Improv skills lead to success

Archive for March 2013

Improv and Gamification: Introduction

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You can divide improvisation into two rough categories: short-form and long-form. Short-form improvisation consists of games (also called “scenes” or “forms”) that last about 3-8 minutes and, generally, have specific guidelines to which the players should adhere. Many organizations, including ComedySportz and Theatresports (from which ComedySportz was derived, with the permission of Keith Johnstone), use team-on-team competition to enhance the audience’s experience. Winning a round gets a team points, which are compared on a scoreboard, and provide a clear metric for the state of the show.

Gamification, the practice of applying game elements to business and social activities, has become increasingly popular. Kevin Werbach of Penn’s Wharton School and Dan Hunter of New York Law School (and adjunct faculty at Wharton), two leading gamification proponents, wrote For the Win, a book that’s available inexpensively on Amazon through Wharton Digital Press. In their book, they describe how companies have gamified internal processes and customer/product interactions to add fun to what might otherwise be boring situations. If you’ve ever become mayor of a business by checking in on FourSquare, you’ve been gamified.

Werbach and Hunter go into significant detail on how gamification works, but I’ll focus on four points (mentioned on p. 44 of the book) over the next few posts. They are:

  • Motivation
  • Meaningful choices
  • Structure
  • Potential conflicts

I’ll tackle each point  from the perspective of an improviser who also spends time in the business world.

If you’d like to learn more about gamification, you can take Werbach’s Gamification course on The next section of the course starts on April 1, 2013, but he offered it in the Fall of 2012 and, with luck, it will be available again for readers who learn about the course after the current session ends.

Improv and Engineering

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Many individuals, with quite a few improvisers among them, think of engineers as nerds who think of nothing but binary digits, circuits, and why they can’t get dates on Saturday night. The truth is that many technically-minded people are incredibly creative. Designing devices and systems requires engineers to combine elements in novel ways.

A friend posted a link to an article about Dartmouth professor Peter Robbie. Robbie graduated from Dartmouth in 1969 with an English degree, but went on to get his Master of Fine Arts from Cornell. Now he uses improv in his engineering design class for Dartmouth’s Thayer School  to help students collaborate more effectively.

You can find the full article about Robbie’s work at Dartmouth here. It’s well worth your time to read it.


Managing Post-Project Doldrums

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We’ve all fought our way through huge projects and felt the satisfaction of releasing a product to market or finishing the run of a show. The feeling of relief that washes over you is amazing…you see everything you worked for come to fruition and hope your audience appreciates it.

With that relief comes relaxation and, on many occasions, a sense of being adrift, without immediate purpose. Some companies help you “manage” your feelings by throwing you right onto another project, but freelancers are always in search of their next gig. It’s hard to turn down work, but it’s also hard to manage your energy and emotions after a big project concludes. This concern is especially true if you’ve already started a new assignment and have to work while you’re dealing with the end of  the previous one.

I’ve found the following techniques help me deal with the end of project blues:

  • Thank your colleagues for the work they’ve done. Very few projects are solo efforts, so you should make the time to acknowledge others’ contributions. It’s hard to throw a party for a virtual team, but emails and phone calls serve the same purpose for information workers.
  • Walk away, even if just for a day. I have a hard time with this one. Because I work from home, I can work any time I want and for as long as I want. When I need to decompress, my wife and I like to disappear to Vancouver, BC for a couple of days. Yes, I take my laptop or (now) Surface device with me, but I strictly limit checking email to twice per day.
  • Spend time with friends. I’m lucky to have been part of ComedySportz Portland for 17 years. I’m an employee of the company, as are all of our players, but I’ve become close friends with many members of the group. For me, getting on stage and performing is often the therapy I need to attack a new project.
  • Sleep.