‘Please don’t make me pretend to be a tree…’

The techniques used by performers to hone their improv skills can help IT leaders to develop more fruitful relations with colleagues

Neil Mullarkey, Computing Business 18 Jan 2006

People approach my improvisation workshops with some trepidation. Actually, being a tree is never on the agenda, but the whole point is that unexpected things can happen in any walk of life.

I begin by asking the group what improvisation might mean at work. Surely, we improvise much of the time? Yes, they chuckle, ‘we wing it… make it up as we go along… or bull****’. There’s the rub.

Improvising is what you do when things go wrong, apparently. Not for me. My troupe, The Comedy Store Players, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. How many businesses last that long? And with personnel largely unchanged? We plan what needs to be planned – the venue, start and finish time, ticketing arrangements, the games we will play and the cast. The rest we leave to be spontaneously created at the behest of the customer. The audience gives us suggestions for locations, emotions, film styles, occupations and more.

One dictionary definition of improvisation is: ‘To make or provide from available materials, as in improvising a dinner from what I found in the refrigerator’. People relate to this. When I ask if anyone actually sits down, writes a menu for the coming week then heads to Sainsbury’s, most people laugh in derision. In every group, at least one person owns up. Yet in a class of MBAs recently, he was derided as ‘a robot’ by a fellow student. Why? It ensures less wastage, surely? Why do we consider it weird to be organised at home yet submit to artificial structures at work? When in business are we allowed simply to cruise the aisles, deciding as we go what we do?

No organisation has all the ideal ingredients – in terms of people, leaders, culture, product or market conditions. So we all have to ‘provide from available materials’. The improv approach makes a positive of this. We start with exercises, so simple that grown-up business-people feel scared. The point of the games is to show how little we notice what is around us. Unconsciously, we overlook so much that is important to others. Waste and leftovers to one chef may be meat and drink to another.

During these verbal and visual games, we begin to realise how easily we resort to patterns. Some liberate, some restrict. A major structure is language. Without it, communication would be harder, yet it brings so many possibilities for misinterpretation. ‘Why do you do such-and-such?’ may sound like ‘I think such-and-such is a bad idea’. ‘But’ is a powerful word because we listen far more to what follows it rather than what precedes it. ‘This is a thorough and beautifully presented piece of work but please change that font’ could sound like, ‘You are rubbish’. What are the unarticulated patterns and rules, of which no one speaks and yet which all follow, in your organisation?

Consider the notion of an Offer. An Offer is ‘something someone gives that you can do something with’. It may be a word, a concept or even an unintentional non-verbal hint. Ad-lib scenes, and life, are full of Offers – it is how we use them that matters. Not picking up on someone’s Offer is a Block. We may not use the Offer in the way that was expected but by using it we show that we have listened. We may even Block ourselves sometimes – ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I’ve never done it before’, ‘It didn’t work last time’. Some limiting patterns are self-imposed.

To show how difficult active listening is we play a game in which a small group tell a story one word at a time. It is amazing how much people want to control the story. Each person has an idea and it is very hard to see past that when things go in a different direction. Yet there is a wonderful sense of liberation once players focus on the actual story that is unfolding and figure out how they can help. They might have to say unglamorous ‘connecting’ words – the, it, I, of, as, and – without which the story would have no meaning. Listing words that may be interesting on their own does not make for a good story.

If I am feeling particularly jaunty, I refer to Quantum Theory. An electron sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes as a wave. Aren’t people the same? Sometimes we act as individuals, sometimes as team members. In improv, we need to act as both. Yes, we need to keep the grammar going but we need new things. Too many unexpected things and the story has no thread. Too few and it dies. What may appear to be a weird curve ball can turn out to be the spine of the narrative. It depends on how the group uses it. Only with hindsight will we know. ‘No amount of sophistication is going to allay the fact that all of your knowledge is about the past, and all of your decisions are about the future,’ said Ian Wilson of General Electric in 1995.

My message is quite simple. Work with what others offer rather than ignore it. This is not acquiescence; diversity is creative. Arguments can be satisfying when we feel we have been heard. Yet how annoying is it when someone seems to be agreeing with you when they have clearly not taken on board what you are actually saying?

Generally I am allowed through the ‘leadership development’ portal only if I am subsumed under an acceptable heading such as Teamwork, Creativity, Communication or Leadership. Soon we will be doing improv workshops for their own sake. A journalist who interviewed me once looked at my workshop web site and decided that ‘all you’re doing is teaching people how to have better conversations’. Exactly. We have been through the Age of Information; now we’re drowning in it. Welcome to the Age of Conversation.

After Emotional Intelligence we need Improvisational Intelligence. It relates not just to individuals but to their relationships and to groups. To survive we need to have better conversations – with our teams, our leaders, our suppliers, our customers, our families, and maybe even ourselves. But if you want to pretend to be a tree that’s fine by me.

Neil Mullarkey is an actor, writer, improviser, workshop leader and keynote speaker. He is a founder-member of the Comedy Store Players, the UK’s top improv troupe and has appeared in two Austin Powers movies. For more information on his corporate workshops, visit: http://ImprovYourBiz.com/

How improv can work for business - It is better to be a ‘Yes, and’ person than a ‘Yes, but’ one

I was in a class of 108 Cambridge MBAs – hard-nosed, rational and highly sceptical about their individual ability to create – the workshop transformed them. The use of improvisation, both theory and practice, made for one of the most inspiring and provocative sessions on creativity that I have ever experienced.

Richard Hytner, chairman & chief executive, Europe, Middle East & Africa, Saatchi & Saatchi

I took away the need to listen and have an open mind. Otherwise you’ll miss all the offers that your audience are giving, consciously or unconsciously. The exercises show how much our own view of things closes our mind to other possibilities that may be right in front of us.

Neil Fenwick, CRM & billing development team leader, Bulldog Communications

Several months on, the impact of learning to say ‘Yes, and’ lives on. Even last week, one of our team remarked that ‘we look for solutions, not problems’. She referred to the exercise led by Neil where we were not allowed to say ‘yes, but’, only ‘yes, and’. This training leaves a long lasting legacy.

Anne Evans, chief executive, HTI (Heads, Teachers & Industry)

I hear people saying they have ‘done a Neil Mullarkey’ meaning that they’ve taken a different approach to a presentation – less formality and more passion and connection with their audience. Our leadership team meetings have more energy and imagination, as though Neil has given people permission to think and act differently. We have been trying to get people to think this way for a while, but somehow Neil persuaded them. We often use the ‘Yes, and’ technique. Even when we don’t do it overtly, we often hear people stop themselves and change tack, saying, ‘I mean ‘Yes, and...’ It has made people think about the positive aspects of a situation.

Claire Clancy, chief executive, Companies House

The most powerful insights come from participating rather than observing, and the improvisational method and the techniques have universal application, if people’s minds are open to the stretch.

Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, London Business School

The workshops were approached with scepticism but leaders found it fun and engaging. Most importantly the impact is that we have more ‘Yes, and’ conversations and are getting better at listening and building on others’ ideas.

Culture Change and Communications Manager, BP

Working with Neil’s unique talents and techniques has many benefits above and beyond straight-out skill development. He has a real drive to understand your objectives. As a result, he tailors his methods to maximise audience engagement, team dynamics, participation and enjoyment. I knew it was a success when I watched my chairman roll up his sleeves and join in with gusto.

Managing partner of a leading design agency

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