Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

Smarter than a CIA Agent?

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National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting piece on the Good Judgment Program, which is a trial program run by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The program’s goal is to find individuals who can forecast whether certain events will occur, such as a major attack on Israeli soil before May 10, 2014. The program’s trial period has 3,000 participants, each of whom makes predictions through a website. The NPR segment featured a 60 year-old pharmacist who is in the top 1% of the group, making her a “superforecaster”.

The question, of course, is whether this participant has any special abilities or insights. Program entrants don’t have access to sensitive data — indeed, the pharmacist says she simply does a Google search to find information about each question and makes her best guess. Just as some lucky individuals can win five, eight, or even 20 coin flips in a row, I’m curious as to how much of the participants’ success (or lack of same) is due to chance. I’m sure the intelligence community is, too. I’d love to see the statistical distribution of forecast success rates to see how it compares to random choices.

Despite the attempts to codify intelligence work in books such as Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, it’s much more of an art than a science. What’s worse, humans are notoriously bad at explaining why we did something. Research has shown that we often have no idea why we perform an action, but feel compelled to provide a justification afterward. That explanation is usually based more on how we perceive ourselves as thinking than it is on the actual process.

If you’re a performer and you do something good, try to remember the context of the scene and how you felt when you got the input that led to your good choice. Recording your performances lets you recapture more of the feeling than simple memory, which fades quickly and can be replaced by what you wished had happened. Then, the next time you’re on stage, try to recreate that feeling so your subconscious can make good choices on your behalf.

Variety Keeps Things Fun!

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I cringe whenever I hear an improviser say, “Whenever someone does this, I always do that.” If you have multiple people doing that, you always get the same result. There are two improv games that rely on this gimmick: Mr. So-and-So and Pavlovian Response. In Mr. So-and-So, every time a player comes on stage, another player endows him with a particular characteristic. For example, a player could walk on stage and be greeted with, “Hello Mr. Yawns When He Talks.” When the player honors that endowment, he will yawn whenever he opens his mouth to speak.

Even though I say you shouldn’t repeat gags as you go along, I know that players with any significant experience will have characters and bits they can go back to when needed. They’re fine in small doses, but don’t depend on them.

In the game of Pavlovian Response, every player is given a trigger and an action that occurs whenever the trigger is noticed. A player might bark like a dog whenever someone turns away from her. You can have a lot of fun chaining these reactions together. Perhaps, upon hearing the word the, a player could respond by leaving the stage. Another player could be assigned to clap her hands twice whenever someone leaves the stage. If you want to get crazy, you can endow the light operator to turn the lights on or off whenever someone claps their hands twice.

In offstage life, not every interaction has to be unique. Companies have policies and procedures in place for very good reasons: legal compliance, standards compliance, and maintaining audit trails. For example, if you’re in a customer-facing position, you need to have a series of procedures you work through to be sure you weed out the simplest and easiest-to-fix problems. (You’re attempting to save your time at the expense of your customer’s autonomy, but that’s another story.)

One of the best interactions I’ve had with the company happened very recently. My house has a watering system from Rain Bird. After a power outage, the system turned on, and the only way to get it to turn off was to unplug the system’s control board. After working through the manual, neither my wife nor I could get the system to reset correctly. I called the company’s toll-free help line and, after a couple of questions to verify my information, the technician simply asked me to describe what was going on. Using his expertise with the systems, he was able to guide me to a solution very quickly. This interaction represented the best combination of procedure and allowing for open-ended input that I’ve encountered in quite some time.

In the end, your best bet as an improviser is to embrace the reality of the scene as you and your fellow performers have created it, and allow yourself to go in new directions. In business, you need to be ready to face the unexpected, but you should rely on existing procedures that help ensure smooth operations within your company.

Please, Be Easy to Work With

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Comedians make a living by pointing out what’s incongruent, unfair, or simply messed up in society. The hack phrase “What’s up with that?” (you know the line’s overdone when The Jester character on The Fairly Oddparents uses it as his catchphrase) expresses the premise nicely.

You’d think that stand-ups, improvisers, and writers would have a better sense of how to avoid the social traps we make fun of. Not showing up on time, being rude to the gatekeepers who can grant or deny stage time at will, and ignoring time or word limits don’t make for promising careers. Very early in my writing career, an editor told me that hitting all of my deadlines would automatically put me in the top 10% of authors. That’s kind of depressing, but I’m glad the bar was set so low. Once I broke into the writing field, good communication and attention to deadlines let me build up my portfolio and my network.

In an article published on The Atlantic web site, Peter McGraw (the taller and more academic co-author of The Humor Code) cited one of his studies investigating the personality traits of successful improv comedians:

The [Humor Research Lab] once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.

“The really screwed up people aren’t comedians, they’re criminals. They’re in jails, and they’re not funny. They’re sad and angry,” he said.

“No, there’s something else that predicts success in comedy.”

The article goes on to cite studies that indicate intelligence is a good predictor for success as a comedian. It takes smarts and a certain social adeptness to find bridges between concepts, identify the incongruities, and shape them into humor. It also turned out that, at least in another study that asked undergrads to create captions for New Yorker cartoons, guys were funnier. Why might that be?

Part of the answer, from a sociological standpoint, is that women often use humor as a proxy for intelligence when judging potential mates. If a guy can make you laugh by identifying and commenting on the incongruities in life, you might have found a match. The other aspect is the interpersonal version of stage time and reps: guys attempt a lot more jokes than women in conversation. That’s good and bad — the guys get more practice, but the other folks in the conversation have to suffer through some atrocious material. Golf pros love and hate “Pro-Am” days, where they play with local amateurs. One golfer said he has a “Wednesday Face” that he puts on for pro-am days. He knows he’s about to hear Bill Murray’s “It’s in the hole!” from Caddyshack and other hack lines a few hundred times from amateurs who use them to crack up their buddies on Mondays.

Repeating bits isn’t intelligence. At best, it’s mimicry. At worst, it’s a slow torture visited upon someone who takes his craft seriously. Show up on time and be pleasant. Be funny if you can, but please don’t try too hard. You’ll just make everybody feel bad.

Improv, Party Tricks, and John Cleese

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John Cleese is a comedy genius, distinguishing himself as a member of Monty Python, speaker, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I respect his thoughts on comedy and life, so I listened to his recent interview on the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast podcast with some interest. About halfway through the session, the subject turned to improv:

As a scripted comedian, what do you think about the rise of improv?
The delights of improv have always rather escaped me. I don’t know why it’s considered a major art form. I don’t mean that it’s not interesting or skillful. But over the years all the comedians that I’ve respected—I could also say all the comic writers—are people who put words down on paper and went on working on them until they felt they couldn’t improve them anymore. That seems to me the most important and interesting part of comedy. The other is sort of a party trick, which I respect, but it doesn’t seem to me that it should be regarded at the same level….

Another way, I got a nomination, an Oscar nomination, for the script of A Fish Called Wanda. That had been through 13 drafts, and by the end of it, I really felt that I brought it all together. That’s not a feeling I have with improv. They don’t really build to any kind of dramatic climax or comedic climax.

The “improv as party trick” critique has been around for years for, it must be said, good reason: much of improv is simply cleverness and pattern-built humor that takes advantage of the audience’s programmed responses to those constructs. If improvisers create simple scenes with minimal variance and go for the cheap laughs, we’ll never be better than hack stand-up comedians doing well-worn anatomy jokes on Monday nights.

In How Architecture Works, Witold Rybczynski makes a similar point regarding the emphasis of style over substance:

The difference between a designer and a stylist is analogous to the difference between Glenn Gould performing Bach and Victor Borge playing in the style of Bach. With Gould, we experience Bach’s creation; with Borge, we merely recognize the composer’s style. One is art; the other, however entertaining, is not.

Yes, it’s possible to argue that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python used patterns in their work when writing their sketches (it’s hard not to when you produce that much material), but let’s focus on the meat of the critique: that improvisers don’t work to improve individual pieces and that, as Cleese and Rybczynski argue in separate contexts, a performance can be a clever stylistic pastiche but not (or at least most often not) art.

Improvisers live in a world of first drafts. Unless we’re doing fake-prov, where we pretend to hear the suggestions we want and perform our scripted set, we’re honoring the audience’s suggestions and creating a piece on the spot. Even putting a known character into a new situation, a contemporary version of commedia dell’arte, is constrained by our co-writers in the house. I’ve said before that improv is a very forgiving art form: the audience says “banana”, you say “banana”, people laugh, and the person who gave the suggestion thinks they’re a genius. As with all first drafts, though, some of what we do will be terrible, much of it will be funny, and some of it will be hilarious. We can try to improve the scene as we go along, but we get just the one chance. It’s the nature of the beast.

The lack of a climax is a serious concern, especially for long-form improv. The worst improv scenes noodle around a subject, the performers try to force a laugh by going for the joke, and the moderator or team ends it before the audience wanders off to the bar. Mixed short-form shows, such as ComedySportz, use different types of games to add variety and maintain interest. The moderator, what we call a referee, is responsible for moving the show along and deciding when games should end. A four-minute scene might not get a dramatic climax, but the good ones do. A seven-minute musical comedy needs a payoff that happens in the closing song–it’s expected of the genre. In a real sense the referee’s the editor, finding (or, worst case scenario, manufacturing) an end point for the scene. It’s up to the players to create it.

Long-form shows often take a single suggestion and build a series of interconnected scenes along that theme. Some groups, such as Shakesprov in Portland or Cast on a Hot Tin Roof in Chicago, perform entire plays in the style of a specific playwright (Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, respectively). Rybczynski’s critique that these performances might be entertaining but definitely won’t be artistic fails if the performers dig in with the intention of honoring the author and genre and create a piece worthy of the group’s aspirations. If Borge played Bach in a concert performance, it would be art. Interpreting Suddenly Last Summer as a comedy would be a travesty. Performing All’s Well That Ends Well as Shakespeare wrote it is both.

To sum up, I think Cleese’s argument that improv is a party trick that owes more to cleverness than art is fair, but could just as easily be turned on run-of-the-mill sketch comedy, stand-up, or essayists. Skilled improvisers strive to be more than surface-level funny, honor the intentions of the audience, respect the artists from whom we borrow, and build to a dramatic or comedic climax. But we can always do better.

Finding Your Happy, Creative Place

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It seems obvious that individuals with a happy work environment will be more creative and proactive, but there’s a school of thought among some managers and executives that insists keeping workers off balance makes them better workers. What does the research show?

In their book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer cite substantial research indicating that a positive inner work life enhances creativity and productivity. In 1987, Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki published their article “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Their experiment applied the traditional creative thinking task of presenting a subject with a box of thumbtacks and a candle, then asking the subject to suspend the candle over the table so no wax dripped onto its surface. Prior to setting out the task, the subjects were either shown a five-minute video clip from a comedy, five minutes of a film on concentration camps, or given a neutral task such as exercise or watching a math film. The experiment revealed that participants who watched the comedy were significantly more likely to find the problem’s solution.

Amabile, Kramer, and other authors criticize studies showing that stress results in improved performance by pointing out that any positive effects are short-lived, the experimental conditions addressed specific rather than generalized tasks, and that focus on external conditions hampers performance. Amabile and Kramer conducted a substantial study of mental affect on creativity by asking employees at several companies to record daily journal entries detailing one event that stood out each day. Based on their results, they concluded:

We even found a surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day — and, to some extent, the day after that — even taking into account his moods on those later days. This may be due to what psychologists call an incubation effect. (p. 52)

In the face of this research, why do many managers feel the need to stress their employees through constant reorganizations or manipulative reward schemes? In my opinion, part of it comes down to control. Managers feel like they have to prove their worth by driving their reports to higher productivity than they would have achieved without the manager’s input. Other managers just like pushing people around. Finally, American industry still follows, at least in part, the scientific management philosophy of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorization entailed breaking processes into component parts that workers could accomplish through rote memorization and adherence to established procedure. Perhaps these principles could work on an assembly line (though the Ford Motor Company experienced massive worker turnover until they modified their practices), but creative and knowledge worker tasks can’t be broken down in the same way.

None of us can be happy all the time, nor should we be. We’ll get frustrated, be unable to complete the tasks we’re assigned without substantial effort, and take many wrong turns as we try to advance the state of the art in our field. We need to be resilient and stand up to these perfectly normal pressures, but we shouldn’t have to suffer through needless stress imposed by management.

One of Amabile and Kramer’s main points is that workers do better when there’s a sense of progress. Even the little victories matter. In one sense, the little victories matter a lot. We’re all working toward a common goal, but it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude unless you feel like you’re moving toward that goal. Just as improv scenes move forward one line at a time, so do your work projects. Keep that momentum up, be ready to help each other, and try to stay positive.

A Playful Attitude Makes Life Easier

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News flash: life ain’t easy. I used to hear that being an adult wasn’t easy, but with the piles of homework and outside activities heaped on kids these days it’s fair to apply the statement to everyone. George Carlin opined that every kid’s daily schedule should include a couple of hours staring out the window — I think that’s a terrific idea.

Having time to yourself gives you the freedom to think about whatever comes to mind and combine ideas in new ways. In other words, to play. This attitude can become a habit, letting you see the unconventional and humorous sides of issues even though you take them seriously.

I discovered a terrific example of this approach in the description of the Wharton School of Economics’s course An Introduction to Operations Management on Coursera.org. The FAQ list contains this bit of whimsy:

What is the coolest thing I’ll learn if I take this class?

You will look at the world with different eyes – you will start to detect bottlenecks, identify productivity wastes, and come up with ideas to improve business processes. A known side effect of these skills is that you might drive friends, family, or co-workers crazy when you point to their improvement opportunities…

The descriptions for the other three Wharton classes contain similar humorous elements. This approach should appeal to casual learners the Wharton School wants to engage with (it certainly caught my attention) and makes the prospect of taking a MOOC offered by a prestigious MBA program a little less imposing. I like their thinking and can’t wait to get started.

Accidents Can be Fun and Useful

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Robert K. Merton, a sociologist who worked primarily in the mid-20th century, popularized the notion of unintended consequences, which he defined as “outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action.”

The notion of unintended consequences is obvious and was around long before Merton, but the term is often interpreted as meaning an action can have unintended negative outcomes. Fortunately, good things can happen by accident, too.

You’re probably familiar with the story of how a scientist at 3M invented the glue used on Post-It notes — he tried to create a super-strong glue, but ended up with a weak glue that barely held anything together. It wasn’t until years later that he thought to use it to adhere pieces of paper to vertical surfaces, but when he did his “failure” turned into a gold mine. Similarly, scientists at Cornell University created the world’s thinnest sheet of glass (literally a single molecule thick, making it technically a 2-D object) when oxygen infiltrated a chamber in which they were attempting to make graphene.

Improv relies on unintended consequences. Because improvisers don’t have a script, they make offers and trust their fellow performers to advance the scene or game. There are times, especially when you’re “in the zone” (what Chris Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state”), that you have no idea what’s coming out of your mouth until you hear it. With experience, your contributions come with increasing ease and provide a solid base for your scene.

In my next post, I’ll extend the concept of unintended consequences to business.

Always Be Ready

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Performers should always be ready to go. If another group doesn’t show up or someone gets sick, you can step in.

I did the regular show with the ComedySportz Portland group last night, during which our referee hyped an after hours show by another group. Unfortunately, that group had cancelled their show, but the message didn’t get to anyone in the show that night. We had a significant portion of the regular crowd stay for the after hours show, but there was no one there to do it.

Most of the players in the ComedySportz show had had long days, but they were willing to hang around and do a show for the folks who stayed. I always carry the materials I need to do Magic of the Mind (and my wife’s out of town visiting family), so I volunteered to do the after hours. Part of the team stayed to do a quick Q&A session with the fans while I set up, but after those five minutes it was business as usual. Well, as usual as it can be when you’re doing a show in a t-shirt and cargo shorts.

As an aside, I actually have two emergency Magic of the Mind kits: one in my ComedySportz bag and another, more complete set in the trunk of my car.

If you’re a speaker, you should always have a digital copy of your slide deck with you in case a scheduled speaker isn’t able to go on. I recommend preparing three versions of your talk: 50-minute, 25-minute, and 5-minute. The long version works for conference presentations, the middle for a half-slot, and the short version as program filler or for a quick presentation during a break. You can use the Ignite conference series model to create your 5-minute piece. Ignite presentations consist of 20 slides displayed for 15 seconds each. The slides are on auto-advance, so the presentation lasts exactly five minutes. The format requires some extra rehearsal, but it’s great for boiling your presentation down to its essential elements.

If you have a few minutes of down time in an airport, on a plane, or in your hotel room, take a few minutes to flip through your slides and notes to review your talking points. Stepping up to help a meeting organizer and delivering a polished, professional presentation is good for everyone and can lead to future speaking opportunities.

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.

A Genius, in Retrospect

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Mikhail Tal, the Latvian chess grandmaster and one-time World Champion, played a raging, attacking, seemingly bizarre brand of chess. His willingness to sacrifice his pieces for nebulous compensation led to some embarrassing losses but resulted in many fantastic wins when his opponents couldn’t, as Tal put it, see their way out of a forest where 2+2=5.

As an improviser, I admire his courage to randomize a position and put both him and his opponent on the spot. It’s easy to think of his creations as “just games”, but he was a professional player in what was then the Soviet Union. The tournaments to which he was invited and, more to the point, allowed to participate in depended on both his style of play and his results. Of course, it wasn’t until a game was over and the chess world had a chance to analyze his moves that the verdict for a particular sequence was known.

The same consideration is true for improvisers. We don’t know whether what we do is brilliant or not until a scene is over, but we have the luxury of working with a team to make all of our choices brilliant. And that’s why I have such respect for a competitor like Tal, who told this story (paraphrased):

I was in the middle of a tournament game when I began to wonder how one might rescue an elephant stuck in a swamp. Over the next 45 minutes, I imagined a series of pulleys and levers arranged in various configurations but came to no satisfactory conclusion. Then, seeing that I was running low on time, I looked at the board and played the first sacrifice I saw.

The journalist covering the game reported that, “After 45 minutes of thought, Tal unleashed a deep and powerful sacrifice that resulted in a won game.”

We can, and should, look at the mechanics of our work, but we must never dismiss what the audience takes away from a performance. The show exists in their memory as well as ours.