New Promotional Video for Applied Improv Training

Yes, it's a promotional video.

Here's why it matters:

  • Our values: Collaboration, Inspiration, Gratitude and Fun
  • CSz Worldwide has trainers in many locations in the US and Europe who can deliver consistent content to your many locations - even simultaneously, if that's what you need.
  • We've worked at this for a long time. This is way beyond someone you know who's taken a few improv classes and performed in a few shows sharing what they've learned. We've honed our methods over 30 years.

Have a look and let us know what you think. 

Bobsled.

10 Disadvantages of Applied Improv Training for Your Company

Let's set the scene.

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.

And then:

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.
 

Let's talk.

  1. It's Terrifying.

    Anything you've never done before has an element of terror in it. We understand that. Part of our introduction addresses this. You can sit out of any exercise that you are physically or emotionally uncomfortable participating in. You just can't lure anyone else out or comment on what you haven't done. Fair?
     
  2. It's Risky.

    Anything valuable is a risk at some level. But what are you actually risking? A few hours of your team's time? That's valuable. Your reputation? Maybe, but take a look at the list of clients we've served (and it's a very partial list). Every time we engage with a new client, there is risk for us as well, but we are competent enough to take the risk. You are, too.
     
  3. It's Touchy-Feely

    As our owner, GM and lead facilitator, I guide all of CSz Portland's business training offerings. This next bit may surprise you: I hate touchy-feely stuff in professional settings. While we aren't sitting at tables watching Powerpoints, we're not into creepy activities, either. There's a balance between fun and weird, and we tilt heavily toward the fun. I am as inspired by sports teams as I am by the theatre. We're different, and we're safe.
     
  4. It's On The Spot

    Many people associate improvisation with performance and comedy. This is improvisation APPLIED to business. We don't make people perform in our workshops (with very few exceptions, cleared with you beforehand, almost always during advanced work). No one will be put on the spot.
     
  5. It's Abstract

    So are concepts like accounting and marketing, until we decide what they mean. Everything we do is tied to your goals during our reflections. Your team decides what the exercises mean. At a recent Nike workshop, a participant (in the final reflection) said, "I was blown away with how each game was a metaphor for the things we face [at work]."
     
  6. It's Interactive

    Trust your team. We do. It turns out that most people are really smart (and also kind) when given the opportunity to learn in ways that they help control. Education as a top-down model is changing. We're part of that.
     
  7. It's Fun

    How much do you remember from in-class education from your K-12 or even college years? How much do you remember field trips, after-school clubs, drama, music and sports? I think I've made the point. Fun is learning.
     
  8. It's Play

    As children, most of our learning about teamwork and communication came from play. Adults don't get enough of a chance to do this - we're always putting people in leagues, keeping standings and setting up competitions. In Applied Improv, we play. Everything has meaning, and every moment is a fantastic opportunity to learn.
     
  9. It's Not Serious

    We're very serious about what we do. People "play" sports. Think they can't be serious about it? Of course, they can. We find the balance - our work is fun, and we take the meaning and value seriously.
     
  10. It's Unknown

    This ought to scare you (if you've read this far). 

    We always prepare diligently for our engagements and create syllabi for each client.

    In 30 years, I've followed a syllabus point by point maybe 5 times. What happens is that each engagement reveals what is needed to us, and, keeping the goals in mind, we change our plans constantly.

    In other words, we don't know exactly what's going to happen, either! We only know that we are competent to improvise within our prepared frame and that every client discovers important things along the way.

Does this give you the ammunition you need to survive the gauntlet of NO?

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!

 

How CenturyLink Misused "Yes, And"

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.

 

From Enemy to Ensemble

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.

Are we listening at all? Just waiting to speak? Listening for ammunition? or Listening to understand?

Are we listening at all? Just waiting to speak? Listening for ammunition? or Listening to understand?

"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

Let's Fight About Making Mistakes. Or Let's Not.

Another mantra in the performance improv world is the celebration of mistakes.

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!

So, naturally, we carry the concept forward into Applied Improvisation.

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."

When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

When we're afraid to fail, we can become paralyzed.

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)

When is a mistake not a mistake?

"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.

So, what ARE we teaching?

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:

  • Listening
  • Accepting
  • Supporting
  • Taking Competent Risks
  • Letting Go of Mistakes

Mistakes are going to happen, but are we going to let our team become dominated by them, or could we:

  • Own and accept it
  • Fix it as soon as possible
  • Share it so others learn
  • Move on

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.

The Yes, And Controversy

Yes, And has been the mantra of the improvisational performance community for a long time. By default, it became the mantra of the Applied Improv training community, too.

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:

  • People become more adaptable
  • People become more cohesive members of their teams
  • People develop more empathy
  • People treat each other better
  • People treat customers better

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.

Improv nirvana results. Except when it doesn't.

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.

On the performance side, I teach that PERFORMERS need to play using Yes, And. The CHARACTERS they are playing do not.

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.

So what does this mean on the Applied Improvisation side?

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).

  • YES = I respect you as a person and I respect your idea(s)
  • AND = I will be inspired by your ideas and build on them

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!)

And here's a wild thought:  There's a time and place for Yes, And.

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.)

Yes, I still teach and lead with Yes, And.

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.

 

I Was Used For Design Thinking Purposes

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

  • scenario playing and interaction prototyping
  • brainstorming via emotional uplift and allowing failure
  • demonstrating

But if a new product or service or other innovation is a story, does improvisation do the job?

Improvisation is:

  • Process, not product
  • Limited in its resources
  • Sequential, not parallel

Shimon compared improvisation to the TV show Survivor:

  • no overall leaders
  • simple rules
  • safer in large groups
  • steer toward consensus
  • unpredictable, internally and externally
  • players avoid “visibility” (they don’t want to stand out from the group – publicly)
  • common objectives fall apart fast

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.

Fixing Things With Improvisation

An edited transcript of a phone interview of Patrick Short, GM of CSz Portland, and Michelle Baxter, M.S. – Arts Administration – Drexel University, for Michelle’s thesis. The original interview was in January, 2014. The comments have been edited for clarity and sanity.

MB: I was checking out your website, and I thought it was really great how you break down all the different things that businesses have used CSz for, and I saw one of the things that really stood out to me was “post-downsizing,” since that is really happening a lot. My first question is really basic and broad – can you tell me about some of the programs you offer to these business groups, if you have any that are more popular or some that you’re finding are becoming more popular?

CSz: Most people contact us looking for Team Building. That’s a big umbrella to some people, but it’s a piece of what we do. Team Building is carried along in everything that we present and teach – even in our shows. The term we’re trying to use is “applied improvisation,” because we’re taking improv beyond performing for people, we’re using it as a tool to achieve goals. And while a lot of people call us for Team Building, the thing that’s exploding right now – for us here in Portland – is customer service. Every time we turn around, we’re teaching customer service. I did 4 events last week, 3 of them were around customer service – the fourth was on presentation skills. The one that I’m doing this week for a company is customer service or customer experience. A sales call that I just had is for a large tech company who is here in Hillsboro is going to be onboarding 70-80 new tech support people soon. They’re in the process of doing the hiring, and they’re talking about bringing us in for improv soft skills training; handing us each set of people, dividing them into two groups, two hours a day for a week. It’s a dream to have that much time to work with people.

MB: Wow.

CSz: Technical support – it’s at the heart of customer service. They’ve trained them on their products, and they’ve trained them on their system – most companies do that and then throw the the newbies in front of customers and expect great results. This company is thinking, “No, we have to be more excellent than that.” What I really appreciate about this company, beyond bringing us in – is that they’ve had 3 outsourced companies working with them, and they’ve discovered that’s not the most effective way to deliver the service. So this is really awesome. Service is huge right now.

MB: So what would you say are the skills people are looking to build in customer service outside of the more basic Team Building programs you do? How are they utilizing improv to improve customer service?

 

CSz: Listening skills; communication skills; accepting people or meeting people where they are; supporting each other on their team – which sounds a little like Team Building, but it’s beyond that. Understanding that you look good when you make others look good; taking competent risks; stepping outside the program when your intuition tells you something else needs to be done. You might have a rock-solid policy, but there are times when you have to dump the policy to do what’s good and what’s right; and then, minimizing the effects of mistakes – one of the beautiful things about improv is when we perform, it’s mistake after mistake after mistake, and we just embrace it. We don’t sit around and point fingers and worry about errors – we learn from them – we don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over, but each mistake is an opportunity. So, those are the main things. We believe in improvisation as a system of observing, connecting, and responding, and within in that system, the pillars that hold it up are listening, accepting, supporting, taking competent risks and minimizing the effects of mistakes.

MB: That is so interesting. You know, I think of all the people I’ve talked to, you’re the fourth person I’ve talked to, and I haven’t really heard that much about minimizing the effects of mistakes, and I love that, how that transfers. I have a theatre background, and that’s what improv is all about: Not saying “no” and rolling with what you’re given. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to be taking to the corporate world.

CSz: Absolutely.

MB: I’m glad you said that.

CSz: Everybody makes mistakes. The question is what happens after you make the mistake. I run a company and we have lots of vendors that we work with, and they make mistakes – WE’RE gonna make mistakes. too. It’s what happens AFTER we make the mistake. In our business, I love it when somebody tells me,“Oh, we double-billed this customer and we have to take care of it.” Because what happens? We end up fixing it and making a fan for life because most people don’t expect that from a company. People call us and say, “I was double-billed for Friday Night…” – we just take care of it – or even better, “We got sick, and we couldn’t come Saturday night – is there any way you could help us?” And our approach is “Great! When do you want to see the show?” There’s no “Sorry, you didn’t use your tickets.” It’s “When do you want to see the show?” We want people to get value. They call expecting nothing, and instead, they get pretty much exactly what they want, and they usually can’t believe it. They call ready to fight, and we’re listening and saying, “We get it – we’re on your side.” When WE’VE made the mistake, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to avoid it next time – it’s also an opportunity to convert somebody into a fan for life. When I work with vendors, I’m less interested in how they work with me regularly – that’s cool – but inevitably, somebody’s going to blow something, and what happens when they do?

MB: So what made you decide, or what made CSz decide to add this component to their programming?

CSz: That’s a fun story. I was with CSz San Jose; I played there from 1987 to 1992, and I served as General Manager. We did our ComedySportz show one night, and afterwards, some guys came up to us in our handshaking line, you know we have this thing we call a “slap line” where we high-five the audience on their way out the door – I don’t know if you’ve experienced that – but it’s an important part of the fan experience… These guys came up to us and said,“Can we talk to you? We want to think like you.” And we’re thinking, “Uh… alright… what’s going on?” They worked for Apple; they were in a department writing drivers, these software guys writing drivers – very glamorous stuff – and they were having trouble even agreeing on all of the goals, not to mention the path. And we said, “Okay. What do you mean by ‘think like us?’” They said, “It looks seamless. You agree on everything, you’re always moving in the same direction, it’s like somebody has an idea and everyone goes with it…” And we thought,“Okay, cool.” So we offered them our Adult 101 syllabus for 6 weeks at the campus in Cupertino for this group of 10 or 12 guys. Then, at the end, they wrote us a check, and we thought, “We have a new business.” So, it was a customer who came in and said,“You can do this for us – give it to us.” That was the first one, and clearly, we had no idea what we were doing except how to train them to be improv performers. It was a nice start.

It’s been refined over the years since then – by a lot. In fact, the refinement has accelerated over the last 5 years with my involvement in the Applied Improvisation Network. CSz brought a great attitude and great team culture to a whole bunch of skilled people who were really, truly focused on the show. Now, it’s really grown so much over the years that my focus has shifted. I still do the shows – I probably perform 100 times a year, but teaching Applied Improvisation has become a passion. I think it’s connected to the fact that here in Portland, I’ve always taught our 101 class – our adult class – that’s always been my niche.  I don’t teach many advanced improv classes – although I do some teaching in musical improv, since I’m a piano player, and I compose. I’ve developed a talent for teaching people who have not touched this before, and that matches what the corporate world needs very nicely. Having worked for many years in sales and marketing in the high-tech industry doesn’t hurt, either. I had to listen and learn about clients’ needs, and I learned a lot about what makes some companies work and others not work.

MB: So these next two questions are very basic, but I’m kind of using them as a gauge to see if there are certain areas of the country where these things are more in demand or if certain companies just have a better handle on it. I think it has a lot to do with marketing and I really had to dig to find theatres that I didn’t end up following through with because it was so hard to find out if they did corporate trainings. A lot of people I’ve talked to have said, “Yeah, we haven’t really marketed this yet, but we’re looking at it now because people are just coming to us more, and we’re thinking, ‘Well how much more earned revenue could we be looking at if we start marketing this?’”

 

CSz: There’s a detachment, too; because many people in our field look at working with corporations as “whoring,” and they’re absolutely wrong. We have never looked at it that way. If anybody wants a chance to make the world better, this is really a place where we could do it. Even entertainment-wise, we have never looked at it as, “Oh yeah, that’s just a corporate show.” It’s a challenge, it’s fun, it’s core to what we do. I wouldn’t be performing ComedySportz anymore if it was just all home theatre shows. Home shows are not challenging enough – they’re so much fun, and very rewarding, but that alone is not challenging enough for a career. I hope that companies looking for improvisation training get a chance to work with people who are passionate about working withthem. We are.

 

MB: Yeah. Interesting. I like that perspective on it. So just to give me a gauge, how long has CSz Portland been offering these training programs?

CSz: CSz Portland is 22 years old. We’ve offered Applied Improvisation from our beginning in 1993, although in a limited sense because I was the only person with experience when we opened up here with a new team; that made us vulnerable to issues.  If I booked something and got sick, I wouldn’t have anybody who was anywhere near competent enough to do it. So I limited it to some small engagements for a couple of years. It wasn’t that we DIDN’T do it, but I deliberately didn’t focus on it until I felt like I had people who had the chops who I could train to do this. Our first significant one would’ve been about 1995, so we’re looking at about 20 years. I’ve been doing it personally for 26+ years.

MB: So now what would you say in the past year – how many programs do you typically do in one year? Or do you want to give a gauge of how many you did in 2013? Are you seeing an increase year after year?

CSz: It was growing significantly through 2007 and then tanked in the recession. It never went completely away, but we were probably up to about 30 times a year in 2007, and probably went down to half a dozen a couple years later. I mean, it TANKED, and companies just stopped spending money on stuff that they didn’t have to spend. For 2013, off the top of my head, I’m going to say between 35 and 40. It was the most revenue we’ve ever had from it, and we’ve got – as far as days in front of clients this year, we’re already at 8 in the middle of January. It feels like it’s really growing. And we’re doing some things with more reach. I designed and sold a program to Radio Shack that’s been done 6 times, 4 in New York, 1 in Boston, 1 in L.A. I haven’t physically taught any of them.

MB: Interesting.

CSz: Other top CSz people have taught them. And we’re at that point where we can get together on Skype, and because we’ve been working together for years, and I’ve been leading train the trainer sessions at our shareholders’meetings and ComedySportz World Championship events – we have a common language. We won’t necessarily use the same games, but we have the same goals, the same articulation of our system. There’s actually a system of connecting, observing and responding and not just winging it. And that’s really helped a lot. We’re seeing more and more work nationally.

MB: Wow. I was also intrigued when Bobbi Block told me about your location because I know the arts seem to be more well-supported by the public in Portland and the surrounding area.

CSz: Portland and Seattle are artistic places. Everybody’s in a band and most people have started a theatre company – I’m joking, but it seems like that’s the case. And those that haven’t mostly knit. If you watch Portlandia, it’s not far off – it’s based in reality.

I think what drives this area the most is a combination of high-tech and the shoe companies. We have Nike; the North American headquarters for Adidas is here; there are smaller ones, too. Nike’s huge, and then we have a large tech sector. There are 15,000 Intel employees here. They aren’t headquartered in Oregon, but there are 15,000 employees here. Tektronix was a huge tech company–old school tech company–that spun off companies like crazy in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, and it’s been bought out and shrunk, but a lot of the companies they spun off are still here. There’s a big start-up mentality here. It’s not quite like Silicon Valley, but there’s a start-up mentality here. We’ve done a lot of work with Nike – it’s not like you get into Nike or Intel and go through the whole company. That would be sweet, but they don’t work that way – they’re very departmental. We go department by department. We’ve probably done 30 engagements with Nike. We’ve done at least that many with Intel. The drivers for this work aren’t so much artistic; there’s a big design community and there are some forward-thinking companies. Working with Nike is outstanding because they’ve already filtered out the people who don’t want to play. I call keeping the people on the fringe of a workshop engaged “border collie-ing.”You don’t have to “border collie” people from Nike.

And yet, we have to get out there and earn our money. We’re for-profit, so we’re not getting grants. And we do that by doing shows and training for corporate, church, association and school clients. We’re out there earning money. Because we’re clean, we can even play at churches – most improv groups wouldn’t play in a church – they simply couldn’t do it. We don’t have a problem with that. The other thing that happens with it – not only do they pay you, they laugh really hard, the audiences are great, and they’re grateful – truly GRATEFUL that they can have a comedy experience where they aren’t offended. It’s really super simple – we don’t make fun of what people can’t change – ethnicity, politics, religion – we stay away from those things and we’re able to be funny without offending anybody. We’ve done road shows for 21 years without a complaint from anybody – schools, churches, corporate, private, conventions – it’s still fun – it’s really hilarious.

There’s almost as much gratitude in our corporate workshops. Team Building has gotten to be a loaded term; apparently, there’s a lot of junk out there in the training world. During our final reflections, we always have someone tell us, “I thought this was going to be terrible and it was great!” I am always willing to hear that – and to understand that the fear and negative associations are a form of barrier that we need to get past early in our training events.

MB: Are you finding your repeat clients or customers – whatever you prefer to call them – such as Nike, do you find that you’re doing the same things for these different departments, or are you seeing people who – it’s kind of like you’re taking the workshop up to the next level and perhaps you’re trainings are getting more advanced with your return customers?

CSz: The stuff that seems to be exploding right now is the ongoing programs. The sales call I was at this morning would be ongoing – an insurance company I’ve worked with booked multiple stops to reach the whole company, and they’re talking about working with us more deeply in the future. I have booked an engagement for this Friday with a local ice cream company. It’s called Salt and Straw, and they make and sell ice cream flavors like pear / blue cheese, bacon brown ale… for Thanksgiving they had Turkey brittle, and sweet potato pie, and orange yam and they did the whole Thanksgiving menu – in ice cream. One of their most popular flavors is olive oil – it’s fantastic. First of all, the ice cream’s wonderful, second; you walk up, you usually wait in line, and everybody’s waiting to get into this joint, and then you get up front, and you can sample all the flavors – they don’t hurry you. They do a really nice job of connecting with you, and yet, they want to hire us to amp up their customer experience even higher. They want to focus on the “mistake thing,” not worrying about it, and just dealing with it. I will be working with their managers, and then they’re talking about on-boarding a significant number of people – they’re really growing. They want to bring me in to work with the people at the front end after they’ve had their basic training.

So what’s happening is this: 10 years ago, we taught Team Building – let’s get along, let’s connect. Now, we’re applying improv to higher level goals – really high-level customer service techniques – leadership, design thinking, creative brainstorming and more. Many times it can be the same activity or activities, but the difference is in how you introduce them, how you reflect on them and how you help your clients make the connections for themselves. That’s the value-add we offer. Anyone can learn these games, but working with somebody who’s led and reflected on the games at companies for 20+ years can switch on a dime, recognize what’s happening in front of them and connect it to their work during reflection, That’s the value we add.

MB: So would you say you’ve ever gotten feedback from somebody you’ve worked with, and they’ve gotten a benefit out of the workshop that you never even thought about, and it kind of puts that new spin on things for you?

CSz: That has happened. I don’t have anything specific that’s coming to mind, but that’s happened several times. Most of the time, they make a connection inside the workshop that I haven’t thought of. As I walk into Salt and Straw on Friday, I will be carrying all the reflection of all previous clients with me on all those games. If something comes up, there’s probably somebody who’s had something similar. But not always – sometimes, something will come together in a very, very new way.

I’m teaching my 101 class – my adult 101 class – for the 84th time in Fall, 2015. I’ve been there, and done that a lot of times. Last week, we played a couple games and struggled a little bit and the class determined that the problem was they kept assuming there were rules that I hadn’t said. And it was with these particular games that there was a whole new way of looking at it. I told them the parameters of the game as they played the game, and they were struggling because they assumed they couldn’t do things, but I hadn’t said anything about it. That was a whole new look that I hadn’t dealt with in the past, and it’s really fascinating because it also popped up in one of the other corporate workshops I was doing last week. People were saying, “Can we do this?” And my new schtick was, “If I haven’t said you can’t, try it. And the only thing I ask of you is if you think it’s going to ‘break’ the game, then maybe don’t do it. If you think its going to enhance your experience, try it. And if I find it breaks the game, that’s something I get to learn.” It’s really cool that that happened in 2 completely separate instances in the same week.

Usually, the lessons are happening inside. I have had people get back to me and say they’ve taken little pieces from the workshop and incorporated them into their culture. When we play a bunch of circle warmup games, we do this thing where if someone makes a mistake, the entire group puts their arms around each other and says “Ah-ooga” like an old car horn, and moves into the center; it’s a fun little ritual. Then everybody laughs, and says, “Hey we made a mistake.”Sometimes I make a mistake just so they can “ah-ooga.” I’ve had many, many clients tell me that “ah-ooga” has made it into company meetings. “Hey, we screwed this up. Ah-ooga! Now what are we going to do about it?”

MB: So with the feedback you get, and you touched on how customer service is something that you’re really working on right now, are there any other new programs that you’re looking at or exploring right now for businesses?

 

CSz: We’ll explore anything anyone throws at us. We’re very much driven by what’s in front of us as opposed to thinking about stuff and then trying to go find a client for it. We’re in reactive sales. Sometimes when we get a great idea on our own, we find there’s no market for it.

MB: Yeah, I saw that on the website that you even say…

CSz: Bring us a problem, and we’ll design a program for you.

MB: Yeah, exactly – have you had…

CSz: We’ve had lots of people do that.

MB: Do you do any evaluation on your programs or do you ever get any feedback on people you work with on how they’re evaluating it once they’re done with the workshops?

CSz: Most of the time, I talk with the main contact afterwards, and we have a phone call or exchange emails. One thing I’ve found is that people are never doing as much follow-up as I wish they would. Life gets busy. We’ve designed evaluation surveys and had almost no one fill them out. I wish there were more of it. We touch base, we talk – almost exclusively they tell me all the great things about it. Every once in awhile, we’ll hear, “Oh there was this one activity that didn’t really resonate with people because of this…” Honestly, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s almost like I’d feel better if I heard that more often.

 

By the way, in this portion of our business, we’ve had zero dissatisfied customers the entire time we’ve been doing it. We had one, sort-of, once, and I fixed it. The one “sort-of” was when we did a customer service training for a small municipality here in Oregon, a little town–and when I say “little”, it was 8 employees – the city manager booked it, but didn’t participate, which could’ve been part of the issue. After this 3 – hour customer service workshop, the city manager called me the next day and said, “Hey – they loved the workshop, the loved the games, they thought you were awesome, they don’t have any idea what this had to do with customer service.” My reply was, “Well, we didn’t get to that.” They were a little slow. They were one of the slower clients I’ve worked with, and they just didn’t get there. So I simply said, “Schedule some time – I’ll come back and finish the job.” I ended up spending 5 hours total with them. I went back for 2 hours, and they were delighted. They did the rest of it – it was great. That’s as close as we’ve come to a “failure”.

MB: That’s fantastic.

CSPo: Seriously, it’s almost like I want someone to call and say,“This didn’t work,” because then it would feel more human. I’m not going to go deliberately blow it, so… we may be waiting a long time for a failure. Applied Improvisation works.

Patrick Short is the co-author of Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. He’s currently attempting to convince Oregon Ballet Theatre that a little improv training could go a long way toward reducing dancer fear of improvisation in performances.

Paul Z Jackson on the Myths of Improvisation

Over the weekend, my family was invited to a very pleasant backyard dinner with three families. Talk always turns to what we all do, and it did. There was a professor of German, an advertising exec, a project manager for Xerox and a gentleman who works in renewable energy membership programs for utilities.

“So you two own a comedy club?” Yes, we do, but there’s a little more to it, and off we went. I’m always interested in what other people do, and how they do it, but I’m finding that we are a curiosity.

The inevitable “I could never do that,” and “I’m not funny enough, ” came up. Frankly, most of the time offstage, we’re not funny, either. And this got me to pondering, in a quiet moment over iced latte and ice cream, about the myths that continue to weigh us down in improvisation.

Today, I caught a tweet in the feed from Paul Z Jackson, the President of the Applied Improvisation Network, about the myths of improvisation. I could rewrite what he said, but I’d rather just pass it along:

 

“Experienced improvisers tend to be very enthusiastic about their craft. Yet many people unfamiliar with improvisation imagine they won’t enjoy it. They feel daunted or even frightened. It’s a response that goes beyond a natural caution when dealing with the unexpected – after all, we face uncertainty every day.

This contrast can perhaps be accounted for by various myths circulating about improvisation. Here is the first of three of the most prevalent.

Myth #1: You have to be funny

One myth says you have to be funny. This myth has two main sources. The first is that many people see improvisers creating comedy shows on stage or on TV (Whose Line Is It Anyway? as perhaps the most popular example), so they simply equate improvisation with the performance of comedy. In my view, improvisation is not necessarily about performance or about comedy. The second source is that even in contexts where there is no performing, the moment of improvisation is often funny because of the element of surprise. Laughter is generated by wit or by relief from the straitjackets of tension.

Of course it’s okay to perform and it’s wonderful to be funny. But the principles and techniques of improvisation are not about being funny, and trying to be funny is generally a mistake. It’s also a misleading trap, responsible for excluding people who think they cannot be – or who have no desire to be – funny.

Improvisation is about connecting, listening, adding, engaging with uncertainty, been present in the moment, attending to the here and now. You might do that for the purpose of being funny. Equally, you might be aiming to get better work from a team; or using improvisation skills to be more confident in how you present yourself.”

Myth #2: Improvisation is for when it goes wrong

You are often called upon to improvise when things don’t go according to plan.

Many of the natural language uses of improvisation reflect this. For example, “It was raining, I did not have my umbrella with me so I improvised some shelter with a sheet of newspaper.” Or, “We were ship-wrecked on the beach so we improvised a hut.”

But it’s not always when something is wrong or plans go awry: it may be that circumstances are slightly unusual or unexpected. You watch a football match and the sports commentator says, “Oh, he wasn’t expecting the winger to make that run, so he’s improvised a clever pass inside.”

Our view is that you can also improvise as a deliberate first choice – with no question of anything having gone wrong. Suppose you know that you will be facing conditions of uncertainty. Or you know that you want to create something new with other people. In such circumstances it makes good sense to choose to improvise. You appreciate that you don’t need to have everything planned. You come in ready to see what happens, to adapt and to respond as events unfold.

Now you find yourself improvising as things go well, able to delay decision-making until the optimum moment, operating with more information, with timely responses to exactly what’s there.

This is the quality of improvisation recognised by surgeons, firefighters and the military. You find it in organisations that devolve responsibility to a front-line, because they appreciate complexity and value what emerges. It accompanies a view of the world not as a static, mechanical model with traditional cause-and-effect predictability, but as a more flexible place, in which reality is not a simple and obvious given, but co-constructed as we go along, client and practitioner, person to person.

That is the sort of improvisation we’re primarily focusing on here: Improvisation by design, where you do it by choice, build your skills and flourish by applying them.

The third myth says that improvisation is chaos.

It’s not. There’s a continuum from complete predictability through complexity and onto complete chaos.

Chaos is chaos, where there’s no structure, no order and no predictability. Improvisation applies best in conditions of complexity – when there’s both structure and freedom; planning and responding. A great deal of our lives takes place in those conditions.

We are always adapting and responding within the normal circumstances of everyday life. Almost every conversation is unscripted, for example. Unless a journey is utterly routine, it will contain improvisational elements – what you see along the way, who you interact with. So it makes sense to think about improvisation as offering support for everyday life, which is somewhere between chaos on the one hand and formulaic fixed structure on the other.

There are doubtless other myths of improvisation; those are three key ones we hear a lot, and it’s good to dispel them so that we can really get cracking on the bits that matter.”

Paul’s blog is at http://www.impro.org.uk/blog, and you can email him at info@impro.org.uk.