A couple of years ago, inspired by Patti Digh, I thought long and hard about the sort of work I wanted to do. I came up with this criteria. I’ve been trying to live by it ever since.
I’ve just finished an amazing couple of weeks work in Kenya, looking at how to incorporate mental health and psychosocial support into aid programs. Not only did this work tick four or more boxes, it ticked every one of them!
Can I make a real contribution? Is there a need for my skills? Will I make a difference?
Will it stretch me? Is it edgy? Will it contribute to my continued learning?
Is there an opportunity to build capacity, and transfer my skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to others?
Will it enable me to make money and provide for the future?
Is there an opportunity to travel to new or interesting places?
Will I be with cool people, especially friends? Will I potentially make new friends, and build existing relationships?
Will I have fun?
Am I excited by the prospect?
The work was specifically to design and facilitate a long (12-day) training program with 35 people from 26 different countries, injecting facilitation and creating activities to support the content delivered by four subject matter experts. We worked well together, created some great activities to support people’s learning and managed to deliver a serious subject playfully.
This TEDxHarlem talk by Jake Barton describes how we can move beyond the traditional (and mostly dysfunctional) public meeting and mobilise the community to be involved in creating a better future.
As well as the messages about “re-imagining public participation” this talk highlights a few other things as well. Jake Barton uses story-telling to good effect, and he demonstrates the spark-line approach suggested by Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate. He describes what is, what could be, what’s at stake, how, and a call to action. All in less than 8 minutes.
I also love the way this project combines individual needs, community, government and technology. It’s what change looks like. It’s also what the future looks like.
I’m at Improvention in Canberra – a festival of improvisers from all over Australasia, and a smattering from elsewhere. There’s shows, and competitions, and workshops, and serious discussions, and partying, and lots of coffee and other beverages. I feel like an imposter. There, glad I got that off my chest. And that’s all I’m going to say about my own personal demons. Back to Improvention.
Today there was a chat with Tom Salinsky from The Spontaneity Shop in London. I’m not a huge fan of the “Sage on the Stage” approach, but Tom brought enough humour, humility and sage advice to make it work even for me. Tom (right) was interviewed by Steve Kimmens.
When asked why he loves improv, Tom answered what many of us might say: it brings together humour, storytelling and working collaboratively. And, you never get to the end of learning improv.
Ain’t that the truth?
It seems that improv has inspired much of Tom’s life and work, from finding a partner (“Improvisers are nice people. If I was going to marry someone, I’d marry an improviser.” Apparently he did.) to scripting a play he’s taking to the Edinburgh Festival, Coalition. Yes, that’s right – the uses for improvisation even extend to writing a scripted play.
This story really helped illustrate an important aspect of improvisation. Tom told us how he colluded with another student at school for the weekly cross-country race to always come in last. The two of them would make sure they were the last to cross the line and sprint for the finish. Consequently, he never found out how fast he could really run.
Maybe we’re doing this to ourselves all the time, setting up situations where we are guaranteed to fail, thereby never having to actually RISK failure? Live improvisation, on the stage, with that always-present risk of danger and imminent failure, can show an audience that players can actually delight in chaos and failure. And the audience can share in that delight. “A triumphant failure is more satisfying that slinking off the stage.” This for me, is one of the main differences between stand-up routine, where the performance has been honed and crafted, to an improvisation performance where the players and the audience participate in something together, as it is created.
And here’s an interesting point about corporate improvisation workshops. At something like Improvention, we pretty much know what we’re getting into (yep, even me) and we sign up for the opportunity to perform. In corporate workshops it’s fair to say most people prefer not to perform, so more care has to be taken to prepare people. Bridges need to be built so as they can see the connection between what they are learning from improv and how that relates to everyday corporate situation such as presenting, leading meetings, making a sale, negotiating, etc. It seems to me that building a non-judgmental atmosphere and one where it’s okay to fail, indeed expected, is a pretty hard ask when these conditions are generally frowned upon. It’s one thing to suggest holding back on judgment and critical thinking, quite another to actually do it. One thing to suggest it’s okay to make mistakes and fail, quite another to internalise that and really believe it. This is one of the reasons I find applied improv so interesting and useful. It’s one of the few approaches I’ve come across that really builds the capacity to be non judgmental and to really risk failure.
And Tom’s final point is one that I buy into absolutely. He commented that many corporate workshops are about finding out what makes people different. Improv workshops are about finding what we have in common. Hallelujah to that.
Probably not the sort of postcards you’re thinking of.
These postcards are made of people, creating a scene from nothing but a suggestion. We started with Southern Cross Station (Melbourne’s main train station) – people posed themselves as commuters, trains, signs, rubbish, ticket machines, aimless people, newspapers. Ian David, from Melbourne Playback Theatre Company, was leading the activity. He kept asking for something that was missing. He didn’t rush.
We were then invited to do another postcard, this time someone suggested the Serengeti. There were lions, and tourists, and pop-up vans, and acacia trees, and giraffes…you get the picture. And this is where Ian added another element. He asked people in the scene to finish this sentence, from the perspective of their role: “The world works best when…”
So the lion said (for example): “The world works best when there’s lots of prey to eat.”
Ian and I had been invited to explore creating a culture and practice of collaboration through applied improvisation, and we’d opted for a hands-on experience for the 40 or so people who turned up.
Back to the Postcards. Someone suggested a scene in Damascus. There was a dictator, an arms dealer, a dead body, a photographer, a journalist, a crying child, a communications satellite. Again, Ian invited us to add whatever was missing. And then for the players to complete the statement: “the world works best when…” And then he added yet another element. Those not in the scene could go and take the same pose as one of the characters and also complete the sentence “The world works best when…”
It was extraordinary.
Talk about building connections, creating empathy, providing a visceral experience of what it might be like to be one of the elements in the Postcard. Brilliant.
This is an example of what applied improv can do. We can write about what’s happening in the world, we can talk about it, watch movies, read books – yet without actually putting ourselves into a real scene (which in a lot of cases is completely impractical) this seemingly simple exercise provides an opportunity to step into the shoes of others, to explore their motivations, their emotions, and experience multiple perspectives.
It was emotional, moving and eye-opening.
What else can provide such an experience to a group of people who barely know each other, and in a short amount of time?
Recently I received a great little gift from my friends at On Your Feet. It was a reminder about asking for help, and the rewards that often go beyond the help itself.
So, here I am, asking for your help to let others know about a conference I’m organising. It’s called Thriving in Uncertainty and will be held in Melbourne on July 12th and 13th.
I am simultaneously excited and nervous about this – the first time we’ve publicly explored how applied improv can be used in different business and organisational settings. I’m passionate about the power of improv practices to build people’s capacity to respond to uncertainty, navigate change and be agile and responsive. And I know passion is not enough.
A significant insight I had recently was about the role of practicing improv exercises regularly to build our capacity to do our work more effectively. It’s like going to the gym to build your strength to be a better tennis player; or it’s like practicing scales on the piano so you’ll be better able to perform that tricky musical piece. I believe we provide too few opportunities for people in businesses and organisations to regularly practice the skills of making and accepting offers, noticing, making their partners look good, letting go, and doing something when they don’t know what to do.
Last week, through a series of quite unexpected circumstances, I found myself co-facilitating with someone I’d never met face-to-face, and with me arriving a day into the gig with a group where I knew some of them quite well and many whom I was meeting for the first time.
There was no plan.
There was a set of beliefs that we shared, and a willingness to give it a go.
My first sign that we were on a similar wavelength was when the group had finished some activity, and I was thinking to myself what I’d do next. I wasn’t called on to offer anything right then, but my co-facilitator offered it anyway. Was he a mind reader? Maybe. My second sign of believing it’s possible was when we decided to try an approach that neither of us had ever seen in action, let alone facilitated. We shared a willingness to try something new – to believe it’s possible.
Chris Corrigan is the first person I recall telling me to ‘believe it’s possible’ when I asked his advice about rock balancing. Funny enough, it works too.
Those of us who have seen an improv group perform are sometimes in awe of the skills and teamwork a group of players can demonstrate when performing – in front of a paying audience, and with no script. It’s no secret that they can do this because of the way they approach a performance, the rules that create a platform for what they do, and their willingness to practice together.
Most of us are also familiar with sporting teams. Whether successful or not in terms of winning, these teams also operate from a basis of rules and practice. They can at least play the game, even when pitted against a team that can play better.
Then we see groups and teams in organisations sometimes struggle to work together. There may be rules and structures and guidelines that support what they do (and sometimes hinder). The missing element may be practicing together.
And there’s also individual pursuits: yoga, music, tennis, juggling, driving, karate, weights, painting – just about anything I can think of requires some sort of practice, whether that be to build skills, to build confidence, to develop muscle memory, to be able to automatically jump into the task.
Yet some work seems to be different. A one- or two- or five-day course and you’re trained in something. Back at work there may be little opportunity to practice newly-learned or even long-held skills. There’s the real work to be done, pressure to perform, meetings to attend, deadlines to meet. Where is the practice that supports work skills, especially the practice that underpins skills that are highly sought after and rewarded? Skills of leadership, of communication, of teamwork, and personal interaction. Skills of participation, of awareness, of knowledge transfer? Is there space at work to practice, to do activities that hone these skills so as when they are needed it’s innate?
Where is the equivalent of the gym or the rehearsal studio at work?
Last week I had the privilege of working with a couple of people who – probably even unknown to themselves – epitomised the principle of ‘make your partner look good’. I was that partner, on the receiving end. I can’t yell you what a joy it is to work with people like this. Reinforces for me how important it will be for me, in the future, to make my partner look good too, whoever it is I’m working with. Oh, and it helps a LOT if you like, maybe even love each other a little, admire each other’s work, trust each other and just like hanging out together. How different could work be if we sought out those people who helped us be ourselves and do our best work?
I quite enjoy helping others. I’m not so good at asking for help. From an improv perspective it’s like making offers – asking for help is making an offer to the world. And boy, does it pay back big time.
Those of you reading this blog recently will know I’m in foreign parts designing a biggish two-day event. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m never satisfied, always looking for new (and rediscovering forgotten) ideas. And those of you who know me even better will know I’d give my right arm to have a facilitation buddy or two to hang out with, toss about ideas, egg each other on. Sigh.
So I’ve turned to the next best thing, all you good folk in internet land. Some of you I know, some I’ve never met. I’ve no idea how many of you read my blog (I know, I know – there’s something I could do with google analytics to find out and, well, I really don’t care that much and I’ve never been that big into numbers. Are you out there Stephen?). If I’m only talking to myself, that’s quite okay – it gets my thoughts out of my head and on to the screen where at least I don’t forget them.
I try stuff. I like blogging. I like twitter. Facebook’s okay. Don’t mention google+ (makes me feel guilty), I’ve tried amplify, and instgram, I’ve lost count of my email addresses (they all go via gmail anyway), I quite like rapportive, I’ve just joined pin-somethingorother, I have a neglected flickr account, I think I have a YouTube channel, I subscribe to my favourite bloggers and thinkers, I just LOVE Skype – I could go on, obviously. What’s that? What about LinkedIn? Well, of course I’m on LinkedIn – I just don’t know how to use it that well. Then, in a little burst of activity towards the end of last year I created a LinkedIn Group. Wow! Just wow! I had no idea. It’s not a big group, less than 200 people – but what a generous and creative bunch.
And what I’ve learned from having a LinkedIn group is that it’s not about leading with answers – it’s about leading with questions. Real questions. Making big, bold offers by asking for help. Who knew?