Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘theater

Clustering and Streaks — Real or Imagined?

leave a comment »

The folk wisdom that “bad things come in threes” is still popular in the U.S. Whenever two celebrities die on the same day, for example, even the most hardened critical thinker feels the urge to look for the third.

Is clustering real? Do events happen in streaks, or are they just a product of our pattern-seeking brains?  George Carlin made fun of the “bad things happen in threes” adage by stating that bad things actually happen in 27’s, noting that “it just takes longer to see the pattern.” You can always find instances of “bad things” in the world to fill out your sets of three, but what does the research say? There have been a lot of studies on the subject, including Koehler and Conley’s “The “Hot Hand” Myth In Professional Basketball”, published in 2003 in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The authors examined the National Basketball Association’s long distance shooting contest and looked for statistical aberrations in the sequences of made and missed shots. As in all but a few other studies, they found no significant deviation from chance. When they took each player’s base shooting accuracy into account, the effect disappeared.

Sports are physical contests and even little variations in physical conditions can affect performance, but what about chess? Chess is a mental game played with perfect information. That is, you know everything there is to know about a position and there’s no hidden information, such as a player’s hole cards in poker. As of this writing, I have played 19,738 games of blitz chess (each player has 3 or 5 minutes to make all moves in a game) at the Internet Chess Club since June 27, 2001. As I watch my online chess rating fluctuate from embarrassing to “not bad for me”, I wonder how much the streaks of wins, losses, and draws reflect my abilities and how much is the “luck” of an opponent making some horrible mistake.

The three-year graph of my rating shows huge swings, but the average is right about where I perceive myself as a player. Perhaps my streaks are due to luck. After all, I don’t seriously study the game and play to take a break from other work. The big changes make a strong visual impression, but there are a lot of small shifts in there, too.

Improvisers can make a fun game out of looking for apparent patterns and justifying reasons for believing streaks exist. The lesson for analysts? Carefully examine whether a sequence of events is due to some underlying cause or is just a sequence of events that might be due to chance. That said, given the strength of our innate need to discover patterns, is there any way to dispel what appears to be the myth of the hot hand? In a 2006 review of the literature, Michael Bar-Elia, Simcha Avugosa, and Markus Raab summarized the situation in this way:

As Amos Tversky, who initiated the hot hand research, used to say (cited by Gilovich in an online chat, September, 2002), ‘‘I’ve been in a thousand arguments over this topic, won them all, but convinced no one’’.

Memory and the Recency Effect

leave a comment »

It’s tempting to think that knowing about a cognitive bias or logical fallacy makes them immune to it. I’m no exception, but I constantly find myself falling prey to the recency effect, or recency bias. The good news is that I catch myself from time to time — the bad news is that I have no idea how many instances slip through.

The recency effect describes a condition where the most recent information you learned has a disproportionate impact on your opinion about a topic. I find myself watching TV programs or reading articles where the author sets out arguments on an issue and I often think, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ll have to revise my opinion.” The rest of the time I think, “Yeah, right” and move on with my day. If the topic’s one I don’t know much about, the information I just learned will affect my view more than it would if I knew a lot about the issue.

As I mentioned in my review of The Gamble, published here and on Technology and Society Book Reviews, the Romney 2012 presidential campaign managers attempted to use the recency effect to their candidate’s advantage. The authors cited a significant body of research showing that political ads sway opinion, but only for a few days at most before viewers’ opinions revert to their personal baselines. The Romney campaign took out a large number of ads in the days before the election in hopes of using the recency effect to their advantage. In fact, the campaign bought the entire available ad inventory in several states. Rather than leave the money in the bank, they bought ads in states they deemed less important.

If you really want to see the recency effect in action, watch the U.S. stock markets whenever major events occur. Every bit of news causes the markets to move as investors try to out-guess each other and make a profit on competitors’ decisions. I’m not sure how much of the action is individual speculators trying to get a jump on the market and others trying to guess the reactors’ reactions (and so on up the chain), but the short-term volatility can be astonishing.

Confirmation Bias Proves What You Already Knew

leave a comment »

Human beings deal with complexities by creating mental models. Our models are necessarily simpler than reality and are based on our experiences. These considerations imply two things. First, models are intensely personal constructs. Second, personal models are difficult to change. When we find something that works, we’re reluctant to change it.

There’s a strong temptation to fit what we see into our models rather than invest the effort (and ego) into admitting our model is wrong, or at least incomplete. Oswald and Grosjean define confirmation bias as “the tendency to search for, interpret and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” You probably know someone who engages in impressive mental gymnastics to fit everything into their world view.

In business, falling prey to confirmation bias can cost you money. If you developed a process that worked for years but doesn’t meet your company’s needs, you must be open to change. If you interpret critiques as personal attacks, you’re much less likely to improve your processes.

You can take advantage of confirmation bias to create interesting characters or “find the game” within an improv scene. Improv scenes run on justifying why something someone else said or did is true and important. If your character’s perspective uses “Yes, and…” to bring everything into his or her world view, you can be an interesting character and entertain your audience. Like in business, you have to be careful not to let your internal game hurt your team’s performance, but it’s a fun approach to take on occasion.

The exercise “Your Place or Mine?” provides an interesting context for justification and fitting incidents into your character’s world view. In this exercise, you and a scene partner play characters in two different locations. For example, one of you might be a fast food worker in McDonald’s and the other an archery instructor on the range. If the fast food worker hands the archer a french fry, the archer could interpret it as a small arrow and shoot it into a target, which the fast food worker could interpret as throwing the food into a customer’s mouth.

Accidents Can be Fun and Useful

leave a comment »

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.

Improv Should NOT Be a Surprise

leave a comment »

My friend Rick Maue, a talented performer and innovator in the branch of stage magic called mentalism, identifies three types of performances:

  • Theater, which is a show people come to see in a formal setting
  • Entertainment at events such as banquets, where the performance is part of the overall evening’s activities
  • Filler, where the audience has absolutely no idea you will be there or that there will be any kind of show

I’d like to add a fourth type: Hell, which is a Virgin Atlantic flight with musicians and improv comedians roaming the aisles. Don’t believe me? Here’s part of a Fast Company article describing the scheme:

Virgin Atlantic Little Red, a U.K. domestic rebranding of Virgin Atlantic, will feature “in-flight gigs” on selected flights that include live music and improv comedians. Entertainment will take place on flights headed to Edinburgh and Manchester, and performers will be selected from the talent pool at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

But here’s the kicker: While the acts will be mentioned on Virgin Atlantic’s Facebook and Twitter pages, the flights they will be performing on will be a surprise. We’re guessing that business travelers, improv comedy, and a confined environment will be a volatile mixture, but that’s just us.

I do improv and stage magic and think I’m pretty entertaining, but I only take a few strolling mentalism gigs at company parties a year. I want to be sure I’ll be a good fit and often look for reasons to break off from a group early rather than overstay my welcome. I don’t want to be what sports commentator Joe Buck refers to as “the guy at parties who insists on doing card tricks no one wants to see”. I don’t mind stopping to watch a street performer for a few minutes. In fact, I tipped a terrific human statue when my wife and I were in Tallinn, Estonia, in July.


I’d rather donate three pints of blood in an hour than be on a flight with a live musician or improvisers. I’m one of you, guys, and I don’t begrudge you the money, but I will not interact with you.

I think someone in Virgin corporate learned the wrong lesson from the funny PA announcements some Southwest flight attendants make. Those presentations work because they’re fast, they’re hilarious, and they’re over.

Gamification: Devising Activity Cycles

leave a comment »

My previous set of posts described elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors. I just examined how you can describe your players using personas. In this post, I’ll talk about devising activity cycles.

As a quick review, the authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

In a gamification context, activity cycles are the actions you want your players (teammates, customers, co-workers, etc.) to take. You can think of activity cycles as patterns of interaction with your site that represent a task or series of tasks taken to completion. As an example, consider how you check in at sites on FourSquare. Your activity cycle involves pulling up the app on your phone, having it sense your location, and giving it permission to check you in at that location. You can also earn badges, receive special offers, and be named Mayor of a location by checking in there more than everyone else.

Some sites have longer activity cycles. TeamSnap offers a website where you can track your sports teams’ rosters, schedule practices, track attendance, and record game results. You can even assign team members (or their parents) tasks such as bringing snacks to the game. TeamSnap’s also useful for improv groups who want to track practices, send messages, and schedule shows. (Full disclosure: I’m good friends with several TeamSnap executives and my main improv group, ComedySportz Portland, uses their site to track our activities.)

Businesses have activity cycles in all aspects of their operations. Client generation, sales tracking, and customer service all lend themselves to gamification. In some sense, businesses that track sales performance and use other measures to rank their employees already use elements of gamification, but many times those scenarios take on the tenor of the “motivational speech” Alec Baldwin’s character Blake delivers at the start of a monthly sales contest in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross. In that contest, first place is a Cadillac El Dorado, second place is a set of steak knives, and third place is “You’re fired.”

Some bosses thrive on intimidation and insult, but that approach goes against the spirit of gamification. If you want to gamify successfully, you can’t forget the fun.

Gamification: Delineating Target Behaviors

leave a comment »

My previous set of posts described elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors. My previous post covered defining business objectives. In this post, I’ll talk about delineating target behaviors.

The authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

Defining business objectives is the most abstract element of the process, in the sense that the results (increase attendance or driving more visitors to your site) are long-range goals that  result from other efforts. Delineating target behaviors means identifying the specific actions you want your players to take. For example, you might want your players to fill in their profiles completely, perhaps showing a progress bar like the one LinkedIn uses. You can also reward behaviors such as inviting one’s friends to join a site, making purchases, and attending events.

In an improv context, you should think about what you want your audience members to do. Of course you want them to attend your shows and tell their friends how brilliant and funny you are, but you should also focus on what you want them to do during the show. For example, how do you get suggestions, and how does the process affect the suggestions you get? How do you reward audience members for following your instructions, and how do you correct them if they don’t?

Businesses of all types, whether manufacturing, web services, or theaters, must structure their offerings to get the desired responses from their customers. It helps to know what those responses are.

Gamification: Defining Business Objectives

leave a comment »

My previous set of posts described elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors.

The authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

Defining business objectives seems like an easy step — you want your customers to buy your products or engage your services. In this context, though, you’re thinking about the business objectives for your gamified system. You might want to retain customers or build brand loyalty. These objectives are more general than target behaviors, which are covered in the next item. Improv groups face the same challenges when they try to define their business objectives. Obviously you want to encourage customers to be loyal to your brand, but what other goals do you have? Do you want them to become active consumers of theatre in general?

It’s often tough to distinguish between business objectives and target behaviors, but Werbach and Hunter provide a useful exercise for identifying business objectives. (p. 87) They encourage you to make a list of what you think are your objectives; then, go through the list and cross out anything that’s a means instead of an end. For example, “Build brand loyalty” is an end but “Have visitors view the company’s mission statement” is a means.

Working through this exercise will bring your business objectives into better focus. Plus, if you’re like me and don’t always distinguish between objectives and behaviors on the first pass, you’ll find you’ve identified several target behaviors, too.

Gamification: The Six D’s

leave a comment »

I’m most of the way through the Gamification course I’m taking on Coursera. I’ve learned a lot and hope to apply some of the techniques in my own work.

Much of the course’s material appears in For the Win, written by the Coursera professor Kevin Werbach and his coauthor Dan Hunter (both of whom are faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School). My previous four posts discussed four elements of gamification (such as meaningful choices and conflict) and how to incorporate them into business and improv. The authors also identify six steps to gamification (For the Win, p. 86), which I think provide an excellent framework for business and theatrical endeavors.

The authors’ six D’s are:

  • Define business objectives
  • Delineate target behaviors
  • Describe your players
  • Devise activity cycles
  • Don’t forget the fun!
  • Deploy the appropriate tools

My next six posts will address these D’s one at a time, starting with how to define your objectives.

Improv and Gamification: Potential Conflicts

leave a comment »

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

Their final item, potential conflicts, addresses how game elements can come into conflict with organizational goals and intrinsic (internal) motivation. The traditional management case study of conflicting elements is suboptimization, where an employee focuses on a specific task to the detriment of the overall project or even the entire enterprise.

As an example, suppose you’ll receive a substantial bonus for releasing a product to market by a specific date. It’s natural for you to evaluate your incentives and get that product out the door regardless of what corners you need to cut. If the product’s not as a good as it could have been, your employer must take a substantial portion of the blame. After all, they structured your incentives in a way that rewarded you for focusing on the subgoal instead of releasing a quality product.

In improv, you can suboptimize by going for the joke instead of playing a good scene and letting the laughs come naturally. I was especially guilty of this practice early in my career, but I’ve gotten away from it. The idea is that you want to keep the scene moving forward smoothly instead of stopping it with a joke. A joke’s punchline is an artificial endpoint that stops progress, pulls focus from the scene, and forces everyone to reset. Are jokes always bad in improv? No, but they make everyone’s job harder, especially when more than one person is going for the joke in a scene. Then it’s a travesty.