Transformational Play

On January 31st I was invited by my colleague Cheng Zeng (pictured above on the bottom row holding a bottle of wine) to lead an improvisational play session with people who were quarantined throughout China. The last thing I thought of that day was that 6 weeks later I, too, would be sheltering in place due to the COVID19 pandemic. Since then, I have been awed by the transformational power of play.

As a faculty member of the East Side Institute, I began to lead free play sessions with co-facilitators from around the world. We had sessions with more than 100 people playing together across borders, sharing our emotions and experiences in a virtual space. I also ran some smaller play sessions with facilitators, coaches, drama therapists, activists and educators to offer training in how to use play to help people connect and build community during these trying times in our world.

A human resources leader who I had worked with in the past, joined one of these sessions and subsequently brought me in to run a play session for employees who are struggling with the isolation of working from home, away from coworkers and who were experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety. This same HR leader introduced me to a colleague of hers, and when I thanked her she responded, “I’m happy to pass along your services because you really are helping people through an important time in our nation’s history.” This is the power of play.

Over the past few months, I have volunteered, along with an amazing group of play and performance activists, improvisers, clowns, musicians, educators and therapists, to create the Global Play Brigade. We are now a grouping of 160 activists from over 40 countries. We believe that integrating and utilizing play, improvisation, clown, theater and therapeutics into everyday life is a vital methodology for creating hope, possibility, emotional well-being and development.

Sometimes people view play as frivolous or about “having fun,” but I like to say that play is serious business! In play we can be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming at the same time. We can be isolated, anxious, frightened, angry and upset and yet – we can perform. We can play with all of the difficulties in our world to create new responses, new emotions and new ways to come together with our differences to create a better world.

Rx for the Isolation of Coronavirus Quarantine? A Healthy Dose of Improv and Performance!

My colleague and friend, Cheng Zeng and I were invited to author a guest blog by Dr. Lois Holzman, Director of the East Side Institute. Cheng Zeng is an Applied Improvisation Practitioner, facilitator, speaker, and corporate trainer based in Beijing. He is the founder of China Applied Improvisation Institute. He is dedicated to building a community full of love, trust and compassion. He would love to be the bridge which connects China to the world with Play, Performance and Improvisation. and

Cheng: The Chinese lunar new year of the Mouse should have been a time for family reunions. Unfortunately, a devastating coronavirus has spread all across China, and as I write at 18:15 pm on February 4, 2020 more than 20,520 people are diagnosed with infection, 426 passed away.

A daughter cannot reach for her mother; as she is taken away, she sits outside the ambulance crying. A new mother has to send her one-month old baby to the hospital suffering. Many people isolate themselves or are being isolated at this important and usually joyful festival in China. So many doctors and nurses are fighting to protect their patients, to protect this country day and night.

I started to think about what I could do to help people at this moment, as people are isolated and have lots of burdens and fears. How could I help shift attention from the fear to something fun? Fun is the opposite of the fear. To transform the fear would be a chance for us to learn and grow together. I decided to start an online improv program to engage people from China and from around the world, to have a flow of the people I’ve met from different places join us. I invited my friends, students, and partners to play online, one session after another, and so far more than 300 people have participated in four webinars.

I could not have done this at this scale without help of my friends like Marian, Cathy Salit, Gary Schwartz, Sarah Hubner and many other friends from the Applied Improvisation Network. I am inspired by the ideas and suggestions that were shared by AINers, Even though we might not know each other, their support and compassion really enriches my spirit.

No doubt we will be so weak if we exposed ourselves to the virus, so many online participants haven’t gone outside for quite a long time, but we have seen many beautiful smiling faces through camera! There is no fear while there are smiles and laughter.

We people, unlike a virus, are undefeatable because we have love, we have belief, we have wisdom and connection, and these strengths are continuously made even stronger by these sessions.

We can hardly forget a single moment when being together. When we perform, we empathize with each other. We learn how to play, perform, build interesting characters and scenes together. We create stories and we cannot help but laugh at what we’ve created. I can feel how we touch each other on the screen, breathing and living in a same (virtual) space. We are not isolated!

Marian: I saw the post Cheng shared on the AIN Facebook page asking for some ideas and posted a comment with some suggestions. He quickly invited me to lead a session in English. I felt so honored and immediately said yes!

Cheng asked me to think about play online that could release anxiety. I borrowed a warm-up exercise from Elena Boukouvala, a Greek drama therapist, practitioner of social therapeutics and dear colleague, in which people share their name and a gesture and a sound or word to describe how they are feeling. Then the group mirrors that back all together. People expressed frustration, nervousness, unhappiness, loneliness, boredom, sadness and being constrained. One participant held up a book of improv games and shared that she was teaching her family to play improv games. Commenting on how it felt to be online together, people said they were happy, curious, interested and touched.

We played a mirroring game and laughed together. We played a game called “Hype (Wo)Man” where we asked a participant their favorite thing about themselves and then we had volunteers “blow it up/hype it” as a way to celebrate each other. Rita shared that she likes her honesty and someone responded playfully, “She tells everyone true things, even private things!” Rita shared that she felt encouraged to be proud of her honesty. Then we had volunteers perform a few scenes playing the game “Fortunately/Unfortunately.” Two women created a wonderful scene about taking the chance to go outside wearing face masks, “Fortunately we have face masks.” “Unfortunately, they give me a skin rash.” Back and forth they went, and we saw how a difficult situation can be transformed, as the person who had to say “Fortunately” was always able to share something positive. We talked about our ability to feel something while at the same time deciding how we want to perform.

We ended our session with everyone holding their hands in the shape of a heart and created “our beating hearts” together. It was very intimate and truly heartfelt.

Cheng: I was deeply touched and moved by the participants. They may feel nervous, upset or sorrowful before the meeting, but after they perform, they are laughing, they feel an excitement. Relaxing online transformed what they were feeling one hour ago. A teacher told me she immediately applied what she learned online to her students in an online classroom, sharing, “It works really well!” We can spread fun and happiness faster than the virus!

No one can or should be alone to face such a big challenge and because of the virus we are staying closer to one another. Turning circumstances from unfortunate to fortunate, we need to play and think differently. We find something positive – we can spend more time with our families, we can stay at home instead of being stuck in traffic to go to work! Yay! These improv sessions change our thoughts!

In the year of the Mouse, when the coronavirus is spreading out in the world, people from different cultures and nationalities of this world are spreading empathy, love and trust faster than the virus. We are helping people to shift public attention from fear of the virus and sickness in themselves to more positive energy and emotions, and that is where our hope is.

Can We Talk?

Watching Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show kept me up past my bedtime as an adolescent and teenager. Although I loved Johnny, it was his (groundbreaking) substitute host, Joan Rivers who inspired me. I loved imitating her signature question, “Can we talk?”

Can we talk about conversation?

During an interview with journalist David Brooks, NBC’s Mike Barnicle shared his perspective on this topic: “We live in a no eye contact nation.” In business, politics, and family life we have to make an extra effort to talk to one another without the interference of a technology platform. One effective way to talk to anyone (whether or not we “agree”) is to follow our curiosity – that makes for great conversation.

Sara McMahon/Radha Ganesan

Can we talk about human connection?

Last month the Applied Improvisation Network held its annual conference at Stony Brook University in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Alda, the featured speaker, engaged in a rich dialogue with Dr. Laura Lindenfeld (Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science) and Aretha Sills, teacher of improvisational theatre and granddaughter of Viola Spolin. Spolin’s methods, discoveries, and writings gave birth to the modern improvisational theater movement. Spolin’s son and Aretha’s father, Paul Sills, co-founded The Second City and created Story Theater, among other accomplishments. Alda reminded the international audience of applied improv practitioners of the human need for connection, “We want to hear stories.” Through improvisational play we, “discover ourselves in the other’s eyes.”

Can we talk about open space?

After two days of open space offerings at the Global Improvisation Initiative conference in London in May, I’ve become a fan. Open space technology is a powerful tool for engaging large and small groups of people in discussions to explore particular questions or issues. It can be used with groups of 10 to 1,000 people. In contrast with pre-planned conferences where presentations are scheduled months in advance, participants self-organize to create their own agenda, allowing a dynamic and immediate response to the issues at hand. Open space is participant-driven, requiring discussion and dialogue amongst attendees. How can open space foster more conversation and creativity in your organization?

Can we talk?

Let’s have a conversation about what you’re working on and how I can help. SCHEDULE A CALL TODAY! 

Hire Potential

Partnering with a great hiring manager is an executive search consultant’s dream. I’ve been fortunate to work with outstanding leaders over the last few months, and in all three projects I placed candidates who will be growing into their new roles. They were all hired for their potential, a successful strategy and approach to talent acquisition and management.

Nearing the end of a search for a VP Product Management role reporting to the Chief Experience Officer of a technology-driven financial services company, the hiring manager received some pushback regarding a leading candidate’s lack of “leadership experience,” as this VP will be tasked with building and growing a new team. I emailed my client to ask if he was, likewise, concerned. I received this response:

You are never going to find someone with 15 years of large-scale leadership experience and the energy to drive the product vision and strategy at pace we want. The good news is the leadership part is reachable if you have the right attitude and create the right environment. The environment part is on me. This is an advantage of stewardship, which people just don’t get. Hire the smartest person you can find, empower them and steward their growth areas. It is not a concept most understand or trust. It requires a very fundamental trust and belief in your team.

I was inspired reading his email, given my training and practice in an improvisational approach to human development. Attention to the environment, empowerment and stewarding growth is so incredibly critical and so often ignored. It reminded me of an important statement about education by one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the East Side Institute, where I am a faculty member:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.

I was also reminded of a favorite quote from Viola Spolin, an important innovator in 20th century American theater and creator of theatre games, “The heart of improvisation is transformation.”

Looking at these 5 Practices for Transformational Leaders*,I imagine these as best practices for improvisers as well as business leaders:

  1. Pause to move faster.
  2. Embrace your ignorance.
  3. Radically reframe the questions.
  4. Set direction, not destination.
  5. Test your solutions, and yourself.

(* Excerpted from “Leading with inner agility,” by San Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2018, that appeared in Executive Talent, the Global Magazine from the Association of Executive Search Consultants article, Transformational Leadership: The Other Side of Disruption)

Happily, and not surprisingly, these are some of the new approaches for hiring in the 21stcentury. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Hire Leaders for What they Can Do. Not for What They Have Done, authors Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic sum up their approach to hiring for potential:

In today’s ever-changing world, businesses are expected to grow as fast as the technologies surrounding them. Their models must be in constant transformation. What worked in the past and what is working in the present may not work at all in the future. Companies, then, need to get more comfortable thinking outside the box. This means taking “misfits” or “people who think differently” and placing them into leadership roles. Give them support and time to prove themselves. This is just one way to deepen your leadership pipeline.

You should also take an extra look at the people who “may not be ready,” and analyze them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion for your business. Often the youngest, most agile, and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best.

It’s time to rethink the notion of leadership. If you move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get you where you want to go, your company will thrive. In other words, start considering those who have high potential, not just top performers.

In the language of improvisation, I give this a hearty “yes, and …” !

Play at Work!

More and more people in business, academia and psychology are recognizing the importance of play throughout our life span. Why do adults need to play? We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. In play we create joy and laughter – we can go beyond ourselves.

As a play advocate, I was recently inspired by three days at The Association for the Study of Play conference last week. Sessions like Play Diplomacy; Therapeutic Play; and Physics, Philosophy and Psychology: Play is More Than Everyone Thinks gave expression to the ongoing recognition of the value of play for human beings and our well being.

Why play at work?

Every year Gallup polls show that over 50% of our workforce is disengaged. Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. I am an advocate for play at work.

In the abstract of their article, Play at Work: An Integrative Review and Agenda for Future Research, Claire Petelczyc and her research colleagues make this observation:

“Play has gained increasing interest among progressive-minded managers as an important driver of motivation and productivity in work contexts.”

Play at work improves employee engagement and morale, and therefore productivity. When we play, we do things without knowing how. That is increasingly important, given that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Improvising is a form of adult play. Through improvisational activities, adults cultivate active listening skills and spontaneity, social-emotional intelligence and the ability to think on one’s feet, get out of your head and be present. Allowing time for playful learning and development activities at work opens up new possibilities and unleashes everyone’s innate creativity.

Keith Sawyer, an internationally known scientific expert on creativity, collaboration, and learning argues that companies will struggle to be innovative if they don’t have some ability for bottom-up, collaborative improvisational emergence to take place. In other words, improvisational play drives innovation in the workplace.

Play allow us to be who we are and who we are not, which is how human beings develop. We can create something new from what exists. We can play at being who we are becoming.

For more information on how to bring play into your workplace with ImprovNetworking, a playground for social development, please drop me a note. Join me in advocating for play!

Can We Talk about Small Talk?
Macmillan Dictionary Blog

Has the art of conversation slipped away from us? The Chief Data Officer of a fintech company wants her data scientists to do a better job of telling the story behind the data. A Customer Service leader wants to develop more empathy within his team. A client shares her concern that her teenage children spend much of their time in “head-down” conversation (i.e., texting) and less time in face-to-face interactions.

While many executives excel in interpersonal communication, it is still the case that others struggle with the soft skills – networking, building relationships and collaborating with others. It turns out that small talk is a big deal. 

“Jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force between 1980 and 2012, according to a study published last year by David Deming, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Less-social, math-intensive jobs fell by 3.3 percentage points over the same period.” (Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Employees Who Can Shake Hands, Make Small Talk; Bank of America teaches empathy in-house; Subaru pays for soft-skills training, December 9, 2018)

It’s no wonder that heads of learning and development, at companies large and small, have turned to performance, bringing in playful and improvisational approaches to advancing communication skills, emotional intelligence/empathy, and collaboration. The essential elements of improvisation – listening and building – have become critical skills for professionals at all levels. Storytelling, performing other than who we are, and creative imitation are some of the tools from the theatre that are so valuable in corporate settings.

ImprovNetworking was designed as a professional and leadership development program to teach new ways of making small talk that are relaxed, natural, and effective. Participants don’t rely on a scripted process (the elevator pitch), instead we rely on our innate human ability to play and perform. Learning to actively listen and build with what people offer strengthens the ability to develop new social connections and deepen existing relationships. Discover what ImprovNetworking can do for your organization. 

Improv Networking
An innovative and off-script approach to networking and relationship building for professionals at all levels, customizable to meet the needs of your organization.

85% of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet

A few years ago, Harvard Business Review published an important and interesting article about talent acquisition: 21st Century Talent Spotting by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz.  The article contained valuable research about the nature of potential and the need to hire for potential:

Research points to five markers of potential: a strong motivation to excel in the pursuit of challenging goals combined with the humility to put the group ahead of individual needs; an insatiable curiosity to explore new ideas and avenues; keen insight into connections that others don’t see; a strong engagement with work and people; and the determination to overcome obstacles.

Recruiting talent with an eye to potential means no longer simply relying on core competencies. Recruiting for the new landscape of work means finding people based on their potential to develop. This requires the vision to see who someone is becoming. Organizations routinely ask recruiters to survey the market to find the “A players,” but the scarcity of the talent pool is apparent. Looking for “A players” can be limiting; we end up looking for “special” people (or privileged people from “top schools”).

Four years later we are faced with the fact that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet according to research from Dell Technologies.

Among other trends, the very nature of work will change. Today’s gig economy will transform so that “work will chase people.”

Instead of expecting workers to bear the brunt of finding work, work will compete for the best resource to complete the job.

This raises both challenging and positive developments in how technology will impact talent acquisition and how recruiters will have to approach our work:

Work chasing people could also reduce personal biases and stereotypes in the job seeking process. Integrating VR technology into recruitment protocols, for example, enables the prospective worker to demonstrate competency by showcasing skills without revealing gender or ethnicity. Hiring through immersive technologies could improve the dismal representation of women in computing jobs (currently, in the United States, only 26% of them are held by women), and open more doors to people who, historically, have not had equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

In the meantime, the more that organizations can create development opportunities for their workforce – especially for those in talent acquisition – to do what they don’t know how to do, to perform ahead of themselves, to take risks – the better prepared they will be for what lies ahead.

In today’s ever changing VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, our ability to be see who we and others are becoming is more important than ever.

Good news! Being and Becoming Culture-Changers

Ready for some good news in the midst of a polarized, contentious, hyper-partisan national debate?

People around the world are playing, performing and becoming other than who they are! We are embracing our human capability to be who we are and who we are not. We are being who we are becoming. There’s a conceptual revolution happening … people are creating culture change in many ways and in many places.

In August I attended the Applied Improvisation Network’s annual conference in Paris, the city of love. Barbara Tint, the President of AIN, shared this in her talk about the growth of the organization and of Applied Improvisation:

We need to hold on to the heart and the power of improvisation and what it can do in the world.

Or as my colleagues Caitlin McClure and Theresa Robbins Dudeck put it in their wonderful new book: Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating, and Creating Beyond the Theatre:

Applied Improvisation is changing the way we lead, create, and collaborate. It also brings joy into this uncertain, crazy world.

At the Paris AIN conference I met people who are using Applied Improvisation in diverse settings such as the Israeli Army, sustainability/climate science, Agile teams, and work with refugees in Europe.

We are becoming humanitarians, giving people new ways to play with difficult and challenging problems.

As the co-chair of the NYC chapter of AIN, I’m proud to be the NYC liaison to the Program Committee for the 2019 AIN conference, to be held at Stony Brook University in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. See the announcement video here:

Last month the All Stars Project, Inc. and the East Side Institute – two organizations that I have helped to build for more than three decades – hosted the 10th Performing the World conference in New York. Over 400 people came together from 30 countries to address what is needed in order for people to see possibility, to imagine the inconceivable, and to take action.

We asked the question: Can humanity seize the day? And we created the answer: YES!

Workshops brought together a diverse array of creative world-changers: young magicians working/playing in the slums of Latin America, cross-border collaborations challenging current U.S. policies, humanitarian clowns from around the world, innovators in education and youth development from Taiwan, Sweden, and Nigeria, psychologists from Japan and Brazil, theatre-makers from Europe and India, and refugee workers from Greece, Italy and Serbia.

We are becoming a world of people who are challenging the status quo, the roles, institutions and ways of being that prevent us from exploring our creativity, our humanity, and our ability to be culture-changers.

We are discovering that play, performance, humor and improvisation are the tools we need to transform our world.

I’ll end with this terrific quote from one of the many thought provoking workshops at Performing the World: Performing Citizenship through Applied Improvisation led by my NYC-AIN co-chair, Don Waisanen:

Ditch Your Elevator Pitch

Cartoon from The New Yorker magazine

Do you keep your distance at networking events? Do you find yourself repeating the same elevator pitch no matter who you’re talking to? Do you feel lonely in a room full of people?

ImprovNetworking is an off-script approach to relationship building that doesn’t rely on a scripted process or a formulaic solution. In fact, ImprovNetworking reignites the natural curiosity all people have about each other – the key to great networking. Participants reconnect to the innate human ability to play and improvise.

Professionals at all levels come to networking events with preconceived, often negative, associations with the notion of building and sustaining a network of relationships. By introducing performance – the ability to be who we are and who we are not (like actors do when they play a role) – networking can transform into a creative activity.

My advice to anyone tired (or afraid) of networking is to step outside of your comfort zone with ImprovNetworking. You’ll learn how to be more yourself and how to make a more lasting connection with those you meet. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or extrovert, ImprovNetworking will give you helpful tools to use right away. 

By pursuing curiosity about others, formulating interesting questions, and sharing our passions and motivations without following the tired and worn out scripts (the elevator pitch), we create a genuine human connection.

Being fully present with another person co-creating an improvisational conversation (“scene”), allows us to step out of our comfort zone, take some risks and get to know others in new ways. By doing so, we have a shot at impacting each other which builds memorable and lasting relationships.

Need to Engage and Retain Millennials?

As more and more companies are looking for ways to engage and retain talent, listening to the needs of millennials becomes critical.

According to a study by Deloitte of 10,455 millennials, there is a demand for skill development in the areas of interpersonal skills, confidence/motivation, innovation and creativity.

ImprovNetworking is an entirely new and off-script approach to networking and relationship building that was designed for professionals at all levels. This approach is particularly useful for millennials, who are often disengaged by traditional learning and development offerings. Half an hour into an ImprovNetworking session, participants are speaking with each other in new ways that are relaxed, natural, and effective. Participants reconnect to the innate human ability to play and improvise.

Rather than relying on a scripted process or a formulaic solution, ImprovNetworking reignites the natural curiosity all people have about each other – the key to great networking. By engaging in a more playful approach to relationship-building younger professionals have the chance to perform confidently, to develop their creative capacity and spontaneity. They learn new ways to build relationships without relying on an “elevator pitch.”

This cost-effective approach has immediate results. ImprovNeworking sessions can be customized to meet the needs of any organization.

How to engage millennial employees? Give them opportunities to grow and develop by stepping out of their comfort zones to improve their capacity to build relationships and communicate in a more spontaneous and confident manner.