Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

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.

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.