Applying improv to business, storytelling, and what-have-you (part 1)

See part 2 here of my experience at the AIN2006 Applied Improv conference. See part 3 here and part 4 here.

Last week I went to AIN2006, the annual conference of the Applied Improv Network. This was my first time attending any such conference, and I was a little uncertain what to expect. Indeed, since the event was local I hedged my bets somewhat by picking carefully what sessions I wanted to attend and passing on the banquet/comedy night/scavenger hunt/etc. More on the overall experience later.

I showed up (faint with hunger, and late since I was at school that evening) at the end of the pre-conference day for an evening of mixer stuff. The energy was very positive as different people led the room (of maybe 60 people) through a range of exercises. In one, we had a bingo card with different personal characteristics (“likes country and western,” “allergic to cats,” “commutes across a bridge”) and we had to fill the cells with names. Good ice-breaker, as people would exchange with each other rather than name-and-bolt. Although there was some eager shoving that was a bit surprising. In another game we had to close our eyes, fold our arms to our body, and walk to the center of the room, and when you encountered someone else you could attract or repel, eventually we ended up as a coagulated mob in the middle of the room. This was very challenging; both to keep your eyes closed, and to allow an incredible violation of social distance. Indeed, by having my eyes closed gave me some permission to violate the norm, since I could somehow surrender any responsibility. When I was surrounded by people on either side and could not choose where to move, I had to accept that other people were touching me, and just let it happen. I was intrigued to notice where my own boundaries were, and what the triggers were (or mitigating factors), but much of the debrief emphasized the sensual nature of experience, with lots of giggling. Perhaps many of those folks knew each other and had spent the day together, and were at a different point of trust than I was, having just walked in.

The sessions I attended were less experiential than that (although all were far more participatory and physical than anything I’ve done at any other conference). Andrew Welch talked about improv applied to quadrants (one person next to me asked me sotto voce “what’s a quadrant?”). I don’t know if that term is local to the improv world, to the type of leadership consulting Andrew does, or what. Quadrants in this case refers to some 2 x 2 model, two perpendicular axes that lead to a four quadrant model representing behavior, goals, personality types, or whatever.

Andrew asked the group (most of whom seemed to be some type of applied improv training facilitator consultant) what the challenges are in “our” industry that don’t seem to go away. And the answers were amazingly consistent with what I’ve heard in any sort of consulting discussion (design, user experience, usability, ethnography, etc.). Clients ask for the world, but have no time. Clients want to change culture, or behavior, but have no budget. This dovetailed into an exercise about how to explain and sell services to a prospective client; there’s something very universal about these challenges, although as usual, the default is to beat up clients for not “getting it” and I’m pretty tired of that rhetoric.

Andrew introduced the difference between a problem, and a polarity. If there’s no upside, then it’s a problem. If there is an upside, it’s a polarity. Take gossip for an example – there are benefits to gossip; there’s a reason people do it and get something out of it. A problem, in his framework, was something like a conveyor belt that wasn’t wide enough to accommodate the pizza. Cultural issues were almost always going to be polarities, it seems.

Problem solving:

  • Working towards a final answer, decision, or outcome
  • Requires an Either/Or mindset
  • Policies, rules, facts, solution to problem

Polarity Management:

  • Managing unsolvable problems, optimizing the tension between 2 interdependent opposites
  • Requires a Both/And mindset
  • Stability and Change; Activity and Rest; Planning and Action

This frame-shift was presented as a key to more effective leadership.

In the second half of his talk, Andrew started with a curious exercise. He ran four scenes with two people who had a certain relationship and a certain location. In the first version, the actors were given the location and relationship. In the second version (I tried this one), one actor knew the relationship and the other actor knew the location. In the third version, an audience member knew both and would ding a bell if the dialog was “right”, and in the fourth version the actors drew dialog from slips of paper to constantly evolve the entire story.

This demonstrated four different problem types:
KNOWN: Both players knew who and where
KNOWABLE: Players could learn who and where from each other
COMPLEX: Players could possibly discern who and where (in hindsight) by probing
CHAOTIC: Who and where were unpredictable, as was dialogue

and with that comes four different approaches to problem solving:
KNOWN: Sense – Categorize – Respond
KNOWABLE: Sense – Analyze – Respond
COMPLEX: Probe – Sense – Respond
CHAOTIC: Act – Sense – Respond

[and part of the point here was the use of improv to demonstrate this model more tangibly than a basic slide deck, or say, um, a blog entry]

There were certain types of jobs that tended strongly towards one of these types
KNOWN: Sense – Categorize – Respond — Loan officer, FDA inspector
KNOWABLE: Sense – Analyze – Respond — Architect
COMPLEX: Probe – Sense – Respond — Kindergarten teacher
CHAOTIC: Act – Sense – Respond — Firefighter

This is known as The Cynefin Framework.

Both of these models remind me of to Wicked Problems, a framework I was excited to encounter (though admittedly I haven’t found any way to apply it other than in conversation).

I’ll describe the other talks and the conference in general in subsequent posts.


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