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Research & Design Strategy

The importance of an improvisation mindset

December 11, 2019

This article is part one of a two-part series about the advantages of an improvisation mindset on workplace teams.

As we close out 2019 and think about our goals for 2020, I thought it the perfect time to reflect on my recent experience as a novice improviser having just “graduated” from the first level. One of my own professional goals for this year was to become more comfortable voicing incomplete thoughts and to further develop my ability to react on the fly.

So, I decided to do something that would rock my natural personality to its core; I enrolled in an eight-week foundational improvisation class. During each class, we would practice a warm-up or show game and then spend time reviewing on how it felt, what we noticed, and how challenging it seemed. What I thought was a series of random acts on a stage is actually very intentional and cathartic. Yes, my naivety of performance art may be showing. But this reframe allowed me to connect the seemingly different worlds of design consulting and improv.

Why do we, as design consultants, care so much about using analogous experiences to inspire our work?

We care because we practice human-centered design. We care because we create more meaningful relationships and design narratives by taking diverse perspectives. We care because we innovate and that involves cultivating a collaborative environment across disciplines and divisions. We care because we use empathy to source inspiration. Immersing ourselves in examples of how similar challenges have been addressed in other industries and situations allows for more robust solutions.

Imposed constraints are as obvious as the air design consultants breathe. We are constantly balancing within the parameters of time, money, and labor allotted and that which is required to complete the design. However, these parameters can often promote creativity in the same way that suggestions from the audience can help to avoid the paralysis that comes from too many options (i.e. paradox of choice).

Improv, at its most basic, is about connections – with the audience, stage partners, and the ideas and thoughts that build to a story. Improv is also about flipping convention on its head. If you make a mistake, it is applauded. If you don’t know what to say, just start talking. It’s about creating an environment with an aggressive risk tolerance wherein if you make a mistake, do not hit your stride, or if the scene is just not working, you can reset and try on someone or something new. Improv is a mindset as well as a skill set.

All skills require structure and technique, but I will start with a crash course on some of the core principles of improv. Here are five ways to promote better group interaction by thinking like an improviser:

  1. Create a shared language by making the invisible visible
  2. Build on the information you are given by accepting verbal and nonverbal cues
  3. Commit to your role on the team
  4. Do not call attention to your mistakes
  5. Make your team members look good

Observe how you engage with objects in daily life. For example, consider how you would put a phone in your hand and change your physicality to mirror that shape. This is far more realistic than holding your thumb and pinkie finger to your ear. Replicating how your stage partner is interacting with an object (e.g. how heavy is it?) will make it more real for the audience than relying solely on dialogue to convey the point. This non-verbal demonstration on stage can be similar to how you communicate with your team members using shared language. Design consultants use many forms of visual communication through illustration, animation, metaphors, frameworks, and models because it often clarifies a message better than a verbal explanation.

An endowment is a trait used by a stage partner or audience member to help formulate the narrative about the character you are playing. This concept (commonly known as yes, and…) is about not denying your stage partner’s reality. You may think you are cutting a tomato with a knife until your stage partner says that you are massaging a hamster. You may be preparing to play the prisoner until your stage partner names you as the warden. If you break that new reality, the audience feels the disconnect and you lose their attention. It doesn’t actually matter how design consultants see a client’s reality – regardless of specialized training or knowledge of best practices. When we walk into their world, it becomes a shared reality. To be a partner, we must share in the business challenges to build future states together. Building these future states also involves the practice of suspending some of the reality we know while maintaining a sense of pragmatism in the reality we are creating, which is similar to using physicality to make invisible objects visible.

As part of human nature, it’s easy to ask questions. But asking your stage partner what he/she is doing puts that person in a position to have create alone. This is why questions are uncommon in improv. Instead of asking what your stage partner is doing, support your stage partner by adding an endowment about what it looks like he/she is doing (e.g. “why are you using a bowling ball to clean the stove top?”). As a design consulting firm made up of researchers, strategists, engineers, designers -- and everything in between -- we are trained to ask questions. We want to make sense of ambiguity. It’s not that questions are harmful; it’s that questions for the sake of questioning can be harmful. We must back up our opinions with critical thought and provide enough context, so that our team members understand the intention behind the question.

Although far easier said than done, let your instincts take over by ignoring any perceived judgments. Each group member left any scrutiny with their shoes before they walked into the space anyway. Even if you cannot speak with an Australian accent, do it anyway. Whatever intonation comes out of your mouth is an Australian accent no matter how accurate. Anything you say is right because the only right answer is that you say something.

This concept is especially important for team sessions with a focus on divergent thinking (e.g. ideation). We often edit our thoughts and ideas before sharing them in a group setting as a form of self-preservation. By committing to the role in free-flowing team sessions, we can encourage group responsiveness. This empowers more progress than sitting back and thinking about what might happen if your accent sounds more North Jersey than Australian.

Work your mistakes into the scene, so that you do not pull the audience out of the reality you and your stage partners have built. My improv class was largely structured around reflection as an aid to learning. But the idea is to react and then reflect rather than to think and then act. This allowed the class to acknowledge our mistakes and correct them without stopping or interfering with the scene. We shared in the successes and the failures because we were building the scenes together as stage partners. After that period of reflection, a new game began. This process allows teams to acknowledge a shortcoming without fixating on it or condemning members of the team. That fixation can make group members afraid to make a mistake.

One technique to avoid succumbing to nerves or the fear of making a mistake in improv is to focus on providing the support your stage partners need to look good in front of the audience. American author and CEO of Storybrand, Donald Miller, created a seven-part framework in which he explains the power of guides in helping the heroes along in their journeys (e.g. Bilbo and Gandalf, James Bond, and Q).

Although it sounds like an old adage, teamwork is not about playing the hero. Sometimes being the guide is more important to the storyline and the team’s success.

When my group was warming up for our show, we played a short game of Confluence. In this game, the group stands in a circle. One group member begins by calling out any word. The rest of the circle must think of a word that relates to both of the preceding words. Any other person in the circle can yell “one” or “two” to let the circle know he/she has a word in mind. Once the two people have called a number, they count down and call out their respective words. This goes on until two members in the circle say the same word. The moment when that happened was an incredible feeling. The circle erupted in surprise with high fives, hugs, and expressive clapping. If I had to describe the sound of a team, it would be the echo in the stairwell at that moment.

Read part two here

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