward and they said, “Yeah, well, we’ve had to tell him he was being a jerk but we couldn’t say that directly.”

He was trying to grab high status without earning it.

Tribune: And you teach?

Short: The main thing is to make others look good. That’s the fastest way to high status.

Tribune: If you could recommend just one improv game for businesses to do on their own, what would it be?

Short: Bobsled. You divide people into groups of four, they stand in line facing the same direction. Persons two, three and four have hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them and then the bobsleds move around the room.

Tribune: Why would that be helpful?

Short: There are commands. The first one is “change.” When the leader yells “change” the first person on each bobsled goes to the back of the bobsled. Rotate — everybody turns around at once and the bobsleds go in the other direction. Switch — persons in two and four switch places while the bobsled is moving.

Tribune: It sounds like you’ll get a bunch of people bumping into each other. But what’s the point?

Short: You have to make constant adjustments. You have to work out how the changes, switches and rotates are going to happen smoothly. We’re changing leadership with almost every command, and we have a final command called trade where the third person in each bobsled jumps off and finds a different bobsled. After we’ve played 10 minutes we say the leader is no longer giving commands. Commands will come from the person in the back of the bobsled.

There’s so much laughing you can barely play the game. But there are an almost infinite number of lessons that come from it about leadership, management, adaptability, focus, listening. I was working with an architecture group last week and we had bobsleds ranging from one person to nine people at the end. They just got things messed up in trades and switches. Having a nine-person bobsled is great. Keep going, don’t worry about mistakes.

Tribune: Another favorite?

Short: We play a game where I never tell them that the teams are competing with each other, but they always do. And if they didn’t compete with each other everyone would win, but they compete and nobody wins. It’s what we call a jolt moment.

This company has since gone out of business. At the jolt moment where I say, “Well, you lost because you were competing, and I never said this was a competition,” there was 15 seconds of silence and a woman said, “This is the whole problem with our company.”