What are your associations with the word Improvisation?
Who’s Line is it Anyway? The Groundlings? Those Improv Everywhere videos on YouTube? Whatever the word brings to mind, it probably as entertainment right? It’s fun to watch people up there leaping into space with no net!
My connection with improvisation is a bit different – I’m part of a Playback Theatre Company doing monthly performances in our East coast mid-sized city. We work with true stories from the audience – usually on a theme of some kind and then we play those stories back in real time using improvisational structures we’ve all been trained in. We’ve been together for over 10 years and even though we leap into space every First Friday of the month without a net we have something else that catches us so we don’t fall – something essential to team excellence……
TRUST – the foundation of good improv and essential to workplace culture.
We know what happens when there is little trust within a workplace environment: infighting, back-stabbing, protection of “turf”, silos, conflict – even bullying. We even have a term for it: Hostile Workplace Environment. But here’s a question. When we look at all of these issues – do they appear to be complicated problems? Or are the Complex problems? The difference is important.
Complicated problems: Customers aren’t responding to the marketing message, there’s a hold-up in shipping that needs to be addressed immediately, the material used to line the pipes is disintegrating when utilized in the field. Complicated problems can be messy, costly and can require many moving parts to consider in finding a solution. But once the stakeholders come together and apply their expertise, they can then build a process, a procedure, a way forward that can be replicated. But when we look at the problem of little or no trust in the workplace; toxic conflict, infighting, turf protecting, silos, etc.- these are complex problems. Atul Gawande makes the distinction here: “Complicated problems, though difficult, can be solved with a regimen, system or procedure. Complex problems require case by case solutions.”
Complex problems need case by case solutions – so even if we try to erect a replicated procedure, a new rubber stamped HR policy, it probably won’t work, at least not for very long. What’s needed are new ways to create enough trust in a culture so that, whatever complex problems arise, they can be addressed effectively. This is where we come to the first principal in improvisation, courtesy of Karen Hough in her book: The Improvisation Edge.
Principle 1: “Yes!” Space…. When employees feel free to bring their authenticity to work, take on new challenges and make mistakes(!) that’s an innovative culture with trust at its foundation. So the first assumption is: You already have value here. Whatever you bring gets a big “Yes!” from the space. One of the most fundamental principals in improvisation is “Say Yes!” to the first offer. Don’t make your team member look bad and wrong in front of the audience, the client, the C-Suite.
What gets in the way of “Yes!” space?
The Critic! And not just that jerk in the next cubicle – Mr or Ms. Devil’s Advocate. The worst critic is our own internal one. And that’s the toughest one to dismantle. But it’s hard not to be a critic if you speak English. 62% of words in the English language are negative! And..the Critic gets a lot of airplay in our culture – Critics appear to have a lot of power. They look smart. They have numbers and data to support why your idea sucks. Critics are funny! Try to think of a stand up comedian who is not criticizing something – right? Here’s the thing: there is a place for criticism further on in the innovative process, but not right away. Not in “Yes!” space.
Principle 2: Bring a Block What happens in “Yes!” space is that everybody brings a block. This is different from Brainstorming – where everyone throws around ideas that have no relation to each other… like bricks tossed around the yard, right? We’ve all been in those sessions. But bringing a block means we not only say “Yes!” to an idea, but we say “Yes and….” to help develop it, to build on it, before we start over with the next idea. This also requires everyone to add some kind of value in developing the idea. It becomes obvious when people are not bringing a block to the session – maybe they’re tired, or on their cellphones, or just waiting for THEIR idea to hit the stage – but that’s not really being a team player – right? And “Yes But” doesn’t count. “Yes But” means that the Critic has slipped into “Yes!” space. S/he needs to be politely and firmly escorted from the room. For now.
Principle 3: Team Equity Do you know the difference between “Equity” and “Equality”? Here’s why it’s essential to differentiate these two terms. Teams value diversity of skill, background, we are all created equal. But we also need the right people to fill the right tasks – vital tasks that align with their skill set – And that’s Equity. Our Playback company struggles to differentiate these two concepts when it comes to some of our improv forms – those that require singing. Everyone is invited to step forward and sing. And that’s great. Mostly. In rehearsal. In development. But frankly, some of us struggle to carry a tune, and some of us find it challenging to add a block to what has already been musically built in a form. When this becomes obvious in a performance….Its painful. We confuse equality with equity. And there are many many workplaces that suffer the same confusion and, over time, reduce their productivity and morale.
Final Principle: Oops to Eureka! Here’s a phrase to remember: “See it,Say it, Flip it and Use it”. Your team runs up against a problem. Good idea to ignore it? How about hiding it? Pretend it didn’t happen? No! We need to see it and say it. Only then do we have a chance to flip it, turn it around, look at it differently and just maybe come up with a solution or a new way to use the mistake. We know the story of the researcher at 3M who fails in his attempt to make a strong adhesive because it doesn’t hold. Peels right off. Failure – right? Some time later, a choir director connected to the researcher expresses frustration with his bookmarks not staying put in the hymnals….and Post-its go down in history as 3M’s top selling product. Ooops to Eureka!
None of these are new concepts, but through the lens of improvisation: “Yes!” Space, Bring a Block, Team Equity, and Oops to Eureka! can be utilized by your team in some interesting new ways. Here’s an intriguing, one hour tool to get your team into “Yes” space in ways that allow them to engage a variety of opinions and work through differences and toward collaboration on important decisions: Shift/POV: From Conflict to Collaboration in One Hour.