The Following 3 articles about the importance of Improvisation in Business appeared in the New York Times-RA
Can Executives Learn to Ignore the Script?
By JANET RAE-DUPREE
Published: March 2, 2008
MANAGERS striving to foster creativity often use the time-worn phrase “thinking outside the box” to encourage workers to come up with something nobody else in the room is thinking. But the improvisational actress Patricia Ryan Madson has a better idea: Look inside the box and take a fresh look at what’s already there.
The author of “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up,” Ms. Madson helps organizations find new ways to play off one another in an unscripted romp toward what might be. Turning the planning process inside out, she says, is an important part of learning how best to “ready, fire, aim.”
“We’re all creators given the conditions and permission to do so,” she says. “All too often, there are corporate cultures that say: ‘Be creative, but don’t make any mistakes.’ Improv opens doors to doing things a different way.”
In workshops and seminars, improv consultants pull stodgy executives to their feet, creating novel situations to which they must react, encouraging them to move their bodies, jump, say wild things, clap or sing or dance, play with toys, sit on desks, crawl on the floor and generally provide crazy-seeming new points of view. Tension melts away. Competition takes a back seat. And new ideas miraculously start to flow.
That’s not to say that every business brainstorming session should turn into a stand-up comedy skit. But the openness and playfulness that characterize improvisational acting can create a sense of cooperation and affirmation that is foreign to highly competitive workplaces. When one worker actively shoots down another’s ideas to help his or her own ideas win, nascent notions that could develop into something brilliant die on the vine.
Instead, Ms. Madson and other improv consultants, including a team out of Portland, Ore., called On Your Feet, are hoping to create what Ms. Madson calls “a culture of ‘yes.’ ”
“Saying yes sounds implicit, but it’s profound,” she says. Barriers go up in front of fresh ideas within moments of their creation, leading to an atmosphere of “we can’t do that,” she says. “The improv idea of saying yes from the start,” she adds, “allows business folks to entertain things that would ordinarily get axed out.”
Ms. Madson has been a senior lecturer in drama at Stanford since 1977; her interest in using improvisation to improve business and education evolved slowly. Brilliant as they were, Stanford students were very good at giving what they perceived as the correct answer to a question, but became much shakier when asked to come up with original answers.
Too often, the student mind — not to mention the business mind — is looking for a formula to latch onto that will provide tried-and-true ways of solving problems. But that can block fresh ways of viewing a situation.
Ms. Madson found that teaching students to respond quickly to what’s already in front of them helped to shake new ideas loose. “Certainly it’s useful for actors,” she notes. “But executives and engineers and people in transition are looking for support in saying yes to their own voice. Often, the systems we put in place to keep us secure are keeping us from our more creative selves.”
Improvisational thinking can open the door to what others call “happy accidents.” There are many examples. The molecule that eventually became Viagra originally was developed to treat hypertension, and later angina. When it failed to do much for either of those conditions, Pfizer nearly killed it. But researchers intrigued by the molecule’s side effects ultimately won permission to continue developing the drug as a treatment for erectile dysfunction.
Even On Your Feet is a result of a spontaneous “happy mistake,” its founders note. “On a wet November Saturday in 1996,” they say on its Web site at www.oyf.com, “two unsuspecting bald guys with glasses met at a bakery in Portland, Oregon, to talk about a T-shirt and instead, by complete accident, formed a consultancy that uses improvisation and other experiential techniques to help organizations create, relate and communicate, all while having a ridiculously good time.”
The firm now employs the talents of “an ex ad planner, an anthropologist, two yoga teachers, a handful of improvisers, marketing executives, a snow cone baron and a former mail carrier/biochemist.” They live in places as varied as Portland, London, Dublin and El Hornillo, Spain.
Robert Poynton, a co-founder, says in an upcoming book that everything from building a house to double-entry bookkeeping requires a generous dollop of spontaneous action to be successful. “For all its accomplishments, indeed, perhaps because of them, the modern world is far from stable,” Mr. Poynton says in an online excerpt from the book, titled “A Turtle and a Guitar Case: Improvisation and the Joys of Uncertainty.” “If anything,” he says, “we know rather less about what is coming next, and how it will affect us, than our ancestors did.”
And so the more spontaneously we respond — the more improvisational we are — the more likely we are to stumble across new and improved methods for resolving problems.
The On Your Feet site tells the story of what it calls a “cool mistake”: “Josephine Dickson married a man who worked for a company that manufactured gauze and adhesive tape. Josephine Dickson was accident-prone. During the first week that she was married to Earle Dickson, she cut herself twice with the kitchen knife. After that, it just went from bad to worse. It seemed that Josephine was always cutting herself. One day her husband had an idea. He sat down with some tape and gauze and a pair of scissors. Then he cut the tape into strips. In the middle of each strip he stuck a little square of gauze. Hence the birth of Band-Aids.”
Even the best-planned businesses can fail, Ms. Madson notes. Improvisers avoid spinning their wheels because they see quickly what isn’t working or, simultaneously, what might be successful that didn’t occur to them at first. Improvisers, by definition, take risks and make mistakes, lots of them, but that’s what leads them in fresh directions.
She acknowledges that it can be hard to wrap the business mind around improv, because improvisers don’t dwell on the future. “The future takes care of itself if we’re building constructively right now,” she says. “You’re throwing out planning as the primary mode of work, but it doesn’t mean you don’t then use known strategies and systems to move forward.”
Mike Kwatinetz, a venture capitalist who is co-founder and general partner at Azure Capital Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., says he believes that improvisational thinking gets new companies rolling in the right direction. “For these young companies, and hopefully forever, you want to have changes all the time,” Mr. Kwatinetz said. “You want to be reacting to what you’re seeing and what you’re doing right and where it’s not working and react to that to try something different.”
Besides, he says, “if you’re working at a job as intensely as we do, you’d better be enjoying yourself.”
Corner Office: Mark Fuller
WET Design and the Improv Approach to ListeningBy ADAM BRYANT
Published: April 16, 2011
This interview with Mark Fuller, C.E.O. (which stands for chief excellence officer) of WET Design, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What’s unusual about your company’s culture?
A. We have three classrooms and a full-time curriculum director who teaches all the time and also brings in outside instructors. One of the really fun classes we do is improv.
Q. Why improv?
A. Improv, if properly taught, is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. I was noticing that we didn’t have a lot of good communication among our people.
If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening.
That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.
So I got this crazy idea of bringing in someone to teach an improv class. At first, everybody had an excuse, because it’s kind of scary to stand up in front of people and do this. But now we’ve got a waiting list because word has spread that it’s really cool.
You’re in an emotionally naked environment. It’s like we’re all the same. We all can look stupid. And it’s an amazing bonding thing, plus it’s building all these communication skills. You’re sort of in this gray space of uncertainty. Most of us don’t like to be uncertain — you know, most of us like to be thinking what we’re going to say next. You get your mind into a space where you say, “I’m really enjoying that I don’t know what he’s going to ask me next, and I’m going to be open and listening and come back.”
We’ve got graphic designers, illustrators, optical engineers, Ph.D. chemists, special effects people, landscape designers, textile designers. You get all these different disciplines that typically you would never find under one roof — even making a movie — and so you have to constantly be finding these ways to have people connect.
So we do things like improv, and I think they really have developed our culture.
Q. What else?
A. We also encourage people to put their ideas on our walls. Or if you’ve got a drawing, you can stick a couple of magnets on it. The point is to get people to put their stuff out where other people can see it. We don’t want a culture of, “That’s my idea. I don’t want anybody to see it. Maybe they’ll find a flaw in it.”
I had a teacher once who said, “Whenever you guys are sitting here, and you realize that you’ve made a mistake on something you’re working with, I want you to applaud yourself.” He said: “That will accomplish a couple of things. First of all, instead of saying, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, I’m never going to learn this stuff anyway,’ you’re going to reward yourself because you caught the mistake before I did.” We all rolled our eyes in the class, but I’ve never forgotten that.
So one of the things I will do is to start some meetings by saying, “Let me tell you where I just screwed up.” That sets the tone of, we’ve got to put our mistakes out there. They don’t call it “learn by trial and success.” You learn by trial and error.
Q. What else have you done through the years to set the tone for your culture?
A. Early on, I decided that whenever somebody comes into my office and starts blaming something on another department, I will say: “Really? Let’s get them in here. Hold that thought.” It’s just like with your children at home — you don’t want serial tattletaling. You get everybody together, and then suddenly people are saying that maybe they exaggerated a bit, and things weren’t quite as bad as they said.
I’ve been in environments where a C.E.O. will sit back and try to watch a gladiator match for entertainment. That’s totally not cool. It’s so common, I think, in corporate life. You want to have the conversation and say: “O.K., what really went wrong here? There’s three of us in this room. We’re going to fix this thing. How do we do it?”
Q. You’ve clearly thought a lot about cultures and how to get people to work together.
A. I really love coming to work to develop the workplace and the team. I think it’s either a virtuous or a vicious spiral, and it’s exposed when you go to hire somebody.
To get really good talent, you need to be doing interesting stuff. Take a great kid out of college or somebody from another company — they’re not going to come if there’s not something really interesting to work on. I suppose you could throw gobs of money at them or something, but that’s not the idea. So you need to build the company so you have great talent, and great projects, and a great environment. You get those three, and then they just feed off of each other.
Q. I’ll keep asking: What else is unusual about your company?
A. One thing we do is we move people around a lot into different positions. And quite honestly, it’s pretty unsettling because everybody loves to be comfortable. I think we’re built that way. Find your cave, and draw some nice picture of a mammoth on the wall so it feels like home.
Most of my key people have held really different positions. That helps prevent these silos and fiefdoms that tend to get sclerotically reinforced over time in companies when people say: “Oh, the fifth floor is engineering. You don’t go up there without a hall pass.”
The world is driven by change, so part of my job, I think, is to stir things up.
Q. But at what level are you moving people around? You’re not taking the Ph.D. chemist and saying, “Learn sheet metal,” are you?
A. Not full time. We do take all of our key employees and put them through an immersion program that typically lasts six weeks. I can show you some great receptionists who are pretty darn good welders because they spent a week or two in the machine shop. They get it, and they understand what’s going on. Again, they’re not permanent assignments for everybody, but it’s really about walking in the other person’s shoes to understand their job.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What are you looking for? What questions do you ask?
A. There are two questions I would definitely ask after we’d been talking for a while. One is, “Do you like to read?” and, “What do you like to read?” I’m an unbelievable reader. Jeff Bezos is in the black only because of Mark Fuller’s daily Amazon orders.
And then I will ask: “What do you build? Do you do anything with your hands? Do you have a hobby? Pottery? Do you fix old cars? Do you have any kind of a shop in your garage? Do you play an instrument?” I’m listening for something tangible — something that tells me you’re not just all about work. I really value intellect, but I like people who are connected with real stuff, too.
Q. Are you asking that of everybody, even, say, a finance chief?
A. I do. If a finance person chops motorcycles or likes to repair his own computer when it breaks, they’ll have a connection to our technical people or our hands-on people as opposed to somebody who’s just Mr. Spreadsheet.
Q. Can you talk more about the qualities you’re looking for?
A. There’s sort of four things when you’re interviewing somebody. There’s passion and commitment. If you’ve got that, you can go a long way.
The next one is I.Q. I mean, you’re kind of born with that. So we look for signs of a high I.Q.
The third one is the one that most people focus on, which is explicit knowledge and experience. That’s actually the one thing that’s easiest to fix. I mean, you can pour knowledge into somebody’s head, and you can build experience over time. We try to get a blend there. We don’t want all just fresh kids out of school because then you’re inventing everything over and over again. So we also like some seniority and experience.
And then the fourth one is the negative category: we look for X factors. We may even try to prod them a little bit. Do they have a hair-trigger temper? Have they got an ego that’s going to get in the way? Those are our interview criteria.
Q. What else do you look for in an interview?
A. I like to find out what makes people laugh, because if people don’t have a sense of humor, if they can’t laugh, they’re really just not going to make it.
I also like to take people we’re considering for a key position on a tour of WET. I’ll take maybe an hour and a half, and I’ll listen for their level of curiosity. It tells me a lot. So most of my interview is actually walking around in the tour.
Q. And how long does it take you to get a sense of whether the person’s right or not?
A. I can tell pretty fast, and those are sometimes shorter tours.
Hotel Chains Try Training With Improv and iPods
By JANE L. LEVERE Published: September 6, 2010
Before two luxury hotels, the Andaz 5th Avenue in Manhattan and the Elysian Hotel in Chicago, opened their doors in recent months, both added something extra to their usual employee training practices: they hired improvisational comedy experts.
The Benjamin, an upscale business travel hotel also in New York, took a similar tack to help its staff better serve guests, offering them a series of life-coaching sessions this summer.
Other hotel brands — including Hilton Garden Inn, Aloft, Homewood Suites and SpringHill Suites — are using devices like iPods and the Sony PlayStation Portable to help with staff training.
The courses, which are offered in addition to more traditional classroom and online training, are part of an effort by hotels to distinguish their brand, said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.
“There are 228 hotel brands in the United States, and the two ways to be distinctive are design and service,” he said. “Service can be a great differentiator.” Hotels, he added, “are in a period of experimentation. Some brands are employing skills unrelated to the lodging industry to transform service styles and delivery.”
The use of devices like iPods and the PlayStation Portable in training has a couple of advantages, hotel executives say. The devices appeal to younger employees, who, in many cases, already use them at home. The content is also relatively inexpensive to create.
Homewood Suites has spent as much as $250,000 to create a 20-minute training DVD, said Dawn Koenig, vice president for brand performance support at the chain. A 20-minute video iPod training module, meanwhile, costs $30,000 to $50,000, which means it is also cheaper to update and translate into languages other than English.
Tom Yorton, chief executive of Second City Communications, which provides improvisation and other training to corporate clients, said “the Web has shaped how people learn.” Teaching, he added, “has to be shorter, punchier, more entertaining and more interactive.” Second City Communications is a subsidiary of the Second City, the Chicago improvisational theater.
The Elysian, a luxury hotel that opened last December, hired Billy Bungeroth, a resident director at the Second City and a freelance improv teacher, to work with employees in sales, catering, security, concierge and other positions.
The goal was to foster “intuitive service,” said Jennifer Lee, the Elysian’s learning and development director. “Service by most luxury hotels is based on scripts. We want our people to have interactions with guests; improv gave them tools that enabled them to be successful with their intuition.”
The needs of the Andaz 5th Avenue, which opened in July, were different from the Elysian’s: Andaz hotels (part of Hyatt) do not have registration desks or traditional employees like porters, front desk workers or concierges. Rather, they employ “hosts,” who greet guests as they arrive, check them in and cater to their needs.
“Guests come from all angles, and training needs to be unconventional,” said Jonathan Frolich, general manager of the Andaz 5th Avenue.
Thus, the hotel hired Chicago City Limits, an improvisational group in New York that also does corporate training, to develop a course to improve hosts’ communications skills, help them read guests’ body language and establish an immediate rapport with guests, said Linda Gelman, the group’s producer.
This summer, the Benjamin hired the Handel Group, an executive coaching company, to offer a series of life-coaching sessions to 10 staff members, including the general manager, sales and marketing executives and members of the wait staff. The goal of the sessions, said the hotel’s general manager, Andrew Labetti, was to help employees “set goals for their lives, set dreams of how they want their life to be.” He added, “If we help staff make real changes in their lives, create wellness for themselves, this will affect the guest experience.”
Marriott’s SpringHill Suites and Homewood Suites, an extended-stay Hilton brand, both were pioneers in using devices for staff training, starting in 2007. SpringHill Suites uses the Sony PSP and Homewood, video iPods. Aloft, a midprice Starwood brand, began using iPods to train its staff in early 2009, while Hilton Garden Inn began using the PSP for training last year.
Kathy Crabtree, director of design and development for SpringHill Suites and other Marriott brands, acknowledged that one risk of these devices is that they can depersonalize training. “The use of technology is important, but we will never go strictly to technology,” she said.
Hotels are looking to the new forms of training to “make their learning stick,” said Ron Doney, a former Marriott executive who now is president of Think Up Consulting in Greenville, S.C., which specializes in corporate training and advises SpringHill Suites and other hotel brands.
“The more engaging and fun training is for adults, the easier it is to recall memorable concepts when they need to on the job,” he said.