Thesis: Theatrical & Improvisational Techniques for the Corporate World

Michelle Baxter, (MS, AA) – Drexel University) has released her Master’s Thesis.

Title
Theatrical & improvisational techniques for the corporate world: how the performing arts are helping create a more adaptable workforce for the 21st century

Author(s)
Baxter, Michelle N.

Advisor(s)
Vakharia, Neville

Keywords
Performing arts; Arts administration; Leadership–Study and teaching; Organizational behavior
Thesis
Thesis (M.S., Arts Administration) – Drexel University, 2014

Abstract
Performing arts organizations are helping create a more adaptable and innovative workforce by providing the business sector with corporate workshops that utilize theatrical and improvisational techniques that build leadership skills and promote teambuilding. This paper aims to help performing arts organizations see the mutually beneficial practice of offering corporate training workshops. These programs not only help businesses explore the ways in which they can remain relevant and innovative in today’s competitive global market, but in doing so, they also create sustainability for the arts organization itself. Performing arts organizations must expand marketing efforts for corporate training programs, which not only increase earned revenue but also raise awareness about the role of the arts in the creation of a more innovative and adaptive workforce. While some performing arts organizations may look at this as “going corporate,” the organizations that provide these workshops truly see this as yet another way that the arts are able to positively impact our communities.

 

Here is a link to the site where you can download the pdf.

Paul Z Jackson on the Myths of Improvisation – Parts 1-3

Over the weekend, my family was invited to a very pleasant backyard dinner with three families. Talk always turns to what we all do, and it did. There was a professor of German, an advertising exec, a project manager for Xerox and a gentleman who works in renewable energy membership programs for utilities.

“So you two own a comedy club?” Yes, we do, but there’s a little more to it, and off we went. I’m always interested in what other people do, and how they do it, but I’m finding that we are a curiosity.

The inevitable “I could never do that,” and “I’m not funny enough, ” came up. Frankly, most of the time offstage, we’re not funny, either. And this got me to pondering, in a quiet moment over iced latte and ice cream, about the myths that continue to weigh us down in improvisation.

Today, I caught a tweet in the feed from Paul Z Jackson, the President of the Applied Improvisation Network, about the myths of improvisation. I could rewrite what he said, but I’d rather just pass it along:

 

“Experienced improvisers tend to be very enthusiastic about their craft. Yet many people unfamiliar with improvisation imagine they won’t enjoy it. They feel daunted or even frightened. It’s a response that goes beyond a natural caution when dealing with the unexpected – after all, we face uncertainty every day.

This contrast can perhaps be accounted for by various myths circulating about improvisation. Here is the first of three of the most prevalent.

 

Myth #1: You have to be funny

One myth says you have to be funny. This myth has two main sources. The first is that many people see improvisers creating comedy shows on stage or on TV (Whose Line Is It Anyway? as perhaps the most popular example), so they simply equate improvisation with the performance of comedy. In my view, improvisation is not necessarily about performance or about comedy. The second source is that even in contexts where there is no performing, the moment of improvisation is often funny because of the element of surprise. Laughter is generated by wit or by relief from the straitjackets of tension.

 

Of course it’s okay to perform and it’s wonderful to be funny. But the principles and techniques of improvisation are not about being funny, and trying to be funny is generally a mistake. It’s also a misleading trap, responsible for excluding people who think they cannot be – or who have no desire to be – funny.

 

Improvisation is about connecting, listening, adding, engaging with uncertainty, been present in the moment, attending to the here and now. You might do that for the purpose of being funny. Equally, you might be aiming to get better work from a team; or using improvisation skills to be more confident in how you present yourself.”

Myth #2: Improvisation is for when it goes wrong

You are often called upon to improvise when things don’t go according to plan.

Many of the natural language uses of improvisation reflect this. For example, “It was raining, I did not have my umbrella with me so I improvised some shelter with a sheet of newspaper.” Or, “We were ship-wrecked on the beach so we improvised a hut.”

But it’s not always when something is wrong or plans go awry: it may be that circumstances are slightly unusual or unexpected. You watch a football match and the sports commentator says, “Oh, he wasn’t expecting the winger to make that run, so he’s improvised a clever pass inside.”

Our view is that you can also improvise as a deliberate first choice – with no question of anything having gone wrong. Suppose you know that you will be facing conditions of uncertainty. Or you know that you want to create something new with other people. In such circumstances it makes good sense to choose to improvise. You appreciate that you don’t need to have everything planned. You come in ready to see what happens, to adapt and to respond as events unfold.

Now you find yourself improvising as things go well, able to delay decision-making until the optimum moment, operating with more information, with timely responses to exactly what’s there.

This is the quality of improvisation recognised by surgeons, firefighters and the military. You find it in organisations that devolve responsibility to a front-line, because they appreciate complexity and value what emerges. It accompanies a view of the world not as a static, mechanical model with traditional cause-and-effect predictability, but as a more flexible place, in which reality is not a simple and obvious given, but co-constructed as we go along, client and practitioner, person to person.

That is the sort of improvisation we’re primarily focusing on here: Improvisation by design, where you do it by choice, build your skills and flourish by applying them.

The third myth says that improvisation is chaos.

It’s not. There’s a continuum from complete predictability through complexity and onto complete chaos.

Chaos is chaos, where there’s no structure, no order and no predictability. Improvisation applies best in conditions of complexity – when there’s both structure and freedom; planning and responding. A great deal of our lives takes place in those conditions.

We are always adapting and responding within the normal circumstances of everyday life. Almost every conversation is unscripted, for example. Unless a journey is utterly routine, it will contain improvisational elements – what you see along the way, who you interact with. So it makes sense to think about improvisation as offering support for everyday life, which is somewhere between chaos on the one hand and formulaic fixed structure on the other.

 

There are doubtless other myths of improvisation; those are three key ones we hear a lot, and it’s good to dispel them so that we can really get cracking on the bits that matter.”

 

Paul’s blog is at http://www.impro.org.uk/blog, and you can email him at info@impro.org.uk.

Improv for Music Educators

April has been a very interesting month in our Applied Improvisation world. Ballet, Technical Support, Innovation, Shakespeare for 5th Graders – all sorts of new challenges have surfaced.

CSz Keyboard Player Mark Anderson approached me several months ago and asked if I would be interested in teaching improv skills, theory and music to the regional meeting of American Orff-Schulwerk Association. Mark teaches in elementary schools and got involved with the Orff Approach several years ago. Mark sees a lot of connections between the two disciplines of Orff and Improvisation, and he’s even taught us at a team practice.

We had six hours to play with, including lunch. The morning was devoted to improvisation theory, culture and skills – all experienced through games, and then reflected upon. All of the teachers took to it like ducks to water.

In the afternoon, we shifted gears into creating songs using improv. Most of it was fantastic, but there seemed to be some elements of hesitation. I was at a loss to understand it, given how well the previous work had gone, until Mark explained it to me: Words. Orff teachers aren’t used to inventing lyrics!

In or out of comfort zones, beautiful music was created. Connections between the forms were clearly made, and lots of fun was had. Read Mark’s terrific blog piece on his experience.

Patrick Short has been writing songs since he was 8. Find some of the more recent ones at shortboule.com.

 

 

 

Improv at the Ballet

We had an extraordinary workshop experience last week because of an exchange on Twitter:

Mar 24
Helen Pickett is making the dancers…improv. Eek! Ballet dancers’ worst nightmare!

Mar 24
Maybe we can help?

Mar 24
Please do! Wanna crash a rehearsal soon and show us how it’s done?

Mar 24
Yes And! We’d be happy to. Call or message us through portlandcomedy.com.

And on April 11, it came together!

Apr 11 workshop! If we can survive an hour of improv in a format we don’t claim to be good at, we’ll kill it in Petal.

Apr 11 : The most elegant improvised pirate ship ever!

Apr 11 Thanks for today! We had such a blast. Opened our minds and made us laugh!

In speaking with choreographer Helen Pickett (see an interview with Helen) before the workshop, I realized that we were taking two forms – dance and acting – and connecting them with the bridge of Applied Improvisation. The workshop itself came pretty directly out of the corporate workshop playbook, and it was very enlightening.

Dancers typically are told exactly what to do and when to do it. When faced with moments of improvisation, the openness can be overwhelming.

We explored that through exercises aimed at:

  • Listening / Observing
  • Accepting
  • Supporting – going where you are needed
  • Taking competent risks (after all, these people have amazing physical tools at their disposal – freedom to use those tools is exhilarating)
  • Letting go of mistakes

The last item – letting go of mistakes – seemed to really hit home.

One of the best things for me was seeing tension give way to laughter – and a gathering crowd of folks on the other side of the glass who wished they had chosen to play with us.

 photo

 

Minds opened.

We hope to collaborate further with Oregon Ballet Theatre!

 

Update: I got to see OBT in action on April 24, and Petal was astounding – I could not tell what was improvised! The whole evening, called Celebrate, was partly in honor of retiring principal dancer Alison Roper; there was a multi-media retrospective of her life and career (dance, images, music and a voice-over interview), plus two of her favorite dances – Cor Perdut (absolutely stunning) and Girl From Ipanema (her first big role at OBT).

Following the performance was a talk-back featuring Artistic Director Kevin Irving and four dancers. Makino Hayashi gave our workshop experience a nice shout out (and I even got a hug). The improvisation was the most asked-about and talked about element. Kevin expressed regret that he had had to miss the improv workshop, and hoped I would be willing to come back.

 

When improv performer and instructor Patrick Short dances, people laugh. Petal was part of the Oregon Ballet Theatre production Celebrate, which ran April 17-26, 2014 at the Newmark Theater at Portland5.

Why a Team Took an Improv Class – and You Should Too!

In January, I led an Applied Improvisation workshop with Strategic Contact, a group of consultants to the call center industry. Lori Bocklund, Strategic Contact’s President, wrote a really nice blog piece about the experience.

It feels good when someone says nice things about their workshop with you, but beyond that, Lori does a great job distilling her team’s experience:

We learned a few things:

  • How to listen – really listen – to everything someone says
  • How confusing our language and directions can be when there is a lot going on, and how complex direction leads to a “result,” but not necessarily the expected result
  • When resources are “flying blind,” no amount of direction will lead to a successful outcome
  • Agility is key to forward momentum when things develop a bit differently than expected
  • Roles can shift and everything can still work when we are operating as peers, with mutual respect of capabilities and strengths and focus on the “right” things
  • Teamwork is also about having fun; good things can come out of “play”
  • How to build on what someone says, not reject it outright (which is often the reaction when we have points we want to make or think we have the answers)

This last one provided a golden nugget and gave us some new lingo to use in working together. “Yes, and…” is a key to success in improv, and a great way to leverage others’ input and ideas. It lets people take risks, present new ideas, and feel respected and appreciated. It beats “No…” or “Yes, but…” any day. It doesn’t mean we always agree, but we try to listen to what our teammates have to share and use their ideas rather than reject them.”

That was a valuable half day, don’t you think?

These concepts can be applied to almost any industry, and focused on many aspects of your company: customer service, leadership, change management, communication, connecting or breaking down silos – it’s a long list.

Read the whole blog piece – and if you work in the call center industry, maybe your team should be contacting Lori Bocklund and Strategic Contact.

Fixing Things with Applied Improvisation – An Interview

An edited transcript of a phone interview of Patrick Short, GM of CSz Portland, and Michelle Baxter, M.S. Candidate – Arts Administration – Drexel University, for Michelle’s upcoming thesis. The original interview was in January, 2014. The comments have been edited for clarity and sanity.

 

MB: I was checking out your website, and I thought it was really great how you break down all the different things that businesses have used CSz for, and I saw one of the things that really stood out to me was “post-downsizing,” since that is really happening a lot. My first question is really basic and broad – can you tell me about some of the programs you offer to these business groups, if you have any that are more popular or some that you’re finding are becoming more popular?

 

CSz: Most people contact us looking for Team Building. That’s a big umbrella to some people, but it’s a piece of what we do. Team Building is carried along in everything that we present and teach – even in our shows. The term we’re trying to use is “applied improvisation,” because we’re taking improv beyond performing for people, we’re using it as a tool to achieve goals. And while a lot of people call us for Team Building, the thing that’s exploding right now – for us here in Portland – is customer service. Every time we turn around, we’re teaching customer service. I did 4 events last week, 3 of them were around customer service – the fourth was on presentation skills. The one that I’m doing this week for a company is customer service or customer experience. A sales call that I just had is for a large tech company who is here in Hillsboro is going to be onboarding 70-80 new tech support people soon. They’re in the process of doing the hiring, and they’re talking about bringing us in for improv soft skills training; handing us each set of people, dividing them into two groups, two hours a day for a week. It’s a dream to have that much time to work with people.

 

MB: Wow.

 

CSz: Technical support – it’s at the heart of customer service. They’ve trained them on their products, and they’ve trained them on their system – most companies do that and then throw the the newbies in front of customers and expect great results. This company is thinking, “No, we have to be more excellent than that.” What I really appreciate about this company, beyond bringing us in – is that they’ve had 3 outsourced companies working with them, and they’ve discovered that’s not the most effective way to deliver the service. So this is really awesome. Service is huge right now.

 

MB: So what would you say are the skills people are looking to build in customer service outside of the more basic Team Building programs you do? How are they utilizing improv to improve customer service?

 

CSz: Listening skills; communication skills; accepting people or meeting people where they are; supporting each other on their team – which sounds a little like Team Building, but it’s beyond that. Understanding that you look good when you make others look good; taking competent risks; stepping outside the program when your intuition tells you something else needs to be done. You might have a rock-solid policy, but there are times when you have to dump the policy to do what’s good and what’s right; and then, minimizing the effects of mistakes – one of the beautiful things about improv is when we perform, it’s mistake after mistake after mistake, and we just embrace it. We don’t sit around and point fingers and worry about errors – we learn from them – we don’t want to make the same mistakes over and over, but each mistake is an opportunity. So, those are the main things. We believe in improvisation as a system of observing, connecting, and responding, and within in that system, the pillars that hold it up are listening, accepting, supporting, taking competent risks and minimizing the effects of mistakes.

 

MB: That is so interesting. You know, I think of all the people I’ve talked to, you’re the fourth person I’ve talked to, and I haven’t really heard that much about minimizing the effects of mistakes, and I love that, how that transfers. I have a theatre background, and that’s what improv is all about: Not saying “no” and rolling with what you’re given. And I think that’s a really interesting thing to be taking to the corporate world.

 

CSz: Absolutely.

 

MB: I’m glad you said that.

 

CSz: Everybody makes mistakes. The question is what happens after you make the mistake. I run a company and we have lots of vendors that we work with, and they make mistakes – WE’RE gonna make mistakes. too. It’s what happens AFTER we make the mistake. In our business, I love it when somebody tells me,“Oh, we double-billed this customer and we have to take care of it.” Because what happens? We end up fixing it and making a fan for life because most people don’t expect that from a company. People call us and say, “I was double-billed for Friday Night…” – we just take care of it – or even better, “We got sick, and we couldn’t come Saturday night – is there any way you could help us?” And our approach is “Great! When do you want to see the show?” There’s no “Sorry, you didn’t use your tickets.” It’s “When do you want to see the show?” We want people to get value. They call expecting nothing, and instead, they get pretty much exactly what they want, and they usually can’t believe it. They call ready to fight, and we’re listening and saying, “We get it – we’re on your side.” When WE’VE made the mistake, it’s an opportunity for us to learn how to avoid it next time – it’s also an opportunity to convert somebody into a fan for life. When I work with vendors, I’m less interested in how they work with me regularly – that’s cool – but inevitably, somebody’s going to blow something, and what happens when they do?

 

MB: So what made you decide, or what made CSz decide to add this component to their programming?

 

CSz: That’s a fun story. I was with CSz San Jose; I played there from 1987 to 1992, and I served as General Manager. We did our ComedySportz show one night, and afterwards, some guys came up to us in our handshaking line, you know we have this thing we call a “slap line” where we high-five the audience on their way out the door – I don’t know if you’ve experienced that – but it’s an important part of the fan experience… These guys came up to us and said,“Can we talk to you? We want to think like you.” And we’re thinking, “Uh… alright… what’s going on?” They worked for Apple; they were in a department writing drivers, these software guys writing drivers – very glamorous stuff – and they were having trouble even agreeing on all of the goals, not to mention the path. And we said, “Okay. What do you mean by ‘think like us?’” They said, “It looks seamless. You agree on everything, you’re always moving in the same direction, it’s like somebody has an idea and everyone goes with it…” And we thought,“Okay, cool.” So we offered them our Adult 101 syllabus for 6 weeks at the campus in Cupertino for this group of 10 or 12 guys. Then, at the end, they wrote us a check, and we thought, “We have a new business.” So, it was a customer who came in and said,“You can do this for us – give it to us.” That was the first one, and clearly, we had no idea what we were doing except how to train them to be improv performers. It was a nice start.

 

It’s been refined over the years since then – by a lot. In fact, the refinement has accelerated over the last 5 years with my involvement in the Applied Improvisation Network. CSz brought a great attitude and great team culture to a whole bunch of skilled people who were really, truly focused on the show. Now, it’s really grown so much over the years that my focus has shifted. I still do the shows – I probably perform 100 times a year, but teaching Applied Improvisation has become a passion. I think it’s connected to the fact that here in Portland, I’ve always taught our 101 class – our adult class – that’s always been my niche.  I don’t teach many advanced improv classes – although I do some teaching in musical improv, since I’m a piano player, and I compose. I’ve developed a talent for teaching people who have not touched this before, and that matches what the corporate world needs very nicely. Having worked for many years in sales and marketing in the high-tech industry doesn’t hurt, either. I had to listen and learn about clients’ needs, and I learned a lot about what makes some companies work and others not work.

 

MB: So these next two questions are very basic, but I’m kind of using them as a gauge to see if there are certain areas of the country where these things are more in demand or if certain companies just have a better handle on it. I think it has a lot to do with marketing and I really had to dig to find theatres that I didn’t end up following through with because it was so hard to find out if they did corporate trainings. A lot of people I’ve talked to have said, “Yeah, we haven’t really marketed this yet, but we’re looking at it now because people are just coming to us more, and we’re thinking, ‘Well how much more earned revenue could we be looking at if we start marketing this?’”

 

CSz: There’s a detachment, too; because many people in our field look at working with corporations as “whoring,” and they’re absolutely wrong. We have never looked at it that way. If anybody wants a chance to make the world better, this is really a place where we could do it. Even entertainment-wise, we have never looked at it as, “Oh yeah, that’s just a corporate show.” It’s a challenge, it’s fun, it’s core to what we do. I wouldn’t be performing ComedySportz anymore if it was just all home theatre shows. Home shows are not challenging enough – they’re so much fun, and very rewarding, but that alone is not challenging enough for a career. I hope that companies looking for improvisation training get a chance to work with people who are passionate about working with them. We are.

 

MB: Yeah. Interesting. I like that perspective on it. So just to give me a gauge, how long has CSz Portland been offering these training programs?

 

CSz: CSz Portland is 21 years old. We’ve offered Applied Improvisation from our beginning in 1993, although in a limited sense because I was the only person with experience when we opened up here with a new team; that made us vulnerable to issues.  If I booked something and got sick, I wouldn’t have anybody who was anywhere near competent enough to do it. So I limited it to some small engagements for a couple of years. It wasn’t that we DIDN’T do it, but I deliberately didn’t focus on it until I felt like I had people who had the chops who I could train to do this. Our first significant one would’ve been about 1995, so we’re looking at about 19 years. I’ve been doing it personally for 25+ years.

 

MB: So now what would you say in the past year – how many programs do you typically do in one year? Or do you want to give a gauge of how many you did in 2013? Are you seeing an increase year after year?

 

CSz: It was growing significantly through 2007 and then tanked in the recession. It never went completely away, but we were probably up to about 30 times a year in 2007, and probably went down to half a dozen a couple years later. I mean, it TANKED, and companies just stopped spending money on stuff that they didn’t have to spend. For 2013, off the top of my head, I’m going to say between 35 and 40. It was the most revenue we’ve ever had from it, and we’ve got – as far as days in front of clients this year, we’re already at 8 in the middle of January. It feels like it’s really growing. And we’re doing some things with more reach. I designed and sold a program to Radio Shack that’s been done 6 times, 4 in New York, 1 in Boston, 1 in L.A. I haven’t physically taught any of them.

 

MB: Interesting.

 

CSz: Other top CSz people have taught them. And we’re at that point where we can get together on Skype, and because we’ve been working together for years, and I’ve been leading train the trainer sessions at our shareholders’meetings and ComedySportz World Championship events – we have a common language. We won’t necessarily use the same games, but we have the same goals, the same articulation of our system. There’s actually a system of connecting, observing and responding and not just winging it. And that’s really helped a lot. We’re seeing more and more work nationally.

 

MB: Wow. I was also intrigued when Bobbi Block told me about your location because I know the arts seem to be more well-supported by the public in Portland and the surrounding area.

 

CSz: Portland and Seattle are artistic places. Everybody’s in a band and most people have started a theatre company – I’m joking, but it seems like that’s the case. And those that haven’t mostly knit. If you watch Portlandia, it’s not far off – it’s based in reality.

I think what drives this area the most is a combination of high-tech and the shoe companies. We have Nike; the North American headquarters for Adidas is here; there are smaller ones, too. Nike’s huge, and then we have a large tech sector. There are 15,000 Intel employees here. They aren’t headquartered in Oregon, but there are 15,000 employees here. Tektronix was a huge tech company–old school tech company–that spun off companies like crazy in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, and it’s been bought out and shrunk, but a lot of the companies they spun off are still here. There’s a big start-up mentality here. It’s not quite like Silicon Valley, but there’s a start-up mentality here. We’ve done a lot of work with Nike – it’s not like you get into Nike or Intel and go through the whole company. That would be sweet, but they don’t work that way – they’re very departmental. We go department by department. We’ve probably done 30 engagements with Nike. We’ve done at least that many with Intel. The drivers for this work aren’t so much artistic; there’s a big design community and there are some forward-thinking companies. Working with Nike is outstanding because they’ve already filtered out the people who don’t want to play. I call keeping the people on the fringe of a workshop engaged “border collie-ing.”You don’t have to “border collie” people from Nike.

 

And yet, we have to get out there and earn our money. We’re for-profit, so we’re not getting grants. And we do that by doing shows and training for corporate, church, association and school clients. We’re out there earning money. Because we’re clean, we can even play at churches – most improv groups wouldn’t play in a church – they simply couldn’t do it. We don’t have a problem with that. The other thing that happens with it – not only do they pay you, they laugh really hard, the audiences are great, and they’re grateful – truly GRATEFUL that they can have a comedy experience where they aren’t offended. It’s really super simple – we don’t make fun of what people can’t change – ethnicity, politics, religion – we stay away from those things and we’re able to be funny without offending anybody. We’ve done road shows for 21 years without a complaint from anybody – schools, churches, corporate, private, conventions – it’s still fun – it’s really hilarious.

 

There’s almost as much gratitude in our corporate workshops. Team Building has gotten to be a loaded term; apparently, there’s a lot of junk out there in the training world. During our final reflections, we always have someone tell us, “I thought this was going to be terrible and it was great!” I am always willing to hear that – and to understand that the fear and negative associations are a form of barrier that we need to get past early in our training events.

 

MB: Are you finding your repeat clients or customers – whatever you prefer to call them – such as Nike, do you find that you’re doing the same things for these different departments, or are you seeing people who – it’s kind of like you’re taking the workshop up to the next level and perhaps you’re trainings are getting more advanced with your return customers?

 

CSz: The stuff that seems to be exploding right now is the ongoing programs. The sales call I was at this morning would be ongoing – an insurance company I’ve worked with booked multiple stops to reach the whole company, and they’re talking about working with us more deeply in the future. I have booked an engagement for this Friday with a local ice cream company. It’s called Salt and Straw, and they make and sell ice cream flavors like pear / blue cheese, bacon brown ale… for Thanksgiving they had Turkey brittle, and sweet potato pie, and orange yam and they did the whole Thanksgiving menu – in ice cream. One of their most popular flavors is olive oil – it’s fantastic. First of all, the ice cream’s wonderful, second; you walk up, you usually wait in line, and everybody’s waiting to get into this joint, and then you get up front, and you can sample all the flavors – they don’t hurry you. They do a really nice job of connecting with you, and yet, they want to hire us to amp up their customer experience even higher. They want to focus on the “mistake thing,” not worrying about it, and just dealing with it. I will be working with their managers, and then they’re talking about on-boarding a significant number of people – they’re really growing. They want to bring me in to work with the people at the front end after they’ve had their basic training.

 

So what’s happening is this: 10 years ago, we taught Team Building – let’s get along, let’s connect. Now, we’re applying improv to higher level goals – really high-level customer service techniques – leadership, design thinking, creative brainstorming and more. Many times it can be the same activity or activities, but the difference is in how you introduce them, how you reflect on them and how you help your clients make the connections for themselves. That’s the value-add we offer. Anyone can learn these games, but working with somebody who’s led and reflected on the games at companies for 20+ years can switch on a dime, recognize what’s happening in front of them and connect it to their work during reflection, That’s the value we add.

 

MB: So would you say you’ve ever gotten feedback from somebody you’ve worked with, and they’ve gotten a benefit out of the workshop that you never even thought about, and it kind of puts that new spin on things for you?

 

CSz: That has happened. I don’t have anything specific that’s coming to mind, but that’s happened several times. Most of the time, they make a connection inside the workshop that I haven’t thought of. As I walk into Salt and Straw on Friday, I will be carrying all the reflection of all previous clients with me on all those games. If something comes up, there’s probably somebody who’s had something similar. But not always – sometimes, something will come together in a very, very new way.

 

I’m teaching my 101 class – my adult 101 class – for the 79th time this winter. I’ve been there, and done that a lot of times. Last week, we played a couple games and struggled a little bit and the class determined that the problem was they kept assuming there were rules that I hadn’t said. And it was with these particular games that there was a whole new way of looking at it. I told them the parameters of the game as they played the game, and they were struggling because they assumed they couldn’t do things, but I hadn’t said anything about it. That was a whole new look that I hadn’t dealt with in the past, and it’s really fascinating because it also popped up in one of the other corporate workshops I was doing last week. People were saying, “Can we do this?” And my new schtick was, “If I haven’t said you can’t, try it. And the only thing I ask of you is if you think it’s going to ‘break’ the game, then maybe don’t do it. If you think its going to enhance your experience, try it. And if I find it breaks the game, that’s something I get to learn.” It’s really cool that that happened in 2 completely separate instances in the same week.

 

Usually, the lessons are happening inside. I have had people get back to me and say they’ve taken little pieces from the workshop and incorporated them into their culture. When we play a bunch of circle warmup games, we do this thing where if someone makes a mistake, the entire group puts their arms around each other and says “Ah-ooga” like an old car horn, and moves into the center; it’s a fun little ritual. Then everybody laughs, and says, “Hey we made a mistake.”Sometimes I make a mistake just so they can “ah-ooga.” I’ve had many, many clients tell me that “ah-ooga” has made it into company meetings. “Hey, we screwed this up. Ah-ooga! Now what are we going to do about it?”

 

MB: So with the feedback you get, and you touched on how customer service is something that you’re really working on right now, are there any other new programs that you’re looking at or exploring right now for businesses?

 

CSz: We’ll explore anything anyone throws at us. We’re very much driven by what’s in front of us as opposed to thinking about stuff and then trying to go find a client for it. We’re in reactive sales. Sometimes when we get a great idea on our own, we find there’s no market for it.

 

MB: Yeah, I saw that on the website that you even say…

 

CSz: Bring us a problem, and we’ll design a program for you.

 

MB: Yeah, exactly – have you had…

 

CSz: We’ve had lots of people do that.

 

MB: Do you do any evaluation on your programs or do you ever get any feedback on people you work with on how they’re evaluating it once they’re done with the workshops?

 

CSz: Most of the time, I talk with the main contact afterwards, and we have a phone call or exchange emails. One thing I’ve found is that people are never doing as much follow-up as I wish they would. Life gets busy. We’ve designed evaluation surveys and had almost no one fill them out. I wish there were more of it. We touch base, we talk – almost exclusively they tell me all the great things about it. Every once in awhile, we’ll hear, “Oh there was this one activity that didn’t really resonate with people because of this…” Honestly, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s almost like I’d feel better if I heard that more often.

 

By the way, in this portion of our business, we’ve had zero dissatisfied customers the entire time we’ve been doing it. We had one, sort-of, once, and I fixed it. The one “sort-of” was when we did a customer service training for a small municipality here in Oregon, a little town–and when I say “little”, it was 8 employees – the city manager booked it, but didn’t participate, which could’ve been part of the issue. After this 3 – hour customer service workshop, the city manager called me the next day and said, “Hey – they loved the workshop, the loved the games, they thought you were awesome, they don’t have any idea what this had to do with customer service.” My reply was, “Well, we didn’t get to that.” They were a little slow. They were one of the slower clients I’ve worked with, and they just didn’t get there. So I simply said, “Schedule some time – I’ll come back and finish the job.” I ended up spending 5 hours total with them. I went back for 2 hours, and they were delighted. They did the rest of it – it was great. That’s as close as we’ve come to a “failure”.

 

MB: That’s fantastic.

 

CSPo: Seriously, it’s almost like I want someone to call and say,“This didn’t work,” because then it would feel more human. I’m not going to go deliberately blow it, so… we may be waiting a long time for a failure. Applied Improvisation works.

Patrick Short is the co-author of Jill and Patrick’s Small Book of Improv for Business. He’s currently attempting to convince Oregon Ballet Theatre that a little improv training could go a long way toward reducing dancer fear of improvisation in performances.

 

Let’s Play 5 Things

In the world of the ComedySportz Show, 5 Things is often a centerpiece game. A player is sent out of the room and the audience is polled by the referee for five active activities that they’ve actually done. The ref then changes out elements of the activity to make it really difficult – like skydiving out of an airplane made of helium Jell-O piloted by the band One Direction, using semaphore flags as a parachute.

The guesser is called back on to the playing field and is given 4 minutes to do the activities – with clues provided by their team using gibberish and mime. It’s an amazingly difficult game that showcases communication skills, cooperation and the ability to fail gloriously and graciously. 5 Things is also fun to play and watch.

Today’s post pulls together 5 different thoughts from blogs and articles folks have sent me. Your job is to guess how they are connected.

1. It’s a Post Called “5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Best People”

Peter Economy talks about important things like encouraging risks, giving people advancement opportunities and encouraging play.

2. Focus is the Next Big Thing

We spend a portion of each workshop we lead playing games that reflect on the importance of focusing on what and who is in front of you. Improv performers talk about “being present”; in today’s hyper-information world, just being present sets you apart and gives you a huge advantage over the pack. Dr Marla Gottschalk refers to a Stanford study that shows multi-taskers at a disadvantage in focusing on the task at hand. Here is the link to the study, in case you are too busy to read Marla’s post.

3. The Only Woman in the Room

Ellen Leanse writes about the inherent sexism in high tech. I’ve worked in high tech sales and marketing, and I’ve seen these forces in action. Historically, it’s also been a problem in improvisation. It’s getting better in many groups and many places, but there’s still work to do.

More interesting to me, in the context of today’s post, is this: what opportunities are we missing when we surround ourselves only with people who share our backgrounds, culture and characteristics?

4. Talent Selection Instead of Talent Development

John O’Sullivan writes about coaching in “serious” youth sports; this interests me partly because I coach U-14 Rec Girls Soccer and partly because the same concepts apply in running an improvisational theater group. I try to think “long game” in both areas.Read this and think about the company(s) you work for and with. Are you able to think “long game”?

5. Motivating Senior Employees to Help with Onboarding 

Judith Shervin’s post is on point and practical. Your front-line leaders know what new people need to know now. Everybody wins, and a small sacrifice in the short game reaps benefits in the long game.

How many point did you get in today’s game of 5 Things? You are in control of the scoring – you make the rules. What connects these items of employee engagement?

Opportunity.

Patrick Short is busy developing a certification program Applied Improvsation for CSz Worldwide. As in ComedySportz, the points matter.

Why Working at Customer Service Matters

Early in February, 2014, (last week as I write this), I had the honor of performing as Master of Ceremonies at the Annual Customer Service Banquet for the Port of Portland and PDX, our airport.

310 people from 65 companies attended; they were honoring the Customer Service Superstars nominated from each of the companies who do work at the airport – airlines, government agencies, rental car companies, parking and transportation, retail, restaurants and services. The Port of Portland has an employee group that coordinates customer service across all of the companies – treating each customer as a client of all of the companies, whether they are at that moment or not. It’s a holistic approach, and as a frequent consumer of PDX services, I can attest that it works. The airport is frequently voted the Best in America.

At the end of the event, I transformed into a referee and CSz-Portland performed our ComedySportz show, themed on customer service. It was a rocking good time, but the most important and affecting part of the night came earlier.

The Port of Portland had received an email, through Huntleigh USA, from a woman in Aurora, CO, complimenting a Huntleigh skycap, Moses San Nicolas, on his wheelchair service. Let’s read the note:

Gary Wolf
Huntleigh USA
7535 NE Ambassador Place
Suite A1
Portland, OR 97220

Dear Mr. Wolf:

I hope you will take the time to read this letter, as one of your employees needs to be recognized for the help he provided to me and my sister, Denise, on a trip we took from Portland to San Francisco on 10/1/13. This was the hardest trip either my sister or I had ever taken, for you see, I was bringing my 52 year old sister home to California to die.  As her little sister and the nurse in the family, I had the hard task of flying from Colorado to Portland, packing my sister’s life up in a suitcase, and bringing her home, where the rest of the family was waiting. She really did not want to go, and we had to term this trip as “just a visit” to her, because she was scared and nervous about flying home, and could not handle the fact that she would not be coming back to Oregon, her home since 1984. I think that deep down she realized, though, that she needed help in the final days of Stage IV lung cancer, which she was diagnosed with back in May 2013. She was kind of being forced to give up control of her life. She was very, very sick, and could not longer walk, and was using oxygen.

We had had a bad day so far on 10/1/13, as it was an extremely stressful day what with getting her packed, getting her dressed, getting her to the car, getting to the airport. She told me many times in the car that she did not want to go, and I was feeling guilt and fear as my mission to bring her home included kind of take her choices away from her when she had been independent for so long.

I brought the rental car back to the underground garage, and the rental car people were nice enough to call me a skycap.  And into our lives, pushing a wheelchair, walked Moses San Nicolas. I realize that we could have gotten anyone, but I feel that getting Moses was the first stroke of luck Denise and I had had since I got there.  He showed up, and took immediate control.  I had no idea how he did it, but he managed to get my sister in a wheelchair, both of my sister’s suitcases, and her oxygen concentrator, from the garage into the airport. All of the sudden, a huge weight had been lifted off of me, as I had worried the whole way to the airport how I was going to manage getting everything into the airport.  More importantly, he talked to us and calmed us down.  I think that he could sense that we needed a distraction. He told us about his family, where he was from, his life.  He asked my sister and me for our names, and he talked to my sister at length about her diagnosis, where we were going, why going home for treatment was a good thing. He was the best distraction my sister and I could have asked for. He stopped to allow her to smoke, one of her favorite pastimes, and she was grateful.  He never once judged her, or told her she shouldn’t smoke.  He was an extremely calming presence for both of us.  He got our IDs, got us our boarding passes, got us through security, got us to the gate, all the while talking about everything, asking questions, maintaining calm.  He even gave my sister a badge he had with his first name on it, which Denise stuck into her purse. Denise told him that she was really nervous about going home, and then told him how much he calmed her down and make this trip seem more “okay”. He left us safely at the gate.  My sister was mad that I only tipped him $15 and not $20!

My sister died peacefully on October 14th, at home, with her family all around her. We told our whole family about how lucky we were that Moses came into our lives for a short time.  In the few days before she got very sick, we talked about writing a letter to you about Moses, and she wanted me to do it immediately, so she could sign it.  Time got the best of us, and we never did get to write the letter than I am writing to you now. After she died, I went through her purse and found the name tag that Moses had given her, and it reminded me of how he touched her life in her last few weeks. The last picture taken of my sister is in the wheelchair, in the parking garage, with Moses standing next to her. She insisted that I take it, and then would not allow any more pictures of herself after that.

I don’t know that Moses knew what impact he had on our lives that day.  Being a skycap, I am sure, cannot be easy.  Dealing with the public, I know from my 20 years as a nurse, has its’ ups and downs. But he really made a difference to me that day, and more importantly, he showed genuine kindness and compassion to my sister, and for that, I will always be grateful. He made this sad trip just a little happier for me and Denise.

I hope you will be kind enough to give him a copy of this letter, so he can know that he is appreciated by me and my family. I hope you will confirm that you received this email.  I also sent it through the website to the corporate office.

Respectfully,
Renee N Gorkin, RN, BSN (on behalf of me and Denise Malaspina)
Aurora, Colorado

The Port flew Renee in for the banquet so that she could give Moses the additional $5. Denise’s two children, who live in the Portland area, were also there. This was a very moving event, and a terrific reminder that we usually don’t know much about other people’s struggles; meeting them where they are is important. I hope every customer service professional takes this to heart. (It would help if customers took it to heart, too.) I need to be reminded of this all the time. I hope you don’t mind me reminding you.

gorkinRenee Gorkin and Moses San Nicolas

Here is a video reminder from a church in Arkansas, called “Get Service“, that reinforces the concept rather nicely. Serendipitously, this arrived in my Facebook feed from my cousin Cindy Maynard while I was writing this post. Meant to be, yes?

Patrick Short flew to DC the morning after the event and got royal treatment from Southwest Airlines and TSA employees who had been at the event. He realizes that it can’t happen every time, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. The email was reprinted with the permission of Renee Gorkin, Moses San Nicolas and the Port of Portland.

Frames for Improvisation Training

You can live, you can get along, or you can thrive. You can create or destroy. You can learn in different ways. You can command or connect.

These are true about people, and they’re also true about companies.

As a member of the Applied Improvisation Network, I’ve attended conferences for the past few years to exchange ideas, gather new exercises, get inspired by people from 30 countries doing this work and to develop stronger and more meaningful frames for our work. I’ve always been good at fitting improvisation to a goal, or set of goals, on a departmental level for our clients. When asked what my long-range hopes for improvisation are, I’d usually say, “Two things: World Peace and an end to the phrase, “It’s Not My Job.”

In Berlin this year, I found a number of very powerful frames.

One of them comes from Montreal; Michelle Holiday and the always delightful Belina Raffy presented a workshop on Thrivability, and they are proposing a series of events beginning in 2014 to explore the concept around the globe.

The frame is simple. Life itself is improvisational. Michelle talked about it in a 2012 blog post:

“Improvisation is the way life works.  

Here’s what I mean.  Living systems (like plants and people and companies) appear to be static things, but in fact, it’s more accurate to think of them as pattern and process.  They create themselves continuously through ongoing interaction with their environment.  And their environment is constantly throwing new, unpredictable things at them.  So what do they do?  They respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances.  This is how all the parts of your body manage to maintain homeostasis (and you!), for example, even as you spring sudden changes of temperature, strange new foods and weird chemicals on them.  They improvise.”

The way we’ve arranged and run organizations has moved us away from the skills we naturally possess, and like anything else, without practice, we lose our ability. Improvisation can bring those skills back. It truly is about world peace, or at least saving the world. Read Michelle’s full blog post here.

Brent Darnell compared improvisation to Medina’s Brain Rules. I will explore this more in future posts, but it’s a mind-blowing frame. Improvisation is connected to virtually every way we learn.

Gijs van Bilson, Joost Kadijk and Cyriel Kortleven talked about corporate culture and multiculturalism, putting a whole new frame on improvisation and “getting to know each other better” requests from our clients. Organizations can destroy other cultures, equalize everyone (nobody is different) or create using cultural differences.

Alike van der Wilke and Henk van der Steen framed the old ways of companies – the “Anglo Saxon Way” in comparison to what’s happening now – the “Rheinland Way”:

Command, Control and Communication is being replaced by Connection, Craftsmanship and Trust.

In three short days, I was gifted with frames for applied improvisation in the following ways:

Improvisation is about life itself and how we thrive.

Improvisation is about how we learn.

Improvisation can help us create with our cultures, instead of destroy with them.

Improvisation is about how we organize.

We need improvisation training for what lies ahead. AIN President Paul Z Jackson says we need improvisation “to engage more fully in the present, and to prepare for an unknowable future.”* Yes, that is yet another frame.

We can get rid of the phrase, “It’s not my job.” Can world peace be far behind?

Heroic Improv: Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz

Alert – Accept – Focus – Move

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz brings improv to disaster preparedness with Heroic Improv, a method found in her upcoming book and workshop series.

Things happen fast during a disaster and that means officials must respond even faster. Traditionally, emergency professionals relied on “playbooks” to inform their choices. These scripts provide step-by-step instructions on how to respond to a variety of scenarios from chemical accidents to nuclear bombs. The problem: “Disasters are dynamic, not linear,” according to Mary Tyszkiewicz, PhD. Knowing catastrophes rarely play out neatly she has devised a solution: Heroic Improv. This technique uses improvisation to both train responders and respond to situations.

Tyszkiewicz, who holds a PhD in public administration and studies American Emergency Management, tried improv over 20 years ago and found it frustrating. “My analytic mind wanted to make the ‘perfect’ choice so I mostly ended up frozen in place,” she says. “It wasn’t much fun so I gave it up.” Yet she remained curious. Inspired by her mother, who participates in community theater, Tyszkiewicz gave improv a second try. Not only did she find herself enjoying it more, she realized its worth in training the gamut of emergency responders, from private citizens to professional responders to elected officials.

“The beginnings of a catastrophe are chaotic,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion and one lone person cannot make a difference alone. To best respond to a crisis decisions must be made as a group.” Tyszkiewicz saw the parallel to theater improv immediately. “Theater improv in a group is closely related to catastrophic decision making. At first there is chaos, people are scrambling until they form a team that connects, chooses, and ultimately acts.”

The skills that make an effective improv team – flexibility, speed and creativity in the moment – are the same skills that Tyszkiewicz hopes to hone in emergency responder teams. And the best way to do that is face-to-face practice with all of the stakeholders. While professional emergency responders practice this decision making process all of the time, they are only part of the equation. Elected officials and private citizens are vital parts of the team, yet they hardly ever run though simulations. This makes initial group decisions harder. “Often an elected official’s first time learning about disaster response is during that first disaster when they are in charge,” laments Tyszkiewicz.

Heroic Improv promises to change that scenario. Starting with simple improv games, (yes, that means Zip Zap Zop) and moving to more and more structured exercises, Tyszkiewicz’s method would eventually simulate the chaos of an actual disaster where all of the stakeholders, from elected officials to professional responders to private citizens, could try out their plans. “It is important to get everyone together for the exercises,” she insists, “not proxies or subs but the actual decision makers.”

Tyszkiewicz bases her workshops on four concepts: alert, accept, focus and move. Alert is recognizing that there is a situation and using all the senses to take in what is happening. Accept means accepting the chaos of the situation, accepting the people who make up a team and trusting that team immediately. “Trust usually takes time to build, but in a crisis time is one thing you don’t have,” she says. “In this case trust is not earned, it’s given.”

Next is Focus, where the team decides where they will put their energy and expertise. It’s during this phase that a leader usually emerges; someone with a strong and specific skill that the other stakeholders can support. Finally the team Moves, making decisions and enacting plans. “As the team moves they should ask themselves, ‘if this is true, what else is true?’ just like in an improv scene,” says Tyszkiewicz quoting part of Occam’s razor. “The answer should guide them to the next step and the pattern will repeat.” As the team goes through the concepts over and over, new leaders will emerge based on circumstance and skillsets.

Tyszkiewicz tested the Heroic Improv concept while observing a group of youth volunteers during Hurricane Sandy last year. She tells of the youth being stationed on hard-hit Staten Island, at a section with no power. “Verizon wanted to help so they sent a trailer equipped with computers, lights and power. They set it up and walked away,” she reports.

The youth volunteers quickly mobilized to take advantage of this resource. “The volunteers knew how to navigate the FEMA application process on the internet so when survivors showed up they initiated that service for them,” she says. Eventually the trailer morphed into a donation center and the same youth volunteers took charge of organizing those resources as well. “None of this was written in the playbook, the youth volunteers improvised all of their actions. The reason it went so smoothly is because they trained as a group before the incident and were willing to improvise to respond to survivor needs.”

With disasters, both natural and man-made, a reality of life, preparedness remains key. And with plenty of examples of mismanaged efforts (read: Hurricane Katrina), now is the time for professionals, elected officials and private citizens to up their game. Will improv training lend the edge we need? “It is a powerful technique to train in as a group,” says Tyszkiewicz. “It allows everybody to explore a space outside of their ordinary lives and really understand what group action in chaos is like.” And it allows people to become the heroes we all need.

Dr. Tyszkiewicz presented at the AIN World Conference in 2012. See her presentation here.

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz was interviewed on August 29, 2013, by Patrick Short and Amy Milshtein of CSz-Portland. The article is by Amy Milshtein.