Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Archive for the ‘Teamwork’ Category

Use a Premortem to Anticipate Problems

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Any time you advocate change, you should expect to encounter resistance. There are, after all, vested interests in maintaining the status quo. That’s as true for improv groups as it is for any other type of organization. One way you can reduce the disruption caused by these objections is to anticipate them and prepare responses.

To anticipate these problems, you can do a premortem where you probe a plan for every possible point of weakness. This is where you can release your negativity: Think of every possible way someone could object to your plan, how things could go wrong, whether your assumptions could be called into question, and whether the projected benefits are realistic.

There are two benefits to this exercise. The first, as I mentioned, is that you anticipate potential problems and can develop responses. If you can’t develop a good answer to an objection, perhaps you should put off your presentation. The second benefit is that it helps detach team members from the proposal on an emotional level. Once you think of all the ways something could go wrong, you are much less likely to see it as a perfect plan. Doing so lets you receive criticism objectively, and answer without your emotions taking hold.

Remember that decision-makers prefer to operate on an analytical level, even when they are selling products or political candidates to their target demographic on pure emotion. If you present your analysis and let your persuasive techniques season what you say, you’ll be that much closer to making your plan a reality.

Institutional Memory and Improv

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One of the best ways to pass on important information is to relate what happened on a trip, in a game, or during warm-ups. The more you know about the variety of situations you can face and how to handle them, the better off you are. Stephen Denning emphasizes the value of these stories in A Leader’s Guide to Storytelling:

Listening to these stories isn’t merely entertainment: it leads to the acquisition of vicarious experience by those participating. The limitation of sharing stories in an informal setting is that those who aren’t present to learn. This limitation was overcome by the Xerox Corporation in its Eureka program, in which photocopy technicians were given two-way radios so they could be constantly in contact and share experiences; the most useful of the stories were vetted and made available on the web to the entire workforce of 25,000 technicians.

In addition to our online forums, ComedySportz maintains an internal wiki of games and warm-ups. A wiki is a shared database of information that can be edited by any member of the group. Wikipedia is the most prominent example of a public wiki.

The Portland team also has occasional workshops in which individual players get 10–15 minutes to share knowledge on a topic we’re comfortable with. Some companies have brown bag lunches based on a similar theme. One project I haven’t started yet, but hope to soon, is something I borrowed from a former boss at The MITRE Corporation. He sent out a survey asking what languages people spoke, what skills they had, and so on. A spreadsheet or database that contains this information can be extremely valuable when a situation arises and you need someone who can read Gujarati or can recommend a business hotel in the South Kensington area of London.

Helping Your Team (and Teammates) Succeed

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Most improv is a team sport. Except for solo acts, everyone else has to interact and cooperate with other individuals to create their product. If everyone goes on stage looking for glory, you won’t get a solid product. Rather than setting the base for a solid scene where one or two performers can deliver the lines that get the big laughs, you’ll get a bunch of one-liners delivered to an increasingly uncomfortable audience that realizes no one’s cooperating.

Performers support each other, as do athletes. Olympic athletes are part of a team and, even if they compete in individual events like luge or ski jumping, there’s a strong sense of camaraderie. That’s what makes Canadian speedskater Gilmore Junio’s selfless actions this week so special. Junio skated in the 500m event, finishing 11th. He had also qualified for the 1,000m, but gave up his spot to his teammate Denny Morrison. As Junio said:

“I believe it’s in the best interest of the team if he races. To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honor and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance.”

Morrison went on to win the silver medal in the 1,000m event and has nominated Junio to be the Canadian flag bearer during the closing ceremonies. I think it’s a great idea and, if he’s chosen, hope Junio stays in the Olympic Village to accept the honor.

Congratulations to Denny Morrison for winning the silver, much respect to Gilbert Junio for putting the team first, and good luck to Canada in the rest of the Games. You’re doing it right.

Diversity Doesn’t Always Look Different

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In my last post, I talked about the bullying that went on between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. The two men play football for the Miami Dolphins…or rather, they did. Martin left the team as a result of what he termed “harassment” and the Dolphins have suspended Incognito indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. They reportedly plan to cut ties with him.

It’s come out in the last couple of days that Incognito might have been given instructions from the Miami coaching staff to “toughen up” Martin. Martin grew up in a well-off household and went to Stanford, which doesn’t cut athletes too many breaks on GPA and academic performance. He’s quiet and thoughtful. Incognito, on the other hand, is a brasher, tougher person who didn’t grow up in the nice part of town.

Martin is black and Incognito is white, but there’s an interesting racial dynamic to the situation. On the November 6 episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Michael Wilbon, who is black, pointed out that there’s an ongoing conversation in the community about what it means to be black. That conversation takes on a special meaning in the context of the super-macho NFL. According to media reports on ESPN’s web site and Wilbon’s commentary on PTI, Incognito is considered an “honorary” black person who could use the n-word casually in the locker room without offense. In fact, again according to Wilbon, Incognito was seen as “blacker” than Martin because Incognito’s behavior fit into the team’s cognitive model of what an NFL, and more specifically a black NFL player, should be like.

And that’s where the problem lies: the stereotype of how an NFL player should act. A thoughtful, sensitive, introverted person like Martin plays the game differently than his teammates. Maybe he’s not as forceful as his fellow linemen, but he wasn’t voted the second dirtiest player in the league like Incognito was, either. The stereotypical means of “toughening up” a player drove Martin from the team and to document his teammate’s behavior. Veteran Dolphin players have backed Incognito’s actions, calling him Martin’s “big brother” and characterized him as a person who always had Martin’s back. By contrast, when asked if Martin would be welcome in the Dolphins locker room, most players declined to answer.

I have to admit I have a lot more sympathy for Incognito than I did after I first heard about his conduct. Rather than acting as a rogue agent, he appears to have behaved in a manner consistent with the team’s culture. Whether that behavior is “right” or “legal” is up for discussion.

It’ll be interesting to see how this situation shakes out. I characterized the issue as one of diversity in the post’s title, pointing to the difference in cognitive style, personality, and approach Martin takes to life and the game. He’s a minority within the NFL, so there’s a question of whether he and (presumably) his attorney choose to make a hostile work environment claim based in whole or part on his status. Certainly the allegations in the case point to consistent behavior that might be contrary to the law, but I’m not a lawyer. I have a feeling we’ll all learn more about it in the coming months.

Finally, let me conclude with something that, thankfully, doesn’t apply to anyone with whom I currently work: If you think I need toughening up, you’re welcome to try it. I will become more aggressive, but it’ll be in your direction. I do what I do and I’m good at it. My approach works for me. If you think I’m doing it wrong, that’s your problem, not mine. Maybe you screwed up when you hired me.

Don’t Tolerate Abuse

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I’m not sure how many of you follow American sports, in this case the National Football League, but something important happened yesterday. The Miami Dolphins suspended Pro Bowl offensive lineman Richie Incognito for conduct detrimental to the team. The suspension resulted from an investigation after a Dolphin player left the team as a result of constant abuse, allegedly at the hands of Incognito.

NFL teams, like many sports teams and other organizations, has a tradition of hazing rookie players. Some examples include making rookies carry veteran players’ shoes, sing songs, duct-taping them to goal posts, and so on. If published reports are true, Incognito’s threatening text messages and at least one voice mail went far beyond what’s considered acceptable within the league. In a possibly related note, an ESPN.com article noted that an anonymous player survey tagged Incognito as the second dirtiest player in the league.

Bullying cannot and must not be tolerated. Yes, we all need to be mentally tough enough to make it through stressful times, but constant attacks on sensitive individuals will probably erode their base, not strengthen it. Also, just because someone can take abuse doesn’t mean they should have to.

If you find anyone in your organization who makes a habit of trying to “build others up” through bullying or other abuse, take decisive action immediately to put a stop to it. If you don’t, you could be responsible for team dysfunction and get your own dose of suffering when the inevitable lawsuit comes. I think you’ll enjoy defending a firing for misconduct a lot more than defending a lawsuit for failing to stop abusive behavior.

Improv, Business, and Emergent Behavior

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One of the joys of improv is not knowing exactly what will happen, but improv isn’t unique in that respect. I didn’t get a script when I woke up this morning and I’m guessing you didn’t, either.

What I did have in place when I woke up was a context. I’m in a society with rules, both internally and externally imposed, that guide my behavior. I also interact with other individuals. Mathematicians and computer scientists study simple versions of these interactions using models such as John Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life is a model based on a grid of cells. Some of the cells are turned on and others are turned off. At the beginning of a turn, each cell compares its state to its neighbors’ states and turns on, turns off, or remains the same based on a set of rules all cells have in common.

If you follow the earlier link to the Game of Life Wikipedia page, you’ll see that interesting behaviors emerge from various Game of Life starting configurations. The phenomena are interesting enough for researchers to create a new field of inquiry, complex systems science. According to Dr. Melanie Mitchell of Portland State University and the Santa Fe Institute, complex systems is:

…an interdisciplinary field of research that seeks to explain how large numbers of relatively simple entities organize themselves, without the benefit of any central controller, into a collective whole that creates patterns, uses information, and, in some cases, evolves and learns.

— Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour

Complex systems is new and, while it’s provided some interesting insights into some systemic behaviors, it hasn’t resulted in models that predict how consumers or businesses will interact in an environment (e.g., the internet) or with a product. The good news is that you can do field experiments and see what behaviors emerge. Some marketers use the “cool kids” strategy, where they make a few dozen units of a new product and give it to the cool kids in a high school to see what they do with it. As William Gibson noted in “Burning Chrome”, a short story first published in the 1982 collection Hackers, “the street finds its own uses for things”.

A similar rule applies to existing products. If your bosses panic when customers use a product in unintended ways, call a meeting, brew some herbal tea, and figure out how to take advantage of the gift you’ve received. You’re not wrong or stupid for not having foreseen every possible way your products could be used, but you are both of those things if you let your ego get in the way of capitalizing on what your customers tell you they want.

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.