Applying improv in times of crisis
Raymond van Driel
Volume 20 ● Number 2 ● Summer 2013
Making sense out of chaos
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Applying improv in times of crisis
Raymond van Driel
A crisis is not necessarily negative or bad. It is merely characterized by a certain degree of risk and uncertainty (Fink, 1986). Some scholars even argue that companies and organisations benefit from the effects of a crisis, in that it helps develop the system by providing its individuals with opportunities for learning and change. Crises can enable an organisation to identify structural problems, gain skills at adapting, develop new strategies and to gain competitive advantage by questioning its usual management understanding (Pauchant, 1992).
However, our natural response to perceived threats (flight, freeze, fight) obstructs our capability to recognize the opportunities a crisis offers. Instead, organisations often respond to crises with a downward spiral of behaviour, including less communication and a centralising of power and influence. Increased concern for efficiency leads to conservation of resources and greater behavioural rigidity (Staw, 1981)
So how can we prevent this downward spiral and create an environment in which they organisations can make the most of these opportunities?
Applied Improvisation - an approach that puts the principles and techniques of improvisational theatre1 to work in non-theatrical venues such as corporations, academic institutions, organisations, and professional groups - has proven its worth in organisational and leadership development in ‘normal’ circumstances. But it also proves a powerful ally in times of uncertainty.
1 Improvisational Theatre, sometimes called just improv, is a form of theatre where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed, with little or no pre-planning. In its purest form, the dialogue, the action, the story and the characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds. In some forms, one or more of those attributes might be decided on beforehand while the others are created in the moment. (Wikipedia)
"Forget the flight plan, from this moment on we are improvising a new mission. How do we get our men home?"
The handling of the Apollo 13 crisis provides an excellent example of how a stressful situation can lead to teamwork and ingenious creativity, solving problems by throwing previous assumptions overboard.
When the Apollo 13 crew found themselves in a life- threatening situation after an explosion, a drama of solution- finding played out with limited resources against unknown odds, using the wits of only the three-man flight crew in open space and the computer operators on earth.
Everything became potential problem-solving material-- which meant problems had to become opportunities or get lost.
Eventually the crew managed to return home safely, mostly due to the application of many new ideas that hadn’t even been considered in the numerous pre-mission rehearsals.
Applied Improvisation aims to counter the destructive fear mechanisms mentioned above by promoting a mindset to recognize and embrace opportunities, by stimulating the skills to enhance them, and by providing the tools to create an environment in which dangers can be safely explored and transformed into possibilities.
This article aims to describe the P.L.A.Y.! principles of Applied Improvisation and to explore its use in times of uncertainty. It describes the conditions under which the principles can be applied most effectively and lastingly.
Applied Improvisation is not new. Each of us already applies the principles of improvisation intuitively in one way or another. We improvise daily although we may not even be aware of it - when we have different expectations in a discussion with a client for example, a challenging conversation with a troublesome employee or a negotiation getting out of hand. Sometimes it is more explicit, such as the time you forgot your notes and had to ad lib the speech at a reception, or the time your son asked you a question that you weren’t prepared for. You may have handled the situation well, but perhaps could have done better given some proper guidelines.
People tend to respond to such situations with a stress reaction - becoming more self-aware and less responsive to your surroundings, reluctant to take risks and communicating less effectively with those around you.
Improvisational actors are faced with these same natural reactions each time they set foot on stage, yet they seek out exactly these unknown situations. By continually placing themselves in a range of unfamiliar and challenging circumstances they acquire and structurally refine a system of attitude and skills that allow them to
§ negate their own counterproductive stress reactions and
§ tackle any new challenge thrown at them.
More people are realising that the improvisational attitude and skills are not only beneficial to theatre, but can be successfully applied in almost any non-theatre venue. Half of the top MBA schools, notable corporations such Pixar, Proctor & Gamble, Pepsi and universities are training their managers and students in the principles of improvisation.
Attitude and skills
Applied Improvisation brings the attitude and skills used by improv actors to the workplace.
The improv attitude refers to the open, flexible and positive attitude that characterises an improvisational player, welcoming any change by listening and building upon new ideas offered by others (and having fun in the process). Once this basic improv attitude has been adopted, there is a range of improvisational skills that can further improve one’s functioning in the unknown.
Descriptions of improvisation principles and skills are almost as varied as improvisation itself. P.L.A.Y.! offers a useful mnemonic for those most commonly applied.
§ ‘P’ stands for Presence. It refers to being in the ‘here and now’ and being aware of everything what happens around you. Instead of occupying yourself with the grocery shopping you still need to do or worrying about your next client or patient, focus on the present. Where are you now? What is happening around you? What do your senses tell you about the present surroundings? And how do you fit in?
§ ‘L’ is about ‘Leaping into’ situations. Simply begin a project or a task, without planning all the required steps beforehand. In short, you force yourself to start building the plane while flying it.
§ ‘A’ concerns the Accept and Adapt aspects of the improv attitude. Allowing yourself to be changed: by circumstances, opinions of others, new situations, your company’s reorganisation, and so on. This may not come naturally – people tend not to welcome change, sometimes even when it’s positive. So this aspect is about overcoming initial restraints to change and really accepting and adapting to whatever crosses your path.
§ ‘Y’ (“Yes, and ...”) stands for welcoming any new idea or situation, proposal or development you may encounter (“Yes,”), and building on that (“and ...”). This is in contrast with “Yes, but ...”- behaviour. The distinction is clear; with “Yes, and”-ing behaviour we see more constructive collaboration, more energy, more ‘flow’ and more fun. This also switches focus away from problem
details and towards solutions2. It prevents premature discarding of valuable ideas, by creating room
to explore them further.
To illustrate, consider the following responses of an employee to the suggestion of implementing new administrative software:
§ “Yes, but that means we would have to reorganize the entire administration!”
§ “Yes, and then we could take the opportunity to revise our administration and make it more transparent and efficient.”
§ Finally, ‘!’ refers to Impact, implementing the four principles above in a convincing and bold manner in order to achieve maximum effect.
2 This connects Applied Improv to the ideas of the Solution Focus methodology, The Solutions Focus, Jackson PZ and McKergow M, 2001, 2006. N Brearley, London
The Applied Improvisation community has developed tools and exercises to practice improvisation principles and skills3. Since improvisation largely improves communication and group awareness, Applied Improvisation is often used in the workplace for teambuilding.
Beyond team-building activities, reflections on the experiences during these exercises can often be directly related to situations on the work floor, emphasizing how a group may function seamlessly, and also bringing to light bottlenecks, unvoiced conflicts and sensitivities. These can be recognized, discussed and analyzed in a playful environment. Then alternative approaches can be safely tested.
Applied Improv in times of crisis
Adhering to the improv principles allows individuals (the improv actor) and groups (organisations, companies, universities) to counter typical negative stress reactions. Let’s examine the relevance of the PLAY! principles to crises.
Presence is one of the first aspects jeopardized by stress and anxiety. As we focus on the problem at hand, we are less receptive to our own senses and become less aware of happenings around us. Crucial developments or opportunities may be easily missed.
Anouck Adrot and Lionel Garrreau (2009) studied the effect of reactions of medical staff during the heat wave in the Isle de France district in 2003. They found that in reaction to the crisis, medical staff became self-absorbed and focused only on the problem at hand.
“When first patients died, sense collapsed. The cause of deaths was unknown and physicians, who first thought the origin of deaths was infectious, did not understand why treatments were useless.
The selective attention experiment
Daniel Simon’s classic selective attention test is a great example of how lack of presence (in this case due to selective attention) can cause one to miss the most crucial details.
If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to try it out! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
Also hospitals knew something large was happening, but no one had any idea about the real number of deaths. The researchers conclude that organisations must show ‘sense’ to recognize a crisis, to mobilize participants, and recognize the necessity to take collective improvisational measures to respond to the crisis. When companies are hit by calamities, they need to be wary of becoming too self-absorbed and
losing sight of developments around them.
3 See for example, “ 58½ ways to improvise in training” , Paul Z Jackson, 2003, Gomer Press Limited, Llandysul,
So what to do? The improv player has various techniques to move his focus from himself to others (his fellow actors, or the public). Picturing one’s audience naked is a legendary technique for public speakers.
By way of improv exercises, managers can also be induced to refrain from self-absorption and focus on outside opportunities. One of the many examples is an improv game where participants are asked to privately label their fellow players as either ‘smelly’, ‘funny’ or ‘sexy’. They are then asked to behave towards the others according to their labelling. However, they are also asked to deduce what kind of labelling the fellow players have given to the group members. This means while they have to focus on their own acting, they must also stay alert to the body language, dialogue and gestures of others at the same time. Exercising this helps to recognize what skills and techniques are needed.
Leap into it
Following the ‘leap into it’ principle has an interesting side effect. Jumping into a situation unprepared also means that those involved do not have the time and opportunity to put up their usual facades.
The situation becomes more spontaneous, with the result that team members open up to each other. Not only is this a great boost for the team’s attitude, the positive reward from the experience promotes further openness.
We have a tendency to avoid making mistakes. In many companies, threatening situations such as an economic crisis only amplify this fear of erring, especially since the consequences may determine one’s survival. And there’s the rub – by avoiding mistakes, organisations avoid taking risks and may eventually lose out to their competitors anyhow. You can’t win a tennis match if you are afraid to miss the ball once in a while.
Again we see the parallel with the actor, frozen with stage fright and unwilling to make any move or take any action that will make him look foolish to the audience. The ‘leap into it’ principle helps him counter this effect.
The improv actor has conditioned himself to begin a scene immediately or react right away to any theatrical offer that is made, without considering what comes next. Not all the resulting scenes will win awards, but there is a surprising proportion of gems, while the spontaneity is itself often fascinating.
A benefit of ‘leaping into’ things is that it enables you to work with emergent knowledge not accessible beforehand. As an example, try out the puzzle on the right. The goal is to connect the A’s, B’s and C’s together (in that order), with three curved lines, while these lines are not allowed to cross each other.
You’ll find that simply starting (connect the A’s, then B’s etc) will help you solve the puzzle.
Of course, if an improv scene goes awry, the actor can simply move on to a new scene. For organisations there may be more at risk. Still, there is much to gain by ‘leaping into’ situations, and dealing with the consequences on the go.
NASA’s policy of recruiting astronauts for their ‘error-recovery’ skills, rather than their skills at evading failures, certainly paid off during the Apollo 13 crisis.
Another incident often cited as a good handling of a crisis is the Tylenol case (1982). In October of 1982, Tylenol, the leading pain-killer medicine in the United States at the time, faced a tremendous crisis when seven people in Chicago were reported dead after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules. Although Johnson & Johnson knew they were not responsible for the tampering with the product, they recalled all of their capsules from the market, without waiting for evidence to see whether the contamination might be more widespread.
The cost was high. In addition to the impact on the company's share price, the lost production and destroyed goods as a result of the recall were considerable. However, the company won praise for its quick
and appropriate action. Having sidestepped the position others have found themselves in - being slow to act in the face of consumer concern - they achieved the status of consumer champion.
I can find few ‘good examples’ of company behaviour in crisis, perhaps indicating that this is not standard reaction4. Applied Improvisation activities can simulate crisis in a fun and non- critical context, preparing for the real thing.
Accept and adapt
The economic crisis has dramatically affected the real estate sector in the Netherlands. Real estate agents are now facing a completely different housing market and struggle to meet new
An old joke perfectly describes the ‘accept and adapt’ principle.
A shopkeeper was dismayed when a brand new business much like his own opened up next door and erected a huge sign which read 'BEST DEALS.'
He was horrified when another competitor opened up on his right, and announced its arrival with an even larger sign, reading 'LOWEST PRICES.'
The shopkeeper panicked, until he got an idea...He put the biggest sign of all over his own shop...It read: 'MAIN ENTRANCE'.
demands and expectations from customers. A few years ago, when housing demand was sky high, real estate agents took the lead. With customers ready to pay ridiculously high prices and transaction fees, they could sit back and let their subordinates do all the work, while money kept flowing in. With the tables turned, it is now the customer who has the upper hand. Agents must accept this and adapt their way of working, or join the growing ranks of unemployed real estate agents. The more successful agents are rapidly changing their business models - firing employees and re-hiring them as freelancers, offering a subscription service instead of a commission when the house is sold and adding services such as interior design.
I have run Applied improv activities for this target group, generating insights into the changes demanded of them and a greater willingness (attitude) to embrace such change.
4 On the contrary, there are numerous examples of ‘bad crisis handling’ (Perrier, Exxon) where companies were blamed for their failure to act (on time, or at all).
The improvisation technique of ‘Yes ... and-ing’ promotes the recognition of opportunities and building upon the ideas of others. On stage, the improv actor applies this principle by accepting anything his co-players say or do, and then adds to this with his own actions. As his co-players will then react to his addition in a similar way, the actors work smoothly toward a spontaneous but well-integrated improvised scene.
In the real world the principle is already applied by innovative companies such as Pixar, who call it ‘plussing’; when a colleague presents you with a new idea, first say something positive about it. During the Apollo 13 crisis, getting square plugs into reshaped round sockets to keep the CO2 buffers working, was one of the teams’ innovative solutions. Now imagine what the results would have been if they had not applied the ‘ yes –and’ principle:
“I know what we can do, let’s keep the CO2 buffers working by putting those plugs in the holes!” “We can’t do that, those plugs will never fit!”
“Ok, let’s move on with something else ...”
Fink, S. L.; (1986), “Crisis Management: Planning for The Inevitable”, Amacom, New York
Pauchant, T.C. and Mitroff, I.; (1992), “Transforming the Crises-Prone Organizations”, Pub, San Francisco Staw, B., Sandelands, L., & Dutton, J. (1981), “Threat-rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multilevel
analysis”. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26, 501-524
Sense as a bridge between crisis and improvisation: how people make sense of a crisis to improvise?”, Anouck Adrot and Lionel Garreau http://www.academia.edu/428298/Sense_As_a_Bridge_Between_Crisis_and_Improvisation_How_Peo ple_Make_Sense_of_a_Crisis_to_Improvise
About the author
Raymond van Driel is a communication trainer and guest lecturer at four universities in the Netherlands and abroad. He works with organisations and individuals to help them develop their agility, resilience, creativity and communication skills. Since 2000 Raymond coaches leaders, trainers and consultants in the principles, ideas and skills of Applied Improvisation. He is board member of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN).
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