Performance
September 9, 2014

How the art of improv can transform the way we work

Improvisational theatre is theatre unscripted. There are no prepared lines of dialogue; it is all made up. Performers are inspired by audience suggestions and work with each other to create characters, an environment, a problem and a solution. While a host of skills are at play, solid performances are largely the result of strong support between scene partners and remaining present in the moment.

In recent years, improvisation or “improv” has been finding its way into the corporate world. Its principles are being used as a framework for soft skills development and as a way to stimulate innovation and creativity in the workplace. Could improv be used to help propel the public service to Destination 2020?

“Yes, and…”
You’ve found yourself in conversation with a colleague, and you’re not listening. In fact, you’re waiting for that moment when they physiologically have to stop to take a breath so that you can seize the opportunity to throw in your idea. It’s a common occurrence and yet as the Greek philosopher Epictetus wisely observed, we have two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.

Enter the first principle of improvisation: “yes, and.” To “yes, and” your scene partner means to (first) acknowledge and accept their offer or idea and (second) to build upon it. An improv scene will fail if the performers prepare or force their own idea, rather than letting it develop organically through action and reaction. The parallels in a professional context are clear. In an effort to dominate with our own ideas, we miss out on the benefits of collaboration. True growth comes from acknowledging the contributions of others and allowing for space to build upon them.

Staying in the moment
In attempting to meet the demands of our busy lives, we have become comfortable with not truly staying present in the moment. We have managed to be in two or three places at once: physically in a boardroom, mentally pondering how to have a difficult conversation with an employee, or what to pick up from the grocery store after work (or both), and as a result we are emotionally drained.

Feeding this exhaustion is an onslaught of information and distractions that come at us from many angles: emails, tweets, texts, Facebook updates, RSS feeds, voicemails, and telegrams (just checking to see that you’re paying attention). A recent study on internet trends estimated that the average person checks their smartphone every six minutes, or roughly 150 times per day. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, notes that in some cases it can take a typical office worker up to 23 minutes to refocus on the initial task they were doing prior to a distraction.

Improv teaches us that if you lack the commitment to a scene – to the moment that you’re in on stage – you’re letting your partner down. This brings us to the second principle of improv: make your partner look good. If not, you’ll likely miss an important move they are making and the scene will usually fall flat. The audience sees everything, including when your mind isn’t present. Exercises in improv aim to challenge the performer to stay completely in the moment; to observe the slightest movement in their partner, to note a change in their tone of voice. Training your mind to keep this level of focus enables the type of collaboration needed to jointly create a story.

Transferring this skill to the work world can have astounding effects. Improv-based corporate coaching helps to build and strengthen team dynamics by focusing on staying present and supporting one another.

Creativity
Think about a time when you and your team were asked to think creatively or to be innovative. A considerable amount of time was likely spent staring blankly at one another from across the boardroom table. Chances are that nothing mind-blowing came out of that creative jam session. What improv teaches us is that by employing the two rules outlined above, “yes, and” and staying present in the moment, you have created a safe space to experiment. Our fears of being judged or wrong fall off our radar. When you are freed from the fear that your idea will die before it’s allowed to develop, special things happen.

Picture it: an organization that is predisposed to saying “yes, and” to ideas; a team that is focused on making each other look good; a group of people beaming with creative energy. When I think of a changing public service, this is what I see. Changing the way we work can be scary, but if we follow that fear instead of letting it drive us, we might be pleased with the results.

About this author

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Performance
 
What are the key initiatives to support government innovation and change?...
 
Recently, there has been considerable interest in what is being referred...
 
We are excited to announce that the Dec/Jan issue of CGE...
 
In this episode, J. Richard Jones speaks with registered holistic nutritionist...
 
In this episode of CGE Radio, J. Richard Jones talks with...
 
Everyone wants to change, become more efficient, and drive better value...
 
A healthy Canadian economy and opportunities outside of North America are...
 
Evaluation may provide information relevant to broader public processes such as...
 
Did your high school valedictorian go on to achieve greatness? High...
 
Compared to audit professionals and their preoccupation with “independence”, evaluation specialists...
 
Having a clear definition of success is one of the key...
 
Does your organization have a very narrow view of what digital...
 
We are happy to share with you the September 2017 issue...
 
The design needed and practiced in government departments and the broader...
 
Behavioural Insights (BI) is a multidisciplinary approach that uses principles and...
 
One of the writers in this month’s issue started a note...
 
The Senate has long been controversial largely because it is unelected...
 
We have all heard the sayings: “Home, sweet home”; “There’s no...
 
The year 2016 saw two critical words circling the halls of...
 
Having the right talent is critical to delivering right results. But...
 
What we do in life echoes in eternity (GLADIATOR (2000) An...
 
An article in The Economist (March 8, 2015) notes that the...
 
Since 2010, experts and academics eager to connect “systems thinking” and...
 
There is already a surging literature on the application of design...
 
“The secret to happiness is to put the burden of proof...
 
In a word: Stocktakes. Mirriam-Webster defines stocktaking as “the act of estimating...
 
Today’s transformative movement towards a more digital and connected government is...
 
You’ve probably heard a lot in recent months about the Phoenix payroll disaster . Between...
 
Contrary to the stereotype of eagerness and politesse, the second Bold...
 
A study conducted by Robert Half, the world’s largest specialized staffing...
 
CFOs around the world are changing – but an EY survey...
 
As an executive you’ve probably experienced frustration when you ask for...
 
The Liberal government is taking steps to rein in the National...
 
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes...
 
Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99 If...
 
It almost goes without saying that good governance requires fair and...
 
At first glance, the title may seem counterintuitive. By their very...
 
Every reputable learning institution offers leadership development training nowadays. So why...
 
Executive compensation is considered to be a central component of corporate...
 
Rushing to keep up with deadlines but never getting ahead is...
 
A leader’s credibility begins with personal success. It ends with helping...
 
Written by Donald Farmer Too often, we base Business Intelligence today...
 
Written by  Gail Vallance Barrington Anyone who has commissioned a program...
 
Written by  Patrice Dutil It’s hard to believe we are still...
 
Public sector innovation, once dismissed as a contradiction in terms, is...
 
On May 6, 2014, the Telfer School of Management at the...
 
Whether in the public or private sector, a critical role of...
 
and “”I trust their judgment”” Related posts: Ex...
 
Water is essential to life, yet this resource is not being...
 
Agility is becoming a crucial element of a successful business. Technology...
 
Data is increasingly becoming fundamental to the world we live in....
 
Municipal governments have a number of responsibilities, but chief among them...
 
Last week, Rick Conlow and Doug Watsabaugh wrote in Businessweek that...
 
Colin Talbot’s recent book, Theories of Performance, Organizational and Service Improvement...
 
This time of year the Clerk of the Privy Council puts...
 
The British Columbia Public Service has taken significant steps to implement...
 
On October 29, General Tom Lawson accepted the responsibility of Chief...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.5 May 2007 "…however fast they went, they never...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.2 February 2007 The leadership literature is littered with...
 
CGE Vol. 14 No.4 April 2008 “Be In This Place” is...
 
What keeps you up at night? The Institute of Public Administration...
 
As I have approached the end of my term as Auditor...
 
Although a recent international poll indicates that Canada’s public sector is...
 
CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008 As David Dodge steps down today...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007 Organizational culture plays a strong role...
 
CGE Vol.13 No.8 October 2007 The New Brunswick Department of Transportation...
 
Quote of the week “The job we have here is to...
 
I think the idea that someday the department’s lights will turn...
 
Given the budgetary challenges facing most government organizations, the use of...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
What are the key initiatives to support government innovation and change?...