BY: JAY REID
When The Making-Box launched Improv For Business in 2014, we didn’t anticipate that we would attract the attention of municipal governments and public sector organizations. Now having been resourced by the City of Guelph, Halton Hills, Richmond Hill and the City of Waterloo, it’s become clearer why municipal governments are keen on adopting an improv mindset. And while every region has its own unique qualities (at a community and organizational level), we have discovered some common pain points. Here are four challenges we perceive municipal governments are facing when it comes to team performance, and how we harness applied improv principles to help solve them.
But before we get to that... we’d like to acknowledge that municipal work isn’t easy. We’d like to fire a canon full of gratitude at all the people who spend their life’s energy running city services. Kaboom!
Challenge 1: How do we better equip ourselves to respond to rapid change and uncertainty?
“One of my team members (the biggest skeptic prior to the session) even suggested that we should use your tools in our team meetings over the next few months.” - Melissa Aldunate, Manager of Policy Planning Urban Design, City of Guelph
People don’t work at municipal organizations to get rich and retire at 25. By nature, they are full of service-oriented passionate people. People who share a daunting task: reacting to ever changing community need, technological shifts and multi-level election cycles while operating with constrained resources. It's a juggle of being nimble, creative and responsible. Government institutions aren’t often praised for their flexibility. However from our experience, many municipalities are addressing this by launching bold new strategic plans that intend to change the way they work and even change the way they change.
So how can applied improv training help? Theatrical improvisation is a display of innovation in real time. Improvisers use a highly refined framework of listening, connecting and responding to spontaneously create together under the pressure of time constraints, uncertainty and rapid change. This framework can be applied on-stage to create delightful scenes and off-stage to equip teams with an instinctual toolkit to better handle change.
Unlike most organizations, municipalities contend with scheduled change (elections, on three levels) as well as unpredictable changes, like senior leadership shifts. As a result, municipal organizations are often experiencing VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) which can create fear and stress among staff. The trouble is that being inundated with fear can cause inaction and that inaction can leave organizations further behind the curve. This is a vicious cycle that improv training can mitigate and train for. This is because improvisers regularly practice diving headfirst into the unknown. Improvisers don’t know what their next scene will be about, what that moment will require, or what actions they will need to take to find solutions and move things forward. From moment to moment, an improviser’s role is to assess what is needed (of the scene, our partners, the audience), be what is needed and communicate it with clarity. Therefore, improv practice acts as a fear-inoculant, exposure therapy for the change adverse and a friendly shake-up for those with long-standing civic tenure. After all, if we ignore our demons, they’ll hide in the basement and lift-weights.*
*This is paraphrased from Amanda Palmer, as heard here.
Challenge 2: How do we create an environment that respects a diversity of new ideas?
“Thank you for the amazing day yesterday. Everyone had a great time and learned a lot about communication and building a Yes Culture.” - Shelly Reed, Communications Consultant Corporate Services, City of Waterloo
Breaking the mold of organizational inertia and this-is-how-we-have-always-done-it attitude is not an easy task - and doubly so in a municipal setting. Some folks operate with the slingshot fully taught ready to poke holes in anything that doesn’t align with their immediate version of success. If this is the case (whether perceived or true) who would put themselves in front of the crosshairs and willingly present something new? “Not me!”, said everyone.
So, how do we begin to help foster an environment that respects new ideas? At The Making-Box, we’ll often start by testing and flexing a group’s ability to listen. Many mistakenly assume that extraversion and silliness are what make great improvisers. From our experience, the skill that offers you an advantage when new to improvisation is your ability to listen, or more specifically; your ability to attune yourself to someone else and the task at hand. Research shows that on average doctors interrupt their patients 18 seconds into the description of their symptoms. It’s easy to assume that interjections like this happen at city hall too. A pattern of interruption will reduce psychological safety, and many great ideas will never see the light of day.
“I attended with a teammate who is an introvert and you had her participating and laughing and raving about the session afterwards. I know it was great because you reached her.” - Laura Mousseau, City of Guelph, Communications
To address this, we practice improv exercises that move away from a mindset of listening to respond and towards a mindset of listening to understand. When we operate with this mindset, we see fewer interruptions and people feel more willing to share. It’s not easy. It takes practice to give attention and notice your own bad habits of half-listening and half-waiting for your chance to offer your preloaded reply. Furthermore, questions like “Is there anything more you’d like to add?” can ignite surprising results even when someone has finished speaking.
Next, let’s address that critic. In order for us to respect new ideas we need to suspend evaluation for a second or two. To do this, we introduce teams to the concept of a ‘Yes Culture’. “Yes” in this instance means acceptance, not agreement (the english language is limited in this way, where as some other languages have two words that clearly mark this distinction between acceptance and agreement).
Improv ensembles strive to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and confident in offering ideas, trusting their gut and being bold. When a group feels like their ideas will be listened to and accepted, judgement of their own ideas is relinquished, conversations become generative and creativity flourishes. It’s not a recipe of simply uttering the word “yes”, it’s rewiring the way you and your team approach others contributions (including the public’s) with your face, body, mind and messaging. Ultimately, a lot of good ideas can die between the brain and the mouth and fostering an environment where evaluation is temporarily postponed and creativity can flourish are key to respecting a diversity of bold new ideas.
Challenge 3: How do we build trust within and between our teams?
“I am new to the team and definitely feel like more of a member after this exercise.”
- Ruvani Shaubel, Internal Auditor, City of Guelph
At The Making-Box we often say that improv is like gasoline on friendship fire. Time and time again, people leave improv sessions sharing comments like, “I am surprised about how quickly I felt safe to truly be myself here” or “I feel like everyone has my back and is ready to support me even when I am struggling”. The economic and interpersonal value of trust is well documented, so let’s talk about how improv principles can help establish it.
It’s easy to assume that once we establish trust, we can then be vulnerable, open, honest and free. However, from our experience the opposite is true. Vulnerability begets trust, not the other way around. Improvising (especially for the first time) is intimidating because it means subjecting ourselves to a vulnerable state. How we respond to other’s vulnerability is where trust is established and grows. Those new to improv often presume that the comedy in improv is derived from players making it difficult for each other. Generally the opposite is true. Improvisers operate with the mindset of make your partner look good. Choices are made in the interest of supporting others and the team. When focus is placed here, we also worry less about how we as individuals are perceived. You can’t be grateful and angry simultaneously. Similarly, you can’t make your partner look good and be worrying about how you look. When teams adopt the practice of making our partner look good the benefits of high-trust relationships are realized.
“An inspirational session that reinforced basic fundamental principles of healthy communication within a team working environment.” - Samantha Howard, Manager of Recreation Services, Halton Hills
Reframing Mistakes and Overcoming The Fear of Failure
In nearly all Improv For Business sessions we do an exercise called Threees. It’s played in pairs and while everyone dives in, facilitators move about the room observing. From across the room we can tell when pairs mess up and make mistakes. We see them go from concentration, to collective laughter, then they restart the game and resume concentration. In short, they laugh together and they move on. When the game is done, we highlight this because this isn’t generally how we approach mistakes outside of improv. The intent of this game is to get people practicing mistakes and acknowledging when perfection stops us from progress. In improv, we treat mistakes as gifts, an opportunity to observe unexpected results and flex a new muscle. Through practice we expose ourselves to failure, removing the sting and practicing the follow-through, so when stakes are higher we’re able to cope.
Last, let's explore improv as a vehicle to practice relinquishing control - yes, we’re talking to you micromanagers! It becomes painfully clear when we improvise together, who isn’t ready to relinquish control of their idea or who is coming in with canned responses that don’t fit the given context. These instances are clear evidence of people who lack trust in themselves or others to contribute effectively. Improv training is a safer space to highlight and reshape tendencies for control. In order to get out of that rut, people often need a break from their script.
CHALLENGE 4: How do we have fun along the way and do it in a way that is inclusive?
“What a win! Educational, informative, engaging and fun. We learned about ourselves and each other and continue to use the techniques we practiced. Thank you to the dynamic facilitators who help everyone feel comfortable.” - Meeta Gandhi, Director, Communication Services Town of Richmond Hill
The most common concern clients have when engaging in improv training is that it won’t be a good fit for all-personality types. Strangely, what’s even more common is how surprised managers are when Too-Shy-Terry and Too-Cool-Teresa are both really into it. Most individuals perceive improv training to be a challenging on the outset. We perceive this as a benefit. Think of an escape room that took you three minutes to solve - not fun. Now think of an escape room that no one thought you’d be able solve but somehow you did and in the process you laughed so hard you cried. When people leave an improv training session, they often feel like they went on a journey together, a journey where they discovered something within themselves and the team they never knew they had.
“ It was amazing to see all levels of the organization together and so engaged in the event The Making-Box delivered.” -Anna Marie Cipriani, Executive Officer to the Chief Administrative Officer, City of Waterloo
Improv training also offers participants a great deal of autonomy, making it incredibly accessible to a diverse set of unique needs and preferences. Participants have an opportunity to mold each exercise to best fit them in that moment. Exercises take place in pairs, small groups and all at once. There is no performance, spotlighting or roleplaying in an introductory Improv For Business session. Furthermore, participants generate the content that drives each exercise, so every iteration is unique to them.
We’ve been talking about improv pretty seriously here. It makes sense, governmental work is high-stakes. That said, no team can sustain operating effectively white-knuckling for 40-60 hours a week. Improv has a unique ability to catalyze playfulness and there’s value in that alone. If you experience an improv session, you’ll quickly see how it ignites a child-like joy in adults that is often hidden.