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. http://mahu-improv@qq.com and https://www.facebook.com/humorousking

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 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.

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: https://youtu.be/w63vNnIFWX0

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:

A Passion for Learning … yes, and …

Take a look at critical skills needed for success in the 21st century, as listed in CIO.com article The 14 soft skills every IT pro needs:

Effective communication
The ability to translate tech
A collaborative mindset
The ability to put things in context
Customer service — even with colleagues
The ability to ask the right questions
Problem solving
The ability to set aside ego
Emotional intelligence
Comfort with uncertainty

These are typical outcomes from workshops and trainings that teach people the fundamentals of improvisation (yes, and/accept and build with “offers,” active listening, make your partner look good, take risks).

The recently published book Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating, and Creating Beyond the Theatre has catapulted to the number one best seller on Amazon’s list of hot new releases in business entrepreneurship for good reason. According to authors Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure, applied improvisation is “…changing the way people lead, create and collaborate.” Full disclosure, McClure has long been a mentor, teacher and friend.

According to Capgemini and LinkedIn’s valuable report: The Digital Talent Gap: Are Companies Doing Enough? to succeed in our rapidly changing and digitally-driven workforce, hard digital skills are needed (cybersecurity and cloud computing being most in demand), but equally important are “soft digital skills,” which the report identified as customer-centricity and passion for learning. 59% of employers say that these skills are lacking in their employees.

The report goes on to say, “Employees feel organizations’ training programs are not hugely effective and those who want to excel are looking beyond their organizations’ learning and development. … Close to half actually describe the training as ‘useless and boring.’”

What are the solutions? Two from Capgemini and LinkedIn’s report are worth noting:

  1. “Create an environment that prioritizes and rewards learning.”  As traditional trainings can be experienced as “useless and boring,” more and more organizations are turning to applied improv facilitators and trainers for good reason.
  2. “Diversify your recruiting approach.” In chapter 1 of Dudeck and McClure’s wonderful case studies, “A Burger; Fries and a Side of Improv,” authors Hirsch and Veltman write of the work they did over a decade with the restaurant chain Burgerville in Portland, Oregon. Along with trainings, used improv as a “diagnostic for hiring teams and customer service providers” to great effect. As a longtime recruiter, improviser, and applied improv facilitator I was inspired!

Not only do we lead trainings that enhance the skills needed for success in business, applied improvisation (to quote Dudeck and McClure), “brings joy into this uncertain and crazy world.” I think we can all say “yes, and…” to that!

The Art and Science of Communication

“I feel closer to the participants in this workshop then I do to my team at work.”

We received this comment from a participant in an R&D workshop I recently co-led with my colleague Dr. Raquell Holmes, the founder of improvscience. The workshop was part of an incubation process to develop an innovative approach to strengthen the communication and collaboration capabilities of data scientists, analysts, engineers and developers.

Raquell and I have been seeking ways to help technical professionals at all management levels develop their communication and collaborative skills for a long while. We have both been keenly aware of the need. Raquell is a pioneer in science communications and has worked with thousands of technical people to develop these softer skills. As a longtime recruiter of quantitative talent, my clients are always looking for analytical professionals who are also strong communicators. It is often the case that qualified candidates are hard to find.

Oftentimes a talented data scientist will struggle to communicate the value of his/her work. There is an art to telling the story that lies within the data; these skills are rarely taught to technical professionals. As organizations put more demands on data scientists and other technical talent to work cross functionally, there is a greater need to strengthen communication and collaborative skills. How do you ask questions in the midst of creating new technologies and products?  We help people talk to each other so that they don’t get too far down the line without being able to catch important technical issues.

Our expertise is creating playful environments where people have the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence, get out of their comfort zones and learn new relational skills. We bring improvisation, executive coaching, human resources experience and technical expertise together in our trainings through our unique partnership.

Experiential learning environments are particularly helpful to teams of people from different countries and cultures. People acquire a greater ability to collaborate and innovate. When taken further, multiple engagements enable a serious developmental process so that talent at every level can contribute to the overall needs of the organization and their functions.

It just might be that play, performance and improvisation is the kind of FUNctional Collaborative Communication that is needed to advance innovation in your organization!




Humanize the Interview Process – Become a Relational Recruiter

There have been some interesting reports about employee retention and turnover that started me thinking about why people look for new opportunities and how that impacts recruiting.  The Society for Human Resource Management recently published a report entitled “Skills Gap, Turnover Are Top Talent Concerns” in which they found:

About one-fourth of employees reported that they are likely to look for a new job in the next 12 months. They cited unhappiness with current salary (23 percent), followed by looking for a better opportunity (19 percent), not feeling valued (16 percent) and unhappiness with growth opportunities (13 percent).

Indeed.com just published their Talent Attraction Study: What Matters to the Modern Candidate in which they found:

71% of people are actively looking or open to a new job, and 90% of people hired within the past year actively looked for a job within six months prior to being hired. Also, 65% look at new jobs again within 91 days of starting a new job, leading us to believe that no one is “passive” about their career in 2015.

Indeed’s conclusion that “no one is passive about their career in 2015” led me to think about what people mean when they say they want “a better opportunity.”  On one hand, there is always going to be a grouping of people who will opportunistically move for better compensation packages.  Resumes that show a new position every 2-3 years are often representative of the person who is moving for better salary.  On the other hand, the more interesting question is what do we need to do to make people “feel valued” from the moment we reach out to them in the recruiting process.

All too often hiring managers and recruiters can forget that every aspect of the recruitment process is an opportunity to let potential hires know they are valued.  Recruitment agencies and internal recruiters ought to convey in their initial outreach that the human equation is what matters, not filling the job; we are in a relationship-oriented business.  All too often the relational aspect of recruiting and hiring is second to the need for speed and efficiency in recruiting which can lead to a commoditized process in which candidates feel like a cog in the wheel, rather than a respected and valued future member of an organization.

Interestingly, I read an article yesterday – The Trouble With Behavioral Interviewing – that is quite relevant to how we recruit talent.  I especially appreciate this comment from author Liz Ryan:

We are human all the time. We are foolish to turn job interviews, such potentially fun and fizzy human processes, into tense and grovelly affairs.

As a recruiter who is also an improviser, the activity of creating conversation is where I put my focus.  Again, I appreciate Ryan’s perspective:

If you care about talent, you won’t want to interview people from a script. You’ll want to sit down with them next to a whiteboard and brainstorm like crazy. How else will you know whether your energies resonate together?

Once I’ve established that a person is qualified for the role, I abandon “interview questions” all together in favor of having a wide-ranging conversation.  We can learn valuable information about a candidate when we allow ourselves to explore who someone is in the world, how they express their intellectual curiosity, and discover their goals both personally and professionally.  In the long run recruiting is about building rapport.  It is refreshing to create the conditions that eliminate the hierarchical framework that comes with a more traditional recruiting paradigm in favor of getting to know each other.

Heard Any Offers Lately?

International class

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to train the International Class of the East Side Institute http://www.eastsideinstitute.org/Training.html.  The students are learning the Institute’s approach to human development and community building; the group included people from Bangladesh, Serbia, and Brazil, as well as the Director of the Institute, Lois Holzman (pictured above). 

We worked on applying the basic tool of improvisation – yes and – to two-person scenes, which helps strengthen listening skills and, most importantly, the ability to build relationships and intimacy.  Because these students are engaged in learning a performance-based methodology they were very eager to both experience and understand how to apply improvisation in their work.

After some warm ups I had the students perform a series of two-person scenes beginning with the words, “It’s Tuesday and…”  As is often the case with improvisation, the scenes began with rather mundane comments and then, with my coaching, the students created relationships and, in some instances, a great deal of intimacy. How did that happen?  It happened by actively listening in order to hear the “offer” that was given and responding to that offer.  As both people feel heard by the other intimacy is slowly created, offer by offer.

My job as the coach was to stop the players to have a look at a missed offer or that someone negated an offer.  I gave the players my offer that they focus on deepening the relationship by accepting and building with each and every offer.

What matters In theatre and in life are relationships. Sadly in our culture we often end up thinking about the next thing to say, rather than actively listening to the other person and responding to them, not to the voice in our heads.

You might be reading this and wondering how this is applicable to a business setting.  As an executive coach who uses improvisation as a tool for growth and development, it is often the case that business people need and want to strengthen their ability to be active listeners.

Managers, in particular, want to develop these skills in order to further develop their team and thereby the team’s capabilities.  We work on creating conversation by slowly building with whatever “offers” are given.  If  team members are making “offers” and managers are negating them (by saying “no but” rather than “yes and”), relationships will suffer and demoralization can easily set in.

One of the interesting questions we explored in the International Class training is whether you can say “no” when you are playing a “yes and” game/scene.  As is often the case with rules, once you’ve mastered “yes and” it is possible to say “no” in a “yes and” manner.  In other words, if your team member makes a suggestion that you cannot accept, for whatever reason, there is a way to accept that offer without negating the suggestion and thereby the person who suggested it.

By working hard to have a positive “yes and” response – by virtue of putting your focus on the other – everyone feels appreciated and heard.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In discussions with various executives I’ve been hearing a lot about their difficulties building positive relationships with work colleagues and/or with their teams.  This very crucial element of our work life — relationship-building — is often ignored or under-valued.

Managers can forget that the people they manage… are people.  We are a social, relational species.  The social environment that is created in the workplace can foster innovation, creativity and collaboration or it can foster demoralization, competition and isolation.

I’ve been reading the myriad of articles about Steve Jobs that have appeared this week.  In creating this blog post I was reflecting on this quote from Roberto Verganti’s HBR blog post, Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning http://bit.ly/nslnNF :

“Managing by meaning” is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace.

An executive shared with me that she is tasked with building a team within a corporate culture that is very individually oriented where competition rules.  As is  often the case in this type of corporate culture, managers do not step back and think about how to engage their team members.  There is very little listening going on and it’s often the case that managers engage in sarcasm or are overly critical in trying to move work forward.  As she puts it, “everyone is speedy and every conversation is rushed.” The emotional dimension of who we are as human beings is so often left out of the equation. Play, improvisation and performance are a critical tool in creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.

Here’s a valuable quote from Lois Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play:

One of the values of bringing improv to the workplace is its potential to impact on conversation, not only to minimize such unpleasant exchanges but also to give people a method to transform it into something closer to the creative meaning-making activity it is with babies (but in an adult- and workplace-appropropriate manner).  This is exceedingly difficult for adults to do with any consistency.  To get good at it requires a lot of practice, not only in speaking but also in listening, because in ordinary conversations, including those at the workplace, people tend to listen very selectively to what others are saying –  to hear something they agree or disagree with, to assess the “truth value” of what is said, to size up the speaker and try to figure out what she or he “really” means, to plan a comeback, to hear the pause that signals “it’s my turn now” – or all of the above.  “Yes, and” exercises are the main way improvisors practice listening.

Saying “yes and” instead of “no but” is how we build with each other.  It is a recognition of the “we” who work together to accomplish whatever needs to be done.  Listening is a critical tool, as is a recognition that how we say what we say impacts on “the other” – the “creative meaning-making activity”.  Having our focus on “the other” or the “we” is where creativity and collaboration lives. We are meaning-makers. Perhaps this is what Verganti was referring to in saying that Steve Jobs was “managing by meaning”.

Another executive I’ve been working with shared with me that he attended a company-sponsored communication workshop where there was discussion about the fact that people have different personalities and styles of working.  He became aware that he could get better at understanding how he needs to talk to someone and anticipate how they will hear what he’s saying. If a colleague is very analytically-oriented, he cannot come at them with a 30,000 foot view idea — he needs to come to them given what they need and how they see.  We are developing his performance to improve his ability to talk and listen in a new way.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In my work as an Executive Clown I teach executives the value of pointless play and improvisation so that they can utilize the improvisors tool-kit everywhere they find themselves (including the workplace) to live more productive, creative, joyful lives.

Yes and…

How to ennoble the human spirit at work? Perform and play!

This morning I read a terrific article in the Sunday New York Times — Do Happier People Work Harder? by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer http://nyti.ms/pL6vbw

I can’t say that anything in this article surprised me, as I’ve had these experiences, many of which led me to become a freelance consultant.  I am confident that I’m not alone and certainly the research cited in the article sadly conveys the extent to which Americans suffer on the job:

The results were sobering. In one-third of the 12,000 diary entries, the diarist was unhappy, unmotivated or both. In fact, workers often expressed frustration, disdain or disgust. Our research shows that inner work life has a profound impact on workers’ creativity, productivity, commitment and collegiality. Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier. Conventional wisdom suggests that pressure enhances performance; our real-time data, however, shows that workers perform better when they are happily engaged in what they do.

I wholeheartedly agree with Amabile and Kramer’s statement:

Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit.

The use of improvisation and play in the workplace is, of course, in my mind (and happily many others) a critical activity that can help the human spirit to thrive.  Reading the article this morning, my thoughts led to the brilliant work that my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime do every day bringing improvisation and play into corporations http://www.performanceofalifetime.com/ — and the writings of my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman.  Here’s a passage from Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play that I see as a response to Amabile and Steven’s article:

To the extent that business and organizations are structurally and functionally designed to relate to social units (work teams, units, themselves, their industry, their customers, the market, etc.) and not to individuals, they are potentially developmental environments.  To the extent that business and organizations need to (or believe they need to) innovative in order to be responsive to rapid and intense changes in the global culture, and bring the innovations and play and improvisational performance to the work-place, the people in organizations have opportunities to create developmental stages* even as they get the job done.

* The “stages” that Holzman refers to are the performatory stages that we create for our life performances, wherever they may be.


Applying improvisation

Yesterday I attended an all day workshop with the New York Chapter of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN).  Not surprisingly I found myself surrounded with a generous, intellectually stimulating and playful group of professionals who apply improvisation in a number of settings – corporations, education and mental health.

Sue Waldron, of ImprovWorks! in the Bay Area gave a wonderful presentation on the breadth of the field – here are just some of the areas in which improvisation is being applied in the workplace:

Leadership, change management, sales, customer service, team building, community development, creativity and innovation, living the brand/brand management, corporate culture/transformational change, coaching, diversity, agility/resiliency, networking, facilitation skills, train the trainer (T3), burn out prevention, stress prevention, doctor/patient relations, substance abuse prevention.

One company that was mentioned that uses improvisation for collaboration in their corporate culture is Pixar – and what wonderful results they’ve had!  I did a quick Google search and found Pixar’s essential principles:

Accept any offer: when given a new idea try and work with it. Dismissing it causes the idea to be lost.

Make your partner look good: don’t extend work on the basis of making it better, think of it of adding value.

These are wonderful principles for any organization to embrace; they are basic building blocks of good improvisation and good theatrical collaboration.