CSz Portland's Patrick Short on the system of improv that can help businesses thrive.
The "action images" are from a recent engagement with healthcare providers and caregivers. Video by Cowan Jenkins.
CSz Portland's Patrick Short on the system of improv that can help businesses thrive.
The "action images" are from a recent engagement with healthcare providers and caregivers. Video by Cowan Jenkins.
We focus a lot of attention on our offerings for companies, and sometimes we forget the power of what CSz is doing for kids.
Lots of folks come to us because they have kids who are hilarious, future comedians. Check. We've got you covered. Our classes give kids a focus for their budding talents, and they even get to play in shows for their friends and families, as well as halftime appearances in our Professional ComedySportz Matches.
There's another, possibly more important side to our Youth Education program. This excerpt is from a blog piece on the CSz Richmond site, written by a parent:
"[The middle school years bring] on a tremendous amount of self-consciousness and things about yourself that never bothered before you are now going to doom you to a life of solitude on par with Superman in his icy hinterland. Physical changes make you not want to say or do anything because it will be analyzed and ridiculed by your peers until you are in tears.
‘We got it – the middle school years (and around those years) are horrible! So what…? What’s that got to do with CSz…’
My daughter, Audrey, was running headlong into this cycle. The beginning of 6th grade was difficult as she struggled for self-confidence, identity and to find acceptance. To that end, I would tell you that Audrey is the poster child for why middle schoolers should be with CSz Middle School League. CSz teaches kids that no one is perfect, mistakes are to be expected, and not worry about it. Be brave anyway. That message WILL help every kid at that stage in life where they become most self-aware and self-conscious. CSz breaks those negative norms that middle school kids try to impose on one another. A CSz kid says, “Be negative if you want to. But nope, that's not MY world.’
At first, for Audrey, CSz was just her Friday escape from that world but then she began to realize that those same confidence-building skills she practices every Friday are life skills. She began to bring those practices into everything. Now, she’s teaching those skills. She generous, giving, and hard working as she’s gone from playing tennis to teaching tennis; from helping with plays to being in plays; and from being a good basketball player to being the best teammate."
Greg goes to specify the skills Audrey learned:
Sometimes, these classes can make all the difference. This is a letter we received from the mother of a student who really needed what we have to offer:
"[My son has] blossomed since his first class. He's taken some form of theater arts ever since. I could wax on about how it's helped him develop humor, empathy, dealing with surprise, transitions, how to appropriately interact with others, and built his confidence, but really I just want to tell you that what you're doing is very, very important. Thank you for making this club possible at Grant HS" - LG, parent.
Improv skills are very important in our volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world. If our kids learn these skills, they can connect more readily to others and help the team to navigate reduce the volatility. We're proud to do this work and look forward to many more breakthroughs.
Thanks to CSz Richmond and parent Greg Sparrow for their blog piece, and letting us talk about it and reblog it. You can find the original blog piece here.
YOU are excited to bring in our company to provide improv-based training in Customer Service, Leadership, Design Thinking, Team Building or Communication Skills. You've heard some great things, it looks good on the web, and our conversations have helped you shape some meaningful goals.
The naysayers start in. It's too terrifying, risky, too touchy-feely, it puts people on the spot, it's abstract, interactive, fun; it's play; it's not serious. Worst of all, it's UNKNOWN.
If it doesn't, please contact me and I will help.
Based on a presentation by Drew Tarvin - the 10 Disadvantages are his; the replies are mine. Here is Drew's presentation to AIN2016 on this very subject!
Reprinted by permission from Caitlin Mendersee.
I decided to take a class. My divorce support group and all the “starting over” books I read said that hobbies would restore my sanity and help me meet new people, friends that weren’t ours. I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to incorporate improvisational acting (“improv”) into my life (think Who’s Line Is It Anyway?). This was one of those ideas simmering on the back burner so many years that the bottom had begun to crust and sear itself into the pan. I took a leap and stirred up the pot.
The first Monday night I was nervous and excited and mostly really happy to be around other adults (as a work-from- home Mom, this is a big deal). Our instructor, Patrick, is an improv guru extraordinaire with almost thirty years of experience performing and teaching improv all over the world. I assumed he would impart some acting wisdom, help us to conjure up comedic one-liners, teach us about scenes and blocking. I had no idea how deep the lessons would be and how far they would branch out into my life.
Lesson #1: Celebrate mistakes
One of the first games we played the first week was called “Zip, Zap, Zop.” We all stood in a circle facing inward and passed the energy around the circle. The first person said, “zip” while looking and pointing at another person in the group, who then did the same with “zap,” and the third indicated “zop.” (The fourth person then begins the cycle again with “zip”).
Within a few turns I said “zop” instead of “zap.” Moments later a classmate was struck with zip and stared straight ahead with wide eyes, suddenly and inexplicably mute. Pat paused the game and said with a grin, “Ok, here is what we do when someone, inevitably, messes up: we celebrate! As a group we join our arms around the shoulders of the people adjacent to us, and we move into the middle together and exuberantly shout ‘AH-OOO- GAH!’” Belly laughs abounded as we partook in this community celebration of inexorable mistakes.
It was a beautiful reminder to take life a little less seriously. Over the next weeks this small and silly practice in class injected patience and lightheartedness into my treatment of mistakes from myself, and very importantly, my sweet three-year- old.
Lesson #2: Live without self-censure
Pat often repeats what he said the first class: “Leave the judge, the critic, and the editor outside the improv classroom.”
The judge tells us that what we just said or did is not “funny enough or good enough” She needs to stay out of the improv room. The critic takes on others, telling them (or imagining telling them), “That was so wrong, what were you thinking?” He doesn't belong in our improv class. The editor keeps me from saying things before they even travel the short distance from brain to mouth, thinking they aren't "perfect". He is responsible for most instances of "going blank", and doesn’t help improvisors, so he needs to stay outside, too - but can sometimes be useful in other areas of life.
It is important in the rest of life to go back and edit, use reason and responsibility, consider the impact of our locution and deeds. We must also cultivate spaces for uninhibited creativity and spontaneity.
Lesson #3: Trust my teammates
My romantic partnership of six years recently slowly, painfully crumbled to dust in my hands. At first I had to rebuild my self; developing independence and personal strength was crucial. What with juggling a freelance writing career, my daughter, dating, friendships, exercise and I don’t know—eating—my life is busy. I am finding that when I try to go it completely alone, I easily spiral into a helpless heap of anxiety.
I came into this class envisioning improv scenes as a canvas for funny all-stars to strut their comedic genius. I quickly learned improv scenes are an act of sublime symbiosis: one teammate picking up where the other left off and only together creating a world.
Learning to trust, to really lean in and depend on other people, has been an arduous but truly magnificent experience. I don’t have to have it all together all the time; my team can step in for me where I leave off. And that is a beautiful thing.
Lesson #4: Commit to my choices
Week four we finally started to act. Patrick led a Jill Bernard character creation exercise, giving us four body areas to focus on: head, chest, hips, and feet. He said to go with whatever our bodies wanted to do when he gave the instructions: “Hips. Positive. Go.” Each person had a unique interpretation of happy hips, some wobbling, some sensual, some bouncy: all intriguing. Pat emphasized that our job was to make very specific choices about who this person was. Who were we channeling? What do they sound like? What phrase do they repeat? Most importantly, Pat said, make a decision and commit to it.
In the improv class sans editor, judge, and critic my choices are momentary judgment calls without forethought. In life my choices ought to be tempered by wisdom and cultivated values. I am learning, however, that so long as I listen to my heart, incorporate wisdom, and draw near to beautiful souls who will hold me accountable to a life aligned with my values, I can jump! I can leap and make choices and at almost thirty years old I am finally learning to commit to my choices. See it through, and let it be what it becomes.
Lesson #5: Let things emerge naturally
I know I am funniest when I am completely oblivious. I think there are people who can manufacture a hilarious moment. These geniuses of hilarity and composers of comedy are enigmas to me. I cannot force funny. I also cannot force life (or people in my life) to act the way I want. Improvised acting reminds me to let things develop as they will.
In the game “Hitchhiker” three people are on a road trip and pick up a hitchhiker who is portraying a specific characteristic (physical, emotional, verbal or occupational). Everyone else in the car must then “catch” the characteristic. One guy entered the car and immediately became extremely paranoid. His demeanor alone was not that funny, but he committed to his choice. Within seconds the three others knew what he was doing and watching four people on a road trip going from neutral to paranoid in three seconds was hilarious. It could have not been so, but it just was. It emerged naturally.
Tonight I will return for improv class number six and it feels a little bittersweet (it's almost over.). Life is a series of improvised scenes. Some work better than others. I’m incredibly grateful for the reminder to laugh at anomalies, create spaces without censure, trust my life teammates, commit to my choices, and then let the chips fall where they may.
The link to Caity's blog is temporarily down. We will re-link when she does.
In 2016, the regional telecommunications company CenturyLink (formerly Quest and formerly US West) began running a series of commercials promoting their Prism TV offerings. The spots featured the actor Paul Giamatti playing himself, somehow stuck in a house with a family who uses Prism TV, and are, therefore, "Hollywood Insiders".
One of the commercials, titled Improv, portrayed the family as improv experts who know all about Yes, And. Watch it here:
"By saying Yes, And," the father says, "We are accepting the reality created by our comedy partners, Paul."
Um, no. No, you're not... Dad. And thus, CenturyLink (and their ad agency) misstate what Yes, And is all about. Yes means we honor what you have said by treating it as real. The And is supposed to come from us, not something thrown back at the person who initiated the interaction.
All four family members treat Paul with a lack of respect in this spot. Improvisation is based in respect.
The lack of respect is also representative of how our company has been treated by CenturyLink since they bought Quest and become our telephone provider. At the time this commercial ran, we were down to one landline, used for faxes. After I saw this commercial for the second time (and was sure of what it said), I canceled the landline and set up faxing on our VoIP system.
There are reasonable debates about how to implement Yes, And. I'm not sure how this script got shot the way it did with no one questioning the fallacy. It did get produced, and it fits very well into the Prism TV series of a terrible family treating a good actor badly.
Again, improvisation is based on respect. It requires engagement, empathy, focus and cohesion. Improv doesn't need jerks. Actually CenturyLink, the first rule of improv is be nice.
Written the day before the 2016 Election; exhausted from the tumult. Is there any way that improvisation could help save our national discourse?
Jonathan Rossing is the Chair of Communications Studies at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, WA. He's also a ComedySportz player, formerly with CSz Indianapolis. His recent article in the Gonzaga Bulletin helped me answer this question - with a yes, of course.
"If we commit to a “Yes and” ethic, we might start to discover ways to build consensus and to cooperate rather than simply standing toe-to-toe shouting “No!” It may challenge us to say “Yes” in moments of intense disagreement where we’ve been trained to see nothing but an impasse. Yes does not mean whole-hearted agreement; instead it signals one’s willingness to honor an idea, to give it space to be heard. “And” signals a commitment to add something new that builds on the previous idea. It doesn’t mean we forfeit all our needs and values, but it calls us to the challenging work of respectful cooperation, collaboration and listening."
We need to bring Yes, And into all parts of our lives. It may be easiest to start at work, yet it may be even more valuable elsewhere.
Here's a link to the full article: From Enemy to Ensemble
From Eric Earle:
Improv woke me up. I'm alert. I'm focused. I'm alive.
Life is happening all around me. And I have to be there for it. Creatively.
But most of all improv is just fun. Life is fun. And I think sometimes we forget that. Improv reminds you.
Improv gives you presence because it puts you in the present moment. It teaches you that you have to focus and listen harder than you ever have... yet softly, with a sense of fun.
After improv I went shopping.
There were these huge jars of fruit. (Normally there are smaller ones out there.)
"I don't know if I can eat this whole thing," I said, picking up the big jar and showing it to the worker. (I normally would have just been quiet and left.)
"Oh I can bring you one. The cooler is off ... let me run to the back and get it," he said.
Earlier in my shopping, I had been thinking about an Odwalla juice, but I had forgotten.
Then I walked by and saw this girl getting one.
"Oh! You reminded me I was going to get one of those!"
Then she asked me a question and we started chatting. Improvising.
I've started conversations in the past, countless times. But this felt more natural. I wasn't trying to start a conversation, I just did.
This one I didn't think about. I just did. It's like I was living in real time and just flowing. Shopping was improv.
Life is improv.
Eric Earle started our CSz 101 on April 7. His blog is here.
In our classes, we want to get people past the point of editing things, and worrying about their ideas and just get them to go - to make a decision, to make a move. To that end, we "celebrate" mistakes. Participants can take a circus bow, saying, "I Failed!" and everyone will applaud wildly. This comes from a simple need: if we wait for the perfect thing to say, nothing will ever be said. Let's practice on going with our first idea, and if the idea turns out to be terrible, so much the better. We laugh about it and move on.
In our own performance ensemble, we laugh and often roll around on the floor at mistakes made within scenes or games. Even better, sometimes these mistakes result in new ways of doing things and new game ideas. Mistakes are opportunities for laughs and sometimes for growth. We love mistakes!
Almost everyone who teaches in Applied Improv brings this "celebration of mistakes" forward into their work. This seems like a great fit, especially as people are just figuring out how to work in the games and exercises. It starts to become (or at least seem) less of a fit as our clients think about applying the lessons of the workshop to their work lives. "We can't be making mistakes all of the time," one told me recently.
Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN is trying to get practitioners to ease up on the celebration of mistakes: "People keep telling me they learn from their mistakes. And I’m pretty sure they are mistaken." Read Paul's blog post here.
I've worked with more than a few clients who bluntly tell me they cannot make mistakes. Some of them, like 9-1-1 operators (that's 9-9-9 to our friends in the UK) and front line employees at a blood-testing laboratory service, are probably right. We don't want avoidable mistakes in their work - the results could literally kill someone.
In those jobs, the time for making mistakes is in practice (or training). Once the whistle blows, and we're on the clock, we need precision and error-free work.
I look at mistakes in Applied Improvisation the same way. Our workshops are practice, where people can learn new skills and figure out that errors won't kill them, or even hurt them at all. My teaching is that mistakes are part of the process of learning new skills. You can't learn something new without messing up a lot. Our workshops are a great place to mess up without consequences. "In life, we are the players who live with the consequences of the actions," says Paul Z Jackson, "Context is so important."
We want to learn to be OK with ourselves for making mistakes, but often, we're still not supposed to make them in real life. Lots of "people and organizations create high stakes environments across the board, rather than leaving room for learning and innovation. It seems like skillful leaders are those who can be purposeful about creating spaces/processes where mistakes are valued." (Jim Ansaldo, Director of Camp Yes And at Indiana University)
"We've seen numerous scientific and technological discoveries that were the unintended consequences of other pursuits. In the Design Thinking world, the concept of "rapid prototyping" suggests that a trial and error process using stakeholder feedback is the quickest route to operationalizing great ideas." (Jim Ansaldo)
Perhaps the word "mistake" isn't even the right word for every instance of unintended results.
In Applied Improvisation, I think we are actually teaching people to be better to one another. We know mistakes are a part of doing business, so let's minimize their impact on people on our team.
My Five Pillars of the Improv System are:
Mistakes are going to happen, but are we going to let our team become dominated by them, or could we:
If we create a culture where we own it, fix it, share it and move on, we'll spend less time and energy and reduce the paralysis that comes from fear of making mistakes. Wouldn't that be a more pleasant place to work? Wouldn't that also make our customers happier? (In a Design Thinking environment, we might substitute "use it" or "analyze it" for "fix it".*)
The key thing for me in our vendor relationships is what happens when something goes wrong. It's easy to provide "good customer service" when everything runs smoothly. The response when something doesn't go right is what separates great vendors from the rest. Own it, fix it, share it and move on.
In the operational side of our own company, I'd like to be one of those great vendors, providing value and keeping things simple, but when something goes wrong, own it, fix it, share it and move on.
Of course, we don't want to see the same mistake over and over. We don't want people deliberately messing things up. What we really want is for people to forgive each other easily for mistakes, make the problem right, have the organization learn and move on. We also want to stop the paralysis that fear brings to teams. The world is changing too fast to let fear hold us back.
Applied Improvisors struggle to get clients to take the leap of faith to work with us. Part of the struggle might be significantly reduced if we stop "celebrating mistakes" and tell you what we're actually talking about.
It's all in the context. It usually is. It's also in the words we use to tell people what we do.
Just to keep the controversy alive, Patrick Short would like to include this list of 40 Things You Can Learn From Mistakes. He would also like to thank Jim Ansaldo for helping to cut to the heart of the matter.
From Bill Evans, now a ComedySportz Player with CSz Portland:
I was on the phone with mom on a Sunday evening in early April 2008, lamenting my lack of friends in my new home town, when she reminded me that I had always wanted to take an improv class.
Always began in 1987, in Chicago, when I saw Second City perform a sketch revue during a college visit to Northwestern. That show, and the improvised set that followed, made being on stage look so much fun.
A mere 21 years later, prompted by mom’s gentle reminder, I Googled ‘Portland Improv.’ Serendipitously, I learned that the CSz 101 class began the next night. With no time to talk myself out of it, I signed up for my introduction to improv.
It was a blast! I didn’t realize it at the time, but the eight-week class was a life-changing experience. There was no ‘eureka’ moment, just two hours each week being present, laughing, exploring and connecting with like-minded people.
When the class ended, I began coming to weekly Minor League Classes, where I met even more people who enjoyed this form of connection. I had found my tribe. Almost instantly, I had a new circle of friends who were not only hilarious, but also agreeable, positive and extremely generous people.
That’s no coincidence. Those are all traits of good improvisers. Turns out these skills, practiced for the sake of good scenes, mold even better people. What a fortuitous turn. And what a great group of people to help keep my head up during difficult times … my break-up … the loss of a job. Improv always gave me something to look forward to, even when life was difficult.
How did it change my life? I am a happier, more positive person. I’m rich in friendships. I’m involved in the most satisfying romantic relationship of my life with a like-minded and generous improviser. I’m creatively challenged and I’m living life actively. Improv has opened so many doors, allowing me the confidence to perform in front of audience, host shows, write and perform stand-up comedy, study sketch writing, teach, perform dinner theater, and write and perform scripted stage shows. I’m probably forgetting something.
All of those personal accomplishments, I dare say, were beyond my wildest dreams six years ago. None could have been achieved without walking into that introductory 101 class hoping to meet new people and have a little fun.
Bill Evans plays ComedySportz. And Hockey. And works in social media and communication. Follow him on Twitter: @bevans10
Along the road, improv performers discovered that what they know and the theories they put into practice are desirable in business, so we began offering what we knew to the corporate world. Many companies are trying to find the best ways to put improv into their own practice; the benefits are numerous:
And so on. Each company that embraces it discovers how improv culture and skills have a positive impact on their people, in many different ways. These impacts can result in better employee engagement, lower turnover (which saves a ton of money), happier customers, better products and services and more money made. Sounds great.
Most of this training revolves around (or at least includes) the concept of Yes, And.
With Yes, And, we say "yes" to whatever our partner says, and then provide the "and", building on their ideas. They say, "yes", to us and build on what we say.
Like everyone else, I fully embrace Yes, And. I teach it in performance improv classes. It's a centerpiece of many of the corporate engagements I lead. Yet, both my understanding and teaching of it have evolved.
By that, I mean if their character thinks an idea or offer is misguided or wrong, they can say, "No". Performers don't have that right - they don't get to judge what another player is doing in the middle of the scene. What that player has offered is REAL and needs to be played with, even if that "playing with" means "NO, I won't do that".
I got quoted by author, blogger and teacher Pam Victor in her discussion of Yes, And, in which she claims that she doesn't even teach it any more (I think she does, but terminology IS important):
In a discussion online, General Manager of CSz Portland, Patrick Short, helped me further refine this subtle distinction in my mind when he said, “A character may say, ‘No,’ if that fits their character in that situation. The PERFORMER should not say no, which usually comes from panic, pushing their own agenda, or ignoring others' ideas.”
I love this differentiation between the improviser’s mind and the character’s mind. The character can say no, if that’s honest to their point of view. The improviser must say yes to the reality of the moment – this is exactly what “Yes, and …” means to me! (I bold faced it, so you know I mean it.) But saying yes to the reality of the moment is a subtextual, unspoken affair; which is why a blanket, out loud “Yes, and …” to every offer is so clumsy and ineffectual, because... it is like a dentist using a hammer as her only instrument.
The whole Pam Victor blog, a bit NSFW, can be found here.
Yes, And means something different than "You're right!" My favorite distillation of the meaning comes from Sue Walden, who, in a workshop, summed up Yes, And as RESPECT (Yes) and INSPIRATION (And).
The power that our Yes, And training gives companies is that their people are very well-trained in "No" and "Yes, but...". Like our improv-performing friends, co-workers often respond with "No" out of panic, fear of the unknown, politics, status battles and agenda pushing. Working in Applied Improvisation training gives groups a chance to exercise their "Yes" muscles. Most of us are really ripped and toned with our "No" muscles. Yes, And gives us a chance to work on our "Yes" muscles. (Thanks to Andy Crouch for that analogy!)
Design Thinking folks use a double-diamond chart to define a process. Starting from a point, they ideate and widen the diamond to discover the challenge. Then, they narrow it to define the problem. Development of potential solutions are another widening of the diamond, followed by a narrowing as we deliver the product or service.
The periods where we EXPAND the diamonds are the times for Yes, And. Accept all ideas, no matter how off the wall or wrong they may seem. You never know when one of those crazy ideas spurs a much better idea in another team member's head.
When we have reviewed our ideas, and are narrowing them down, we don't need to invoke Yes, And directly, except the connection to respecting our teammates. Companies are sometimes afraid of Yes, And turning into GroupThink and sending them over a cliff because no one will say, "No!" That's reasonable. There is still a place for standing up against bad ideas. It's just not in the Discover and Develop phases.
(The chart is from a cool article on design empathy, from Business 901. Check that out here.)
On the performance side, working in CSz 101, I want to use Yes, And to help people get past the panic of "my mind is blank". Yes, And focuses you on responding to your partner. Saying yes first gets you started and away from the blank mind. It's also cultivating an attitude that your scene partner is a huge set of gifts to you (and you to them), just by being there and focused on THEM.
In Applied Improv, we need Yes, And just to get to a place where we are truly listening to and respecting each other. Past that, why not use Yes, And as our code of recognition? We can be secret agents representing a new way of thinking and getting things done. We can be Heroes.
Patrick Short has worked a lot recently with companies involved in sustainability. Because, Portland.
Of course, WE think so. This is what we do. It does bolster one's case when an Intel professional feels the same way, and succinctly tells what he learned :
"Elevate the Team, not yourself.
Don't plan too far ahead.
Own your failures.
These are a few of the insights I’ve taken away from my experience with improv. There are many more. Learning the basics of improv took me way out of my comfort zone (there were times when I couldn’t even see my comfort zone), but in the process I’ve become much more comfortable in my own skin, a better presenter and communicator, and more confident in my ability to deal with the surprises. Practicing improv is a great way to bring teams together and is a perfect complement to any team that needs to be creative and innovate on a regular basis."
"When product innovation teams are ideating to address user problems/opportunities, the ideas must be allowed to flow. “No” or “but” can put a stranglehold on ideation. It’s evaluating ideas before you need to do so. Most early ideas are just stepping stones in a larger journey — if you don’t acknowledge the stepping stones, the team will never be able use them to get to the BIG IDEAS. Once you’ve gotten a solid set of BIG IDEAS, then you can begin evaluating."
"Of course your business plan must start with a powerful idea and market to pursue, but if you only build and launch what you planned from the outset and don’t iterate with your users or be open to new directions based on their insights, how confident are you that you are really going to meet their needs? Some of the best ideas can come from your customer as they respond to the bad ideas you put in front of them. Trust that your team can ride the insights to get to the right product, instead of hoping you can figure out every detail at the outset."
Roger Chandler's complete blog post can be found here:
Shimon Shmueli set me up.
He’s the leader of Touch 360, a “strategy, innovation and design” company; he’s got a high-tech industry resume several times longer than my arm, and he was getting ready to speak at an Applied Improvisation Network regional gathering in Portland.
My contribution was to lead a series of warm-ups to the evening focused on design thinking.
I was walking to the front of the room, and Shimon took me aside and told me he thought I should lead the group in Sun and Moon.
Sun and Moon is a simple and profound activity. Participants stand in a circle, and are asked to pick a “sun” and a “moon” from among the other people. They are not to let on who they’ve picked; it’s a secret. When the game starts, they are to move quickly to “become equidistant” from their sun and moon, as fast as they can, and if their targets move on them, they have to keep moving. Chaos ensues. (There’s also a second round, but it’s not germane to the story.) Shimon had seen me run the game at a Portland State University class he teaches on entrepreneurship.
We ran the game, it was fun, and the very bright group of participants completely got the “jolts” of understanding that Sun and Moon offers.
Following another exercise, Shimon started his presentation, Creativity by Emergence and Leadership.
I can’t completely do his thesis justice, but let me try:
Doing something truly new requires intentional creativity.
Improvisation is great for
But if a new product or service or other innovation is a story, does improvisation do the job?
Shimon compared improvisation to the TV show Survivor:
For design, and true, intentional creativity, you need a story line – setting the stage, anchor points, climax and the end – along with coloration.
Shimon also compared improvisation to swarm theory, and showed us videos of a very large, very active flock of birds. If it’s “beautiful” or “cool”, it’s because we (the observers) are applying those values. There is no creativity in what is happening inside the flock. The birds are each reacting to the moves of a group of birds in their immediate vicinity, and are continuously adjusting to aim for the center of that group.
It’s just like Sun and Moon, said Shimon, where the individual participants where simply responding to a couple of simple rules and the moves of their “sun” and “moon” (the birds in their immediate vicinity).
And that’s why we needed to play Sun and Moon. I was used.
Is he right? Is what we do just a series of responses that do not indicate intentional creativity?
Sometimes, yes. But I like to think there’s more to it than that.
Add a few constraints to improv, including some rules, styles (coloration) and a goal, and you can tell a story.
Even if improv performance is not your goal, accepting an improvisational mindset is a great way to lead to intentional creativity – build a great team and turn them loose – with constraints and a goal.
If all you are doing is reacting to the people nearest you, maybe you are just flying around in a flock. Or playing Sun and Moon. It’s fun, it might look beautiful, but it’s not creating anything.
I was used.
The great improvisational teacher Keith Johnstone pioneered the idea of using status as a tool in improvisational theater. Human beings give each other physical and verbal cues to establish status. If someone has high status, they’re calling the shots; if someone has
low status, they’re the peon.
Status is a seesaw, Johnstone explains—you push one end down, the other end pops up. You can raise my status either by saying “I’m smart” or “You’re dumb.”
If you’ve ever walked toward another person on a sidewalk, or in a hallway and had to do an awkward little dance to figure out which side you’ll pass each other on, you’ve experienced one of the simplest example of a status battle.
We use the tool of status onstage to make our scenes more dynamic. We find that equal status situations aren’t very interesting to watch. It’s interesting that in real life, equal status (or near equal status with give and take) gets positive results.
These on-stage status battles aren’t too far removed from reality. In many organizations, maintaining one’s status is more important than getting anything done. We teach it to business people to help them understand the sub-textual power struggle at work in any human interaction.
Caught in a status battle? See what changes if you match the other person’s status. See what happens if you raise their status. Since status attacks are often the work of insecure people, try a little flattery. And look how status games connect to bullying.
In our work, we’ve found Status to have profound effects on Customer Service. We’ll post more on that soon.
Excerpted from Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. Thanks to Jill Bernard for her essential contributions.
Michelle Baxter, (MS, AA) – Drexel University) has released her Master’s Thesis.
Theatrical & improvisational techniques for the corporate world: how the performing arts are helping create a more adaptable workforce for the 21st century
Baxter, Michelle N.
Performing arts; Arts administration; Leadership–Study and teaching; Organizational behavior
Thesis (M.S., Arts Administration) – Drexel University, 2014
Performing arts organizations are helping create a more adaptable and innovative workforce by providing the business sector with corporate workshops that utilize theatrical and improvisational techniques that build leadership skills and promote team building. This paper aims to help performing arts organizations see the mutually beneficial practice of offering corporate training workshops. These programs not only help businesses explore the ways in which they can remain relevant and innovative in today’s competitive global market, but in doing so, they also create sustainability for the arts organization itself. Performing arts organizations must expand marketing efforts for corporate training programs, which not only increase earned revenue but also raise awareness about the role of the arts in the creation of a more innovative and adaptive workforce. While some performing arts organizations may look at this as “going corporate,” the organizations that provide these workshops truly see this as yet another way that the arts are able to positively impact our communities.
Here is a link to the site where you can download the pdf.
CSz Keyboard Player Mark Anderson approached me and asked if I would be interested in teaching improv skills, theory and music to the regional meeting of American Orff-Schulwerk Association. Mark teaches in elementary schools and got involved with the Orff Approach several years ago. Mark sees a lot of connections between the two disciplines of Orff and Improvisation, and he's even taught us at a team practice.
We had six hours to play with, including lunch. The morning was devoted to improvisation theory, culture and skills - all experienced through games, and then reflected upon. All of the teachers took to it like ducks to water.
In the afternoon, we shifted gears into creating songs using improv. Most of it was fantastic, but there seemed to be some elements of hesitation. I was at a loss to understand it, given how well the previous work had gone, until Mark explained it to me: Words. Orff teachers aren't used to inventing lyrics!
In or out of comfort zones, beautiful music was created. Connections between the forms were clearly made, and lots of fun was had. Read Mark's terrific blog piece on his experience.
Patrick Short has been writing songs since he was 8. Find some of the more recent ones at shortboule.com.
What do you learn from building with LEGO?
They're just pieces of plastic that kids play with.
In April 2013, I participated in a workshop led by Aneta Key, Chief Executive Muse from AEDEA Partners, LLC (aedeapartners.com) in the Bay Area. One portion of it was devoted to building a "library" using LEGO pieces. A group of us had to share a bag of bricks and other parts, while each quickly designing and constructing our own library.
We had to begin and complete the project with very little instruction
Each of us had to decide what was meant by a "library"
We had to use what was in front of us
We had to deal with sharing limited resources
Some of us even had to negotiate trades for the pieces we needed
Following the building, we were given some time to "present" our designs within our groups, and then to respond to each others' presentations.
In my own small group, we had interiors, exteriors, whole libraries, parts of libraries and a a representation of a "digital library" - someone built a computer server with their LEGO pieces.
It took me a couple of months to get my LEGO kits together; I convinced my teenage son to part with his bucket of LEGO pieces (delivered to my office with a laugh). After a couple of hours of sorting and dividing, I headed off to the store for a set of "plain" bricks to give the sets enough pieces so that 4-6 people could share them. (Do you know how hard it is to find plain LEGO bricks? If you want to build Hogwarts, you are in business, but just old school bricks are hard to find.) I persevered, and found a 650 piece set. Later, I found out about a used LEGO store, so Alex Falcone and I went there after a nearby corporate workshop and bought a bunch of flat pieces - bases, if you will.
So I'm set - we have 8 big Ziploc baggies with a variety of pieces in them.
We used this exercise 5 times in the first week with wildly different groups:
In one amazing week, we witnessed colleges, apartment complexes, restaurants, places to work and tree houses being built. Many tree houses included pools, flying ability, an aquarium and amazing ways to climb aboard. My favorite college looked like a microscope. One of the apartment complexes featured an unpaved part of the parking lot - "we haven't paved that part yet."
All we did was play with LEGO, but we also learned about:
Is that all?
What have you learned?
Patrick Short has been teaching applied improvisation for business since 1989, used Duplos (large, little kid LEGO pieces) in an exercise he's always called, "LEGO", and now he has a naming problem. Follow him on Twitter @patrickshort4
Dr. Farnaz Tabaee and Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development
We work in an era of uncertainty.
Today’s economic environment runs fast, competes globally and refreshes faster than a Twitter feed. To stay competitive, business, industry and education leaders must think on their feet, making spontaneous decisions with confidence. Yet this skill isn’t taught or even encouraged in more than a few MBA programs or leadership seminars. With an eye toward changing that paradigm Dr. Farnaz Tabaee presented Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development, a doctoral thesis that proves improv is a necessary tool for success in the 21st Century.
Born in Persia, Tabaee immigrated to the US at the age of 16. After graduating from college, she started as an engineer in the IT world, then changed careers to instructional design and leadership development. Unsatisfied with the instruction she was receiving, she wanted to teach but was hamstrung by the thought of standing up and speaking before a crowd. “Over and over people told me to take an improv course,” she reports. Tabaee did and took an improv class where she was expected to act in a scene without any initial instruction. She found the experience so daunting, she dropped the class after the first session.
One year later, she gathered her strength and signed up for another improv class. The class, taught by the same instructor, started with immediate scene work which led her to quit after the first day. Yet this time she noted some interesting changes in her presentations. “I was more confident and people noticed,” she recalls. “I became a better listener, a better coach and a better trainer.” Armed with continued success as a trainer, Tabaee went on to complete the improv series of classes at Second City Hollywood and continued to perform with ImprovMasters.
As fascinated as she was with her own experience, Tabaee was equally frustrated with the way business managers clung to the old way of doing things. “In my IT years, I was astounded by managers who kept to a business plan simply because it was there, even if the incoming data was contradictory to their original assumptions,” she says. “Intuitively I knew that improv was a very useful tool for leaders but I had to prove it.”
First, she had to convince her advisors at Pepperdine that improv is a topic worthy of a doctorate. It was a tough sell. Her initial advisor shot the idea down, claiming there wasn’t enough data to support a dissertation. Undaunted, she found a second advisor and two years, 350 pages and over 400 references later, Dr. Farnaz Tabaee proves that improv is an invaluable tool to business.
Her initial research uncovered some remarkable facts. It showed that business leaders make intuitive, ad-hoc improvised decisions 75-90% of the time, yet very little research has explored this improvisational skill set. No other leadership skill set that is applied at least two-thirds of the time has ever been so underdeveloped (Meyer, 2010; Mintzberg, 1973). She also found very high levels of stress in today’s business leaders. This combination of high stress and ad-hoc improvisation leads to ineffective decision making due to the leaders' inability to think clearly under high amounts of stress. One of her sources, Montuori (2012), sums up the situation adroitly, “Leaders must learn to manage stress, and become more adaptive problem solvers, capable of creating, innovating, and working quickly and under conditions of great uncertainty.”
Using a holistic model of improvisation that was revised using the grounded theory approach (where research results shape the theory), Tabaee designed the Improvisation of Leaders Workshop. This three and one half hour workshop was used as the basis of her research. Why three and one half hours? “Improv is learned experientially,” she says. “You need time to learn, practice, reflect and process. You also need time to feel safe and forget about the outside world. I had to break up one of my sessions in two, one hour 45 minute classes and it just wasn’t as effective.”
Tabaee conducted her study using 67 participants from various disciplines including: education, aerospace, finance, insurance and manufacturing. All of the participants were executive management, directors, middle managers, supervisors, team leaders, or project managers. Individual classes took place in different regions of the country and different ages, genders and educational levels were represented.
Pre-workshop interviews measured participants’ knowledge of improv and their stress levels. During the workshop, participants agreed to list three specific actions they would bring from the workshop to their workplace. They were further encouraged to apply at least one of the actions they had listed and commit to making a behavioral change. A post workshop survey was conducted immediately after the session, in addition to an interview a month after the session which inquired about the effects of improv at one month and three month intervals.
The results prove astounding. Ninety percent of participants reported gaining listening skills or the ability to express thoughts without judgment or both. Participants also felt more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being wrong or judged. Out of the 33 women in the study, 24 (72%) of them expressed feeling more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being judged.
In improv, “competent risks” are taken and mistakes are tolerated. After participating in the study, 81% of participants reported that they were better able to accept their own and their staff’s mistakes and learn from them. This theme also trickled down positively to other areas of the leaders’ effectiveness, leading to greater productivity and less stress.
“Competent risk is an important concept,” insists Tabaee. “People in business hear the work ‘risk’ and immediately think ‘careless,’ ‘sloppy’ or ‘disaster.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Competent risk means working within a known skill set at your highest level of intelligence.” As one of the participants put it, “I’m not feeling too restricted in my choices and can take a risk and speak up more often.”
Participants also gained an understanding of collaborative creativity. Seventy two percent indicated observing this phenomenon at the workshop or later in their work environments. One participant summed up how improvisational techniques improve relationship focus at work. “Business is about relationships and relationships can be enhanced by improvisational techniques. …Even if I don’t get along with some people, [I’ll] never forget to focus on maintaining and flourishing relationships at home and work.”
Tabaee’s study also noted lowered levels of stress, increased mindfulness, affirmative competence (individuals feeling confident enough to take action), desire to share leadership and the ability to make OPTIMAL Spontaneous Decisions (OSD.) OPTIMAL stands for Open to the Present Thought and Intuition and Mindful in Action and Leadership. OSD means that by combining rational thought, intuition and mindfulness, problems can be solved rapidly. In follow-up interviews, leaders admitted their jobs required this skill. As one phrased it, “Plans are overrated, especially in today’s fast-paced business world. Spontaneity does not mean irresponsibility or carelessness. Using it is often a necessity.”
In follow up interviews one month after the study, participants continued to enjoy higher levels of productivity and performance. This included employee retention, particularly among the Gen Y group. “There is an inter-generational problem in managing Generation Y employees,” observes Tabaee. “Managers often don’t trust them with challenging assignments, don’t share information easily, or don’t answer their ‘why’ questions. Improv teaches how to share information, give up control and welcome questions.” One participant noticed the benefits immediately, “We may actually be able to keep our Generation Y employees [instead of having them leave] after a few months or a year.”
Many participants also noted better family relationships. Tabaee is not surprised by that effect. “The techniques improve communications and help remove fear across the board. That will help in any relationship be it business or personal,” she says. She speaks from experience. “My kids are constantly using improv with me. If I say no to ice cream they prompt me to say, ‘yes…and.’”
After the study 100% of the participants agreed that improvisation techniques offer value to business. Participants reported quicker decision making skills, less stress, better employee retention rates, improved communication and appropriate delegation of leadership. They are also trying to bring improv to their departments, as one person reported, “It was very eye opening to see myself be creative at the workshop, so I tried to transfer what I had learned to my staff at staff meetings including [Tabaee’s] 4S principles of improvisation and not looking at failure as a mistake but an opportunity. We now do an opening exercise with these principles in mind. The energy level has gone up in my team and more innovative ideas are flowing out of my staff.”
There is also concrete evidence that improv increased awareness and decision making abilities. At pre-test, 91% of leaders indicated they were not aware whether they used improvisational techniques in making their decisions. At the post-test, after learning improvisational and OSD skills, 71% of participants agreed that they would change the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. From post-test to interview, 85% of participants changed the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. At the final interview, a cumulative total of 97% of leaders reported that they would change the way they make spontaneous decisions from pretest by using their intuition more effectively and applying improvisation principles. Reasons leaders brought for changing to OSD included 40% by using tools from the Workshop; 58% noted they learned how to be more spontaneous; 68% admitted to having more confidence and better at trusting their intuition; 98% noted they possessed the awareness of using improvisational skills to make OSD.
Given all of this, will improv be a required class in business school? “I sure hope so,” says Tabaee. “Business schools are lagging behind, still teaching models appropriate to the industrial revolution. They say people need to be more nimble and flexible but how do you teach it? Improv, of course. It rewires your brain allowing you to make spontaneous decisions efficiently and at the height of your intelligence.”
And don’t forget having fun. “Humor and laughter are a key component,” she concludes. “I had one president of a large financial company say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to play. I am in my mid 50s and have no kids; it seems as if I had forgotten how to play. Thank you for showing us how to be creative together like that. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.’”
Dr. Tabaee’s comments were made in an interview on June 11, 2013, with Amy Milshtein and Patrick Short of CSz-Portland. Article by Amy Milshtein. Dr. Tabaee can be reached at Farnaz.firstname.lastname@example.org
Tabaee, F. (2013). Effects of improvisation techniques in leadership development. Doctoral Dissertation, 341. Pepperdine University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15093coll2/id/349
I was chatting with a colleague recently. She had just quit a job at a law firm because the boss was crazy and horrible to work with. She also commented that there is “complete turnover in the firm every year.”
That got me to thinking. What does THAT cost?
Aside from a happier workplace with more innovation and the tribal knowledge that accumulates when employees actually stay with a company, does it save money to keep employees?
Yes, it does. Let’s read from the Wall Street Journal:
“Integrated reporting is in its early stages in the U.S., but German software giant SAP AG released its first full integrated report in March, combining traditional accounting benchmarks with newer metrics on things like greenhouse-gas emissions, research and development “intensity” and staff turnover.
SAP reported, for example, that its operating profit is helped or hurt by about €62 million, or more than $80 million, by each percentage-point change in its employee retention rate.
‘There’s a lot of support for meaningful and robust HR metrics for use inside organizations,’ says Timothy Bartl, of the HR Policy Association.”
So, buried in this article about FASB and reporting metrics is a bombshell about how important employee retention can be to the bottom line.
Why aren’t we doing everything we can to keep the people we have? Employee engagement is critical – not just in soft, unproven areas, but to profitability.
What could help the beleaguered law firm?
Applied Improvisation could help with all of that. If only they knew to ask…
Is there a company that you know could use this help?
As more and more people become aware that improvisation has something to bring to companies, the questions start to get more specific.
How do we apply this stuff? How do we justify spending money on improvisation training?
Previous posts have explored:
Now, a blog piece from social marketer Kelly Jo Horton ties improvisational skills to how companies manage their social media – image, customer service and more.
“You need people who live to find ways to collect, segment and report on data. You obviously need good storytellers. And you need that “secret sauce” that can’t be taught in a college course but comes from life experience and maybe, just maybe, taking an improv class.”
Kelly sums it up with these bullet points:
She also gives our organization a nice shout out. Much appreciated. She learned well, and in turn, is teaching people well.
One more thing: to effectively implement the improvisational mindset, you do not have to be a public-performance level improv “artist”. Anyone can think this way – they just need the door opened for them.
Improvisation plays an important role in corporate social media. Read Kelly’s blog piece here.
Patrick Short taught the CSz 101 class that Kelly Jo Horton took 12 years ago. His next class kicks off September 14th, 2015. Many other CSz players have taught her since then in our Minor League classes. CSz is in 25+ cities, and we can find a space for you, too. Find a ComedySportz® City near you. Tweet us @comedysportzPDX.
In 2014, I had the honor of performing as Master of Ceremonies at the Annual Customer Service Banquet for the Port of Portland and PDX, our airport.
310 people from 65 companies attended; they were honoring the Customer Service Superstars nominated from each of the companies who do work at the airport – airlines, government agencies, rental car companies, parking and transportation, retail, restaurants and services. The Port of Portland has an employee group that coordinates customer service across all of the companies – treating each customer as a client of all of the companies, whether they are at that moment or not. It’s a holistic approach, and as a frequent consumer of PDX services, I can attest that it works. The airport is frequently voted the Best in America.
At the end of the event, I transformed into a referee and CSz-Portland performed our ComedySportz® show, themed on customer service. It was a rocking good time, but the most important and affecting part of the night came earlier.
The Port of Portland had received an email, through Huntleigh USA, from a woman in Aurora, CO, complimenting a Huntleigh skycap, Moses San Nicolas, on his wheelchair service. Let’s read the note:
7535 NE Ambassador Place
Portland, OR 97220
Dear Mr. Wolf:
I hope you will take the time to read this letter, as one of your employees needs to be recognized for the help he provided to me and my sister, Denise, on a trip we took from Portland to San Francisco on 10/1/13. This was the hardest trip either my sister or I had ever taken, for you see, I was bringing my 52 year old sister home to California to die. As her little sister and the nurse in the family, I had the hard task of flying from Colorado to Portland, packing my sister’s life up in a suitcase, and bringing her home, where the rest of the family was waiting. She really did not want to go, and we had to term this trip as “just a visit” to her, because she was scared and nervous about flying home, and could not handle the fact that she would not be coming back to Oregon, her home since 1984. I think that deep down she realized, though, that she needed help in the final days of Stage IV lung cancer, which she was diagnosed with back in May 2013. She was kind of being forced to give up control of her life. She was very, very sick, and could not longer walk, and was using oxygen.
We had had a bad day so far on 10/1/13, as it was an extremely stressful day what with getting her packed, getting her dressed, getting her to the car, getting to the airport. She told me many times in the car that she did not want to go, and I was feeling guilt and fear as my mission to bring her home included kind of take her choices away from her when she had been independent for so long.
I brought the rental car back to the underground garage, and the rental car people were nice enough to call me a skycap. And into our lives, pushing a wheelchair, walked Moses San Nicolas. I realize that we could have gotten anyone, but I feel that getting Moses was the first stroke of luck Denise and I had had since I got there. He showed up, and took immediate control. I had no idea how he did it, but he managed to get my sister in a wheelchair, both of my sister’s suitcases, and her oxygen concentrator, from the garage into the airport. All of the sudden, a huge weight had been lifted off of me, as I had worried the whole way to the airport how I was going to manage getting everything into the airport. More importantly, he talked to us and calmed us down. I think that he could sense that we needed a distraction. He told us about his family, where he was from, his life. He asked my sister and me for our names, and he talked to my sister at length about her diagnosis, where we were going, why going home for treatment was a good thing. He was the best distraction my sister and I could have asked for. He stopped to allow her to smoke, one of her favorite pastimes, and she was grateful. He never once judged her, or told her she shouldn’t smoke. He was an extremely calming presence for both of us. He got our IDs, got us our boarding passes, got us through security, got us to the gate, all the while talking about everything, asking questions, maintaining calm. He even gave my sister a badge he had with his first name on it, which Denise stuck into her purse. Denise told him that she was really nervous about going home, and then told him how much he calmed her down and make this trip seem more “okay”. He left us safely at the gate. My sister was mad that I only tipped him $15 and not $20!
My sister died peacefully on October 14th, at home, with her family all around her. We told our whole family about how lucky we were that Moses came into our lives for a short time. In the few days before she got very sick, we talked about writing a letter to you about Moses, and she wanted me to do it immediately, so she could sign it. Time got the best of us, and we never did get to write the letter than I am writing to you now. After she died, I went through her purse and found the name tag that Moses had given her, and it reminded me of how he touched her life in her last few weeks. The last picture taken of my sister is in the wheelchair, in the parking garage, with Moses standing next to her. She insisted that I take it, and then would not allow any more pictures of herself after that.
I don’t know that Moses knew what impact he had on our lives that day. Being a skycap, I am sure, cannot be easy. Dealing with the public, I know from my 20 years as a nurse, has its’ ups and downs. But he really made a difference to me that day, and more importantly, he showed genuine kindness and compassion to my sister, and for that, I will always be grateful. He made this sad trip just a little happier for me and Denise.
I hope you will be kind enough to give him a copy of this letter, so he can know that he is appreciated by me and my family. I hope you will confirm that you received this email. I also sent it through the website to the corporate office.
Renee N Gorkin, RN, BSN (on behalf of me and Denise Malaspina)
The Port flew Renee in for the banquet so that she could give Moses the additional $5. Denise’s two children, who live in the Portland area, were also there. This was a very moving event, and a terrific reminder that we usually don’t know much about other people’s struggles; meeting them where they are is important. I hope every customer service professional takes this to heart. (It would help if customers took it to heart, too.) I need to be reminded of this all the time. I hope you don’t mind me reminding you.
Here is a video reminder from a church in Arkansas, called “Get Service“, that reinforces the concept rather nicely. Serendipitously, this arrived in my Facebook feed from my cousin Cindy Maynard while I was writing this post. Meant to be, yes?
Patrick Short flew to DC the morning after the event and got royal treatment from Southwest Airlines and TSA employees who had been at the event. He realizes that it can’t happen every time, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. The email was reprinted with the permission of Renee Gorkin, Moses San Nicolas and the Port of Portland.
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