LEGO

What do you learn from building with LEGO?

They’re just pieces of plastic that kids play with.

In April, I participated in a workshop led by Aneta Key, Chief Executive Muse from AEDEA Partners, LLC (aedeapartners.com) in the Bay Area. One portion of it was devoted to building a “library” using LEGO pieces. A group of us had to share a bag of bricks and other parts, while each quickly designing and constructing our own library.

  • We had to begin and complete the project with very little instruction
  • Each of us had to decide what was meant by a “library”
  • We had to use what was in front of us
  • We had to deal with sharing limited resources
  • Some of us even had to negotiate trades for the pieces we needed

Following the building, we were given some time to “present” our designs within our groups, and then to respond to each others’ presentations.

In my own small group, we had interiors, exteriors, whole libraries, parts of libraries and a a representation of a “digital library” – someone built a computer server with their LEGO pieces.

  • What different approaches did people take?
  • What can we learn about people from the approach they took?
  • What did each of us bring to the process?
  • What did each person focus on in their presentation?

It took me a couple of months to get my LEGO kits together; I convinced my teenage son to part with his bucket of LEGO pieces (delivered to my office with a laugh). After a couple of hours of sorting and dividing, I headed off to the store for a set of “plain” bricks to give the sets enough pieces so that 4-6 people could share them. (Do you know how hard it is to find plain LEGO bricks?  If you want to build Hogwarts, you are in business, but just old school bricks are hard to find.) I persevered, and found a 650 piece set. Later, I found out about a used LEGO store, so Alex Falcone and I went there after a nearby corporate workshop and bought a bunch of flat pieces – bases, if you will.

So I’m set – we have 8 big Ziploc baggies with a variety of pieces in them.

I’ve used this exercise 5 times in the last week with wildly different groups:

  • College textbook salespeople
  • Property management maintenance guys (yes, ALL guys)
  • A gathering of the Applied Improvisation Network Portland Local Group
  • High school grads in a “pre-work” program sponsored by the public schools
  • Middle schoolers in our CSz Summer Camp

ain

In one amazing week, I’ve witnessed colleges, apartment complexes, restaurants, places to work and tree houses being built. Many tree houses included pools, flying ability, an aquarium and amazing ways to climb aboard. My favorite college looked like a microscope. One of the apartment complexes featured an unpaved part of the parking lot – “we haven’t paved that part yet.”

All we did was play with LEGO, but we also learned about:

  • Imagination
  • Cooperation
  • Making do with what we’ve got
  • Recapturing a sense of play (even a couple of middle schoolers needed help with that)
  • Just starting and seeing what happens
  • Designing improvisationally
  • Failing often
  • Presentation skills
  • Building on others’ ideas
  • Sharing experiences from our selling stories
  • What’s most important to us in doing a good job
  • Gibberish skills – expressing our design without real words and seeing what we’re able to communicate

Is that all?

What have you learned?

camp

Patrick Short has been teaching applied improvisation for business since 1989, used Duplos (large, little kid LEGO pieces) in an exercise he’s always called, “LEGO”, and now he has a naming problem. Follow him on Twitter @patrickshort4

Blind Bobsled

It makes me crazy when I hear people say that it takes special skills to improvise.

It just takes the right situation, the right opportunity and the right attitude. Given those conditions, anyone can improvise. What gets improvised may be more or different from what you expected.

How about an applied improvisation game that involves moving around a space, adjusting for other players, finding new situations and avoiding crashing into each other?

While blind?

Jane Wolfe recently led a workshop where she taught the game Bobsled; she learned it from me, I learned it from William Hall at the AIN Conference in San Francisco in September, 2012.

I appreciate the shout out, and her story is very cool.  Improv with the Visually Impaired.

I Was Used

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.

Improv Boosts Leadership Skills

Dr. Farnaz Tabaee and Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development

We work in an era of uncertainty.

Today’s economic environment runs fast, competes globally and refreshes faster than a Twitter feed. To stay competitive, business, industry and education leaders must think on their feet, making spontaneous decisions with confidence. Yet this skill isn’t taught or even encouraged in more than a few MBA programs or leadership seminars. With an eye toward changing that paradigm Dr. Farnaz Tabaee presented Effects of Improvisation Techniques in Leadership Development, a doctoral thesis that proves improv is a necessary tool for success in the 21st Century.

Born in Persia, Tabaee immigrated to the US at the age of 16. After graduating from college, she started as an engineer in the IT world, then changed careers to instructional design and leadership development. Unsatisfied with the instruction she was receiving, she wanted to teach but was hamstrung by the thought of standing up and speaking before a crowd. “Over and over people told me to take an improv course,” she reports. Tabaee did and took an improv class where she was expected to act in a scene without any initial instruction. She found the experience so daunting, she dropped the class after the first session.

One year later, she gathered her strength and signed up for another improv class. The class, taught by the same instructor, started with immediate scene work which led her to quit after the first day. Yet this time she noted some interesting changes in her presentations. “I was more confident and people noticed,” she recalls. “I became a better listener, a better coach and a better trainer.” Armed with continued success as a trainer, Tabaee went on to complete the improv series of classes at Second City Hollywood and continued to perform with ImprovMasters.

As fascinated as she was with her own experience, Tabaee was equally frustrated with the way business managers clung to the old way of doing things. “In my IT years, I was astounded by managers who kept to a business plan simply because it was there, even if the incoming data was contradictory to their original assumptions,” she says. “Intuitively I knew that improv was a very useful tool for leaders but I had to prove it.”

First, she had to convince her advisors at Pepperdine that improv is a topic worthy of a doctorate. It was a tough sell. Her initial advisor shot the idea down, claiming there wasn’t enough data to support a dissertation. Undaunted, she found a second advisor and two years, 350 pages and over 400 references later, Dr. Farnaz Tabaee proves that improv is an invaluable tool to business.

THE STUDY

Her initial research uncovered some remarkable facts. It showed that business leaders make intuitive, ad-hoc improvised decisions 75-90% of the time, yet very little research has explored this improvisational skill set. No other leadership skill set that is applied at least two-thirds of the time has ever been so underdeveloped (Meyer, 2010; Mintzberg, 1973). She also found very high levels of stress in today’s business leaders. This combination of high stress and ad-hoc improvisation leads to ineffective decision making due to the leaders’ inability to think clearly under high amounts of stress. One of her sources, Montuori (2012), sums up the situation adroitly, “Leaders must learn to manage stress, and become more adaptive problem solvers, capable of creating, innovating, and working quickly and under conditions of great uncertainty.

Using a holistic model of improvisation that was revised using the grounded theory approach (where research results shape the theory), Tabaee designed the Improvisation of Leaders Workshop. This three and one half hour workshop was used as the basis of her research. Why three and one half hours? “Improv is learned experientially,” she says. “You need time to learn, practice, reflect and process. You also need time to feel safe and forget about the outside world. I had to break up one of my sessions in two, one hour 45 minute classes and it just wasn’t as effective.”

Tabaee conducted her study using 67 participants from various disciplines including: education, aerospace, finance, insurance and manufacturing. All of the participants were executive management, directors, middle managers, supervisors, team leaders, or project managers. Individual classes took place in different regions of the country and different ages, genders and educational levels were represented.

Pre-workshop interviews measured participants’ knowledge of improv and their stress levels. During the workshop, participants agreed to list three specific actions they would bring from the workshop to their workplace. They were further encouraged to apply at least one of the actions they had listed and commit to making a behavioral change. A post workshop survey was conducted immediately after the session, in addition to an interview a month after the session which inquired about the effects of improv at one month and three month intervals.

The results prove astounding. Ninety percent of participants reported gaining listening skills or the ability to express thoughts without judgment or both. Participants also felt more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being wrong or judged. Out of the 33 women in the study, 24 (72%) of them expressed feeling more confident in expressing themselves without fear of being judged.

In improv, “competent risks” are taken and mistakes are tolerated. After participating in the study, 81% of participants reported that they were better able to accept their own and their staff’s mistakes and learn from them. This theme also trickled down positively to other areas of the leaders’ effectiveness, leading to greater productivity and less stress.

Competent risk is an important concept,” insists Tabaee. “People in business hear the work ‘risk’ and immediately think ‘careless,’ ‘sloppy’ or ‘disaster.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Competent risk means working within a known skill set at your highest level of intelligence.” As one of the participants put it, “I’m not feeling too restricted in my choices and can take a risk and speak up more often.”

Participants also gained an understanding of collaborative creativity. Seventy two percent indicated observing this phenomenon at the workshop or later in their work environments. One participant summed up how improvisational techniques improve relationship focus at work. “Business is about relationships and relationships can be enhanced by improvisational techniques. …Even if I don’t get along with some people, [I’ll] never forget to focus on maintaining and flourishing relationships at home and work.”

Tabaee’s study also noted lowered levels of stress, increased mindfulness, affirmative competence (individuals feeling confident enough to take action), desire to share leadership and the ability to make OPTIMAL Spontaneous Decisions (OSD.) OPTIMAL stands for Open to the Present Thought and Intuition and Mindful in Action and Leadership. OSD means that by combining rational thought, intuition and mindfulness, problems can be solved rapidly. In follow-up interviews, leaders admitted their jobs required this skill. As one phrased it, “Plans are overrated, especially in today’s fast-paced business world. Spontaneity does not mean irresponsibility or carelessness. Using it is often a necessity.”

In follow up interviews one month after the study, participants continued to enjoy higher levels of productivity and performance. This included employee retention, particularly among the Gen Y group. “There is an inter-generational problem in managing Generation Y employees,” observes Tabaee. “Managers often don’t trust them with challenging assignments, don’t share information easily, or don’t answer their ‘why’ questions. Improv teaches how to share information, give up control and welcome questions.” One participant noticed the benefits immediately, “We may actually be able to keep our Generation Y employees [instead of having them leave] after a few months or a year.”

Many participants also noted better family relationships. Tabaee is not surprised by that effect. “The techniques improve communications and help remove fear across the board. That will help in any relationship be it business or personal,” she says. She speaks from experience. “My kids are constantly using improv with me. If I say no to ice cream they prompt me to say, ‘yes…and.’”

AFTER-EFFECTS

After the study 100% of the participants agreed that improvisation techniques offer value to business. Participants reported quicker decision making skills, less stress, better employee retention rates, improved communication and appropriate delegation of leadership. They are also trying to bring improv to their departments, as one person reported, “It was very eye opening to see myself be creative at the workshop, so I tried to transfer what I had learned to my staff at staff meetings including [Tabaee’s] 4S principles of improvisation and not looking at failure as a mistake but an opportunity. We now do an opening exercise with these principles in mind. The energy level has gone up in my team and more innovative ideas are flowing out of my staff.”

There is also concrete evidence that improv increased awareness and decision making abilities. At pre-test, 91% of leaders indicated they were not aware whether they used improvisational techniques in making their decisions. At the post-test, after learning improvisational and OSD skills, 71% of participants agreed that they would change the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. From post-test to interview, 85% of participants changed the method used to make spontaneous decisions to OPTIMAL Decision Making using improvisation skills. At the final interview, a cumulative total of 97% of leaders reported that they would change the way they make spontaneous decisions from pretest by using their intuition more effectively and applying improvisation principles. Reasons leaders brought for changing to OSD included 40% by using tools from the Workshop; 58% noted they learned how to be more spontaneous; 68% admitted to having more confidence and better at trusting their intuition; 98% noted they possessed the awareness of using improvisational skills to make OSD.

Given all of this, will improv be a required class in business school? “I sure hope so,” says Tabaee. “Business schools are lagging behind, still teaching models appropriate to the industrial revolution. They say people need to be more nimble and flexible but how do you teach it? Improv, of course. It rewires your brain allowing you to make spontaneous decisions efficiently and at the height of your intelligence.”

And don’t forget having fun. “Humor and laughter are a key component,” she concludes. “I had one president of a large financial company say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to play. I am in my mid 50s and have no kids; it seems as if I had forgotten how to play. Thank you for showing us how to be creative together like that. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.’”

Dr. Tabaee’s comments were made in an interview on June 11, 2013, with Amy Milshtein and Patrick Short of CSz-Portland. Article by Amy Milshtein. Dr. Tabaee can be reached at Farnaz.tabaee@gmail.com or at her website, www.improv4leaders.com (under construction until September 2013).

Tabaee, F. (2013). Effects of improvisation techniques in leadership development. Doctoral Dissertation, 341. Pepperdine University Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15093coll2/id/349

Improv as a Journey

When ComedySportz-Portland started in 1993, improvisation wasn’t widely known.

20+ years later, most people know about improv as a performance medium, and most people know it more narrowly as a comedic form.

In many places (Portland is certainly one of them), performance improv is growing by leaps and bounds, and boundaries are challenged every month. We’re proud to be part of that, and proud to be old enough to be a tradition, too.

But wait, there’s more!

Improvisation can be applied to almost everything – businesses, social issues, education – even life itself! We are all improvising at one level or another; you don’t have to be a professional performer to get the benefits.

Our blog is here to ask some questions, offer some ideas and to reflect on the theories (and practical applications) we’ve worked with throughout our history. We want to keep learning more, applying more, enriching more lives.

We want to save the world using improvisation. That’s a journey, not a single action or set of actions.

We’ll focus on these areas:

We believe everyone can improvise. Even businesses. Even couples. Even parents. Even kids.

We believe improvisation makes lives better.

We believe in the concept of Yes, And…

We don’t believe in winging it.

Let’s go.