Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘project

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 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.

Improv and Gamification: Structure

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I’m taking the free Coursera course on Gamification, taught by Kevin Werbach from the Wharton School of Management. The book For the Win, which Werbach coauthored with Dan Hunter, mentions four basic elements of gamification:

  • Motivation
  • Meaningful choices
  • Structure
  • Potential conflicts

Werbach and Hunter use the structure element to ask:  “Can the desired behaviors be modeled through a set of algorithms?” For San Francisco firm Keas, structure comes in the form of challenges participants undergo during the workday to improve their wellness, Microsoft gamified identifying translation errors in Windows 7 dialog boxes, and airlines provide better service as you accumulate more miles.

Measuring results in improv is a less exact process, but ComedySportz gets around the problem by having the audience vote to see which team gets the points for a pair of competing games.  The idea that the show is a competition, where the players try to win but don’t care if they lose, provides a hook that makes the experience more than simple entertainment.

For businesses, organizational performance is often based on revenue, market share, and similar targets identified by the executive team. Individual employee performance is measured versus criteria set for each employee, but how do you provide an overall structure for a project, department, or division? Chip manufacturer Intel uses a Plan of Record, or POR, to identify goals and, in some cases, methodologies at all levels of the enterprise. That which adhereth to the POR is blessed; that which doth not is condemned.

Developing a structure to measure performance can be difficult, especially when applied to creative workers. Don’t feel compelled to gamify a process — the best gamification structure might be none at all.

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.

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