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?
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.
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.