Improv skills lead to success

Archive for September 2012

Coordinating to Win Big in the Stag Hunt

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This series of posts talks about game theory and applications of the classic 2 x 2 games to improv and business. I’d previously discussed Chicken and Battle of the Sexes–next up is the Stag Hunt.

The Stag Hunt game is also called the Assurance Game or the Coordination Game. The basic idea behind the Stag Hunt is that the players can increase their payoff by cooperating. Following one traditional way to state the game’s conditions, I’ll define cooperation as a situation in which two individuals can increase their immediate payoffs by working together.

In its traditional form, the Stag Hunt posits that there are two hunters. The hunters can either choose to hunt for a stag, which has a very high but uncertain payoff, or a hare, which has a small and reliable payoff. Every time you hunt for a hare you will catch one and get a small payoff. On the other hand, if you hunt for stag and the other hunter goes after a hare, you will get nothing, and the other hunter will get the hare. You get a stag only if both of you decide to go after it. That’s why this game is also called the Coordination Game: You must coordinate your efforts to get the highest possible return.

The following matrix displays the payoffs for the Stag Hunt.

A graphic showing the payoff matrix for the Stag Hunt game.

As with most of the other classic 2 x 2 games, we assume that the two hunters can’t communicate. At least, not so that they can coordinate their efforts before they choose which strategy to follow on a given day. What they can see, however, are the payoffs both for themselves and for the other hunter after they play a round of the game.

Obviously the best possible outcome is for you and the other player to go for the stag every round, but adopting that strategy is difficult when you don’t know the payoffs in advance and can’t communicate during the game. The best solution, both in business and in improv, is to find a way to communicate, even if it means making taking several moves to try different choices and observe the payoffs. Then, if you make a choice that leads to the big payoff, you trust that the other player will cooperate and repeat the move.

Next time: Do humans play this game better than chimpanzees?

Battle of the Sexes

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In my previous two posts, I discussed the classic game of Chicken, where the loser is the first person to give way to the other. Another classic game is the Battle of the Sexes, which imagines a situation in which neither player can get their preferred outcome, but the worst possible outcome is disagreeing. Let’s say you and your partner are invited to a party, and the host has asked you to bring beer or wine, but not both. Now also assume that you can’t get in contact with your partner. It’s the lack of coordination that makes these 2 x 2 games interesting and aggravating.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you are a beer drinker and your partner prefers wine. For you, the best possible outcome is if both you and your partner decide to bring beer. The second best outcome is if both of you decide to bring wine, and tied for the worst are when you and your partner bring different beverages. The problem is that you have no way to decide whether to bring beer or wine. If you base your decision on your partner’s preferences, you will bring wine. On the other hand, if you think that your partner will go along with your choice, you will bring beer. There’s no way to place one of those two options over the other. What’s worse is that your partner has exactly the same problem.

In terms of improv, you’ll find the Battle of the Sexes occurring when there is a lack of communication before you start playing a scene or game. Every improv group plays games differently, even when they’re based on the same familiar pattern. If you’re playing in the city as a guest player, there might be two different ways of playing the same game. If there is a lack of communication, such as if you go over to one side of the stage to pick up a costume piece before conferring with your playing partners, whoever starts might not have the same idea about how to play the game as everyone else. If your scene partners play one game, and you’re playing another, a train wreck ensues. It’s easy enough to fix once everything gets underway – either you or your playing partners can adapt, but there might be an awkward moment or two at the start. At that point, you just hope the audience either doesn’t notice or forgives you.

In business, you’ll find that the Battle of the Sexes game is played out during sales calls and engineering meetings. Everyone has a preferred solution for implementing a change or creating a product. Any time there are multiple pathways to creating a product or finishing a project, you should be in close communication to ensure that the solution you’re pursuing doesn’t contradict what someone else is doing.

Chicken in Business

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In my previous post, I discussed the game of Chicken, where two kids in denim jackets and James Dean haircuts get into cars and drive toward each other at high speed. The first one to swerve loses, but there’s a real possibility neither one will blink and both will be hurt. If you’re an improviser, it often pays to be the one who blinks. Yes, you go with someone else’s ideas instead of your own, but the scene and show will be better for it.

In business, one of the most common ways to play Chicken is what’s called Schedule Chicken. In Schedule Chicken, managers face off against each other in a meeting room and none of them is willing to admit that they will not meet whatever obviously unrealistic deadline has been placed in front of them. Because they agreed to that schedule at the start of the project, whoever blinks will be blamed for causing the project to slip if they have to ask for more time.

Unrealistic schedules are deadly. In her Harvard Business Review article “How to Kill Creativity”, Teresa M. Amibile notes:

Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones. The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout.

In business, it can be tough to say that you have no chance of meeting a schedule, regardless of how optimistic it might be. If the other managers or workers on a team say that they can make their deadlines with no problem, it means that you are the one causing the slip. Of course, it might be complete fiction that the other teams could have been ready in time, but if you’re the first one to admit that you won’t make it, you’re the one who gets the blame.

How you solve the game of Schedule Chicken depends on your corporate culture. Companies that follow a philosophy of not shipping until something is ready can reduce the possibility of Schedule Chicken, especially if they don’t set final deadlines until the project is well underway. For multiyear efforts, final deadlines and announcements should be kept out of the press as long as possible. Companies that use agile development and roll out small updates frequently avoid Schedule Chicken by shipping when the update is ready and not announcing times until the next increment is ready to go.

Written by curtisfrye

September 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Improv and the Game of Chicken

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If you’ve watched any movies from the 1950s about disaffected youths, you are surely familiar with the game of Chicken. In the game of Chicken, two kids drive toward each other at high speed. The first person to swerve loses – that is, that person is the chicken. As with all 2 x 2 games, there are four ways for it to play out. The payoffs appear in the following table.


The first outcome is if both drivers swerve, which results in payoffs of zero. Both drivers swerve, so that means that neither of them won. But, because the outcome was equal, neither of them lost, either. The next two outcomes occur when one driver swerves and the other stays straight. In that case, we do have a clear winner and a clear loser, which is reflected in the payoffs of plus one for the winner and minus one for the loser. In the fourth case, disaster strikes. In that fourth case, neither driver swerves and there is a high-speed, head-on collision.

You probably don’t have to stretch your imagination to see how this game can play out in improv and business. When you create an improv scene, someone has to be willing to give up control. Even if it’s only for a moment, players must accept what other players say and do so they can continue to build a consistent reality without interrupting the audience’s enjoyment. The best outcome in a game of Chicken when you’re performing an improv scene is to have one player swerve and one player continue straight on. That means one player made a solid decision and all the other player has to do is follow along and build on what is been established. If both players swerve, that means no one is taking the reins and attempting to drive the scene forward.

Next…chicken and business.

Dialogue and Cooperative Play

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Success at improv and business requires the clear communication of ideas and a willingness to incorporate others’ contributions into your work. This interchange doesn’t just happen verbally…among architects, this type of exchange happens on paper. In an opinion piece published in the September 2, 2012 New York Times, architect and Princeton professor (emeritus) Michael Graves wrote about an unspoken dialogue he had with a colleague during a boring faculty meeting:

While we didn’t speak, we were engaged in a dialogue over this plan and we understood each other perfectly. I suppose that you could have a debate like that with words, but it would have been entirely different. Our game was not about winners or losers, but about a shared language. We had a genuine love for making this drawing. There was an insistence, by the act of drawing, that the composition would stay open, that the speculation would stay “wet” in the sense of a painting. Our plan was without scale and we could as easily have been drawing a domestic building as a portion of a city. It was the act of drawing that allowed us to speculate.

Players from the ComedySportz Portland improv group love the game of Paper Telephone. The idea is that you write a starting line at the top of a piece of paper, then pass it to a friend. Your friend reads the first line, writes a second line, and then folds the paper so only the most recent line is visible. You continue passing the paper around until there’s no more room, then unfold the paper and read the story. A fun variation is to have as many pieces of paper as there are players so you get lots of stories. The results are often hilarious and the similarities among stories can be eerie.

If you haven’t played Paper Telephone, you might have written stories with a friend, trading off after every paragraph. I’ve found this method works well for developing business presentations. Sit down with two or three of your colleagues and take turns telling a story or building an outline one line at a time. Don’t worry about coherence or order yet — all you want to do is get the information down so you can revise it later. This type of cooperative play helps you get beyond the creative person’s nightmare: a blank page.

Connections and Revelations

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Del Close, the legendary improv director, once said: “Where do the best laughs come from? Terrific
connections made intellectually or terrific revelations made emotionally.”

A well-rounded player can take both approaches, but so many players rely on one approach to the exclusion of the other. I’m definitely on the intellectual side of that equation. For many years, I didn’t pay much attention to how I (or my character) felt about what happened in scenes. Instead, I focused on the “what” of the scene and tried to explore it instead of the character interactions. I’ve definitely become a more successful player, both as an individual and as part of a group, now that I’ve added some emotional range to my work.

Other performers I’ve worked with focus so much on emotional connections that they ignore the substance of the scene. Not reacting to an offer to explore the “what” of the scene is just as much of a denial as my reluctance to engage on an emotional level.

You’ll often run into the same split in business environments. Many executives disdain the emotional side of decision-making and choose to focus on the numbers. I think most of this approach is due to the fear that allowing emotions to affect them implies they can be manipulated. Marketing and sales professionals try to get their customers to engage emotionally, so their approach is often at odds with those of their technical and executive teams.

What’s the best combination of emotion and number sense? There’s no set formula, just experience and the intangible ability to judge which moves to make. Just be ready to meet your team members on their own ground every now and then.

Written by curtisfrye

September 2, 2012 at 8:45 pm