Google Improv

28mag-teams1-superJumboThis past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a special issue on Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy. What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team gets at the heart of why innovative corporations and academic institutions have embraced improvisation and performance.

A number of the findings of the Project Aristotle researchers appear to be fundamentals of improvisation.

…the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues. One of the easiest ways to gauge social sensitivity is to show someone photos of people’s eyes and ask him or her to describe what the people are thinking or feeling — an exam known as the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. People on the more successful teams in Woolley’s experiment scored above average on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. They seemed to know when someone was feeling upset or left out. People on the ineffective teams, in contrast, scored below average. They seemed, as a group, to have less sensitivity toward their colleagues.

“Average social sensitivity” is something that improv training creates in all of us – we learn to create “group mind,” we make others look good, we allow ourselves to actively listen so that we can pick up on tone of voice, expressions and other nonverbal cues – these are the building blocks of good improvisation.

For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Rozovsky and her colleagues had figured out which norms were most critical. Now they had to find a way to make communication and empathy — the building blocks of forging real connections — into an algorithm they could easily scale.

While Google built algorithms to measure and scale “particular norms” that led to the establishment of “psychologically safe environments,” following the rules of improvisation create a safe environment where participants learn to agree, to say “yes,” and to find their way to collaboration, rather than disagreement.  I wholeheartedly agree that communication and empathy are building blocks of forging “real connections,” but I would offer that along with building an algorithm (this is Google, after all), we also need to build an improvisational, performance-oriented environment.  When we perform we are able to be who we are becoming, we can be other than who we are, we can agree even when we “feel” like disagreeing.

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.

The best theatre directors ensure that their actors feel “psychologically safe” in order to express the messiness of our lives, emotionally and otherwise.  The paragraph above made me think a lot about being an actor and about performance.   It reminded me of conversations that I participated in as a member of the Castillo Theatre ensemble with our former Artistic Director, Fred Newman.  Newman was a brilliant director and public philosopher (he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Stanford) who, as a practicing social therapist, developed a psychology of becoming that introduced performance as a method of growth and development.  We used to have conversations with Fred about traditional Method acting and the notion that one could “lose oneself in a character,” an odd notion, as we are always and at once who we are, and who we are becoming.  We cannot leave part of our personality or “inner life” at home; we take ourselves wherever we go.  What we can do is perform.

Project Aristotle is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized. Rozovsky herself was reminded of this midway through her work with the Project Aristotle team. ‘‘We were in a meeting where I made a mistake,’’ Rozovsky told me. She sent out a note afterward explaining how she was going to remedy the problem. ‘‘I got an email back from a team member that said, ‘Ouch,’ ’’ she recalled. ‘‘It was like a punch to the gut. I was already upset about making this mistake, and this note totally played on my insecurities.’’

Along with active listening, saying “yes,” building with what others give you (yes, and…), one of the important tenets of improvisation is to embrace mistakes.  In teaching improv and facilitating improv workshops we direct students to joyfully perform, “Yay, I made a mistake!” Why?  Because mistakes and failure is where creativity lies.

The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

With all due respect to Google, Project Aristotle and “employee performance optimization,” companies – large and small – that care about their employees and improving our lives at work would do well to bring performance, play and improvisation into the workplace.

What is Smart?


Have you ever thought about what you mean when you say someone is smart?  As an executive search consultant clients usually ask me to find “A players” for their companies, in other words find the smart people.  Do you ever wonder what the expression “the smartest person in the room” means?  Why is being the smartest person in the room important?  What about the rest of us?

In my 20 years of experience recruiting talent I have found that many of the people we think of as “smart” (because they obtained a degree from an Ivy League school or because they are the CEO of a company) turn out to be like the rest of us … complex beings who are smart about some things and dumb about other things and everything in between.

In our educational system smartness is often defined as doing well at acquiring knowledge.  In the workplace it can mean that someone has done well at acquiring dollars.  Our culture teaches us that we should “reach our potential,” acquire a degree and then, when we enter the work force, we are expected to acquire an expertise in a particular field.  In the world of work the social aspect of human life is bifurcated into something called “emotional intelligence,” as though we can separate our emotions from our intelligence.  Creativity and relational activity – what and how we create with others, a critical component of learning, growth and development – is sadly not even part of the conversation (creativity seems to only be allowed into discussions about “innovation” or design).  Development doesn’t make it into most discussions about intelligence, learning and education.

Here’s a provocative and profound statement about education by Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the All Stars Project:

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.  And that has not been brought to our schools.  It has not been brought into the popular culture.

I would add that it has not been brought into the workplace either (with some exceptions, of course). Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most frontline 20th century thinkers.  He was a unique, eccentric and brilliant philosopher who took apart nearly every concept that underlies how psychology and education are done and examined some of our most basic assumptions like causality, essence, meaning, and the very nature of language and thought.  As my colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman pointed out in her recent class that I attended – Discovering Wittgenstein – “Psychologists and educators – not to mention, the rest of us – need to seriously examine, question and play with our assumptions and our language.”

Sounds like a smart idea to me!

If you’d like to read more on all of the above please refer to Holzman’s book “The Overweight Brain” which you can read online at

Transform in a moment . . . through performance!

I’ve been thinking a lot about coaching this week — maybe because I’ve been coaching a lot this week!

In the early part of the week I had the chance to participate in a corporate training for a leading management consulting firm thanks to my colleagues at Performance of A Lifetime ( who hired me as a coach and role player for this gig. Our fantastic, talented team of improviser/role players spent the day being interviewed by teams of young consultants (fresh out of college); at the end of the day each of us coached teams of these young consultants based on feedback from those interviews.

Later in the week, I had coaching sessions with a few of my young colleagues at a client company where I’m the “communication specialist”.

It’s wonderful to give young people the chance to use performance as a tool for growth, no matter what the context!  It’s very gratifying to share how performance helps us grow and develop.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching a video of a talk that one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, gave at Town Hall back in 1997 on “performance therapy”.  Fred is the chief architect of the methodology that I was trained in (and that Performance of A Lifetime utilizes in their work).  As always Fred had many thought provoking things to share; given what’s been on my mind this week this sentence jumped out at me:

“We have the capacity to transform ourselves in a moment through performance.”

What got me thinking was this notion of transforming ourselves in a moment.  Our psychologically-overdetermined culture sends the message that transformation is about introspection, explanation and knowing — and that it can take years of therapy! Along comes Fred Newman saying that we can tranform ourselves in a moment!

When Newman talks about performance therapy he is acknowledging the essential human activity of being who we are and who we are not at the same time.  Each of us has the capacity and can make the choice, moment-to-moment, to perform — to be other than who we are — and thereby to transform ourselves.

How liberating!

For more information about Newman, performance therapy/social therapy, and learning more about the performance approach see the website of the East Side Institute at

Appreciate who we are becoming

I’ve been experiencing and learning about human development both personally and professionally as I approach six months of my new professional life as a consultant and coach.  As readers of this blog know I like to quote Dr. Fred Newman who created a methodology and practice (social therapy) that has given thousands of people around the world the opportunity to develop and create their lives.

Fred used to have a call-in radio show called, Let’s Develop!. I’d take time and carefully design questions for Fred and call into the show almost every week; Fred was always very appreciative of calls from “Marian from Manhattan”. One week he responded to a question I asked by sharing that development is the interplay of who you were, who you are, and who you are becoming.

These words have come to me several times during coaching sessions with MBA students. I’m helping them develop confidence and skills as they go through their interviews for internships and post-graduate positions. Combining my experience as an executive search consultant, actress/director, and improvisational expert I give students the support and direction they need to play and pretend, practice and develop a performance of who they are becoming.

In a HBR post this week Joshua Erlich wrote a piece Developing Executive Presence that summed up the basic work that executive coaches do to help with this issue —

This quote jumped out at me:

Practice with support. Letting a colleague or mentor know you are working on presence can boost your skills and confidence.

People need support.  Maybe that sounds obvious but I think we underestimate how much support we all need to grow in our overly individualistic culture.  In order to move in and around who we were, who we are and who we are becoming we need to build relationships that support this kind of growth — that support development. Since it’s football season I’ve been looking at the coaches on the sidelines; so much of what they do is push their players to go beyond themselves.  Off the field and in the boardroom or other settings where we find ourselves it is not always so easy to find a coach, a mentor, or a friend who will and can give the kind of support needed to grow.

Growing is emotional — going beyond ourselves, becoming who we are not, is frightening.  All too often we leave out the emotional component, which requires those of us who are coaching to create an environment and relationship which allows soneone to go beyond “boosting skills and confidence” to a place where they can pretend** (see article below).  As a coach I see my role as a director and as a developmentalist — I’m there to help people experience that interplay Fred was talking about.

A big part of how we can give support is both teaching and engaging in the activity of appreciation. Here’s an excerpt from a paper by Drs. Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani called Let’s Pretend** 

“Appreciation” is a sophisticated developmental skill. It is highly subjective, in that we might all have varied objects that we appreciate. Yet, appreciation itself takes a common form in the culture. And here’s what’s important. Appreciation is fundamentally performatory.

The value of coaching as I see it is to create a space for development and help people become less alienated about our human capacity to create our lives. Let’s develop!

Interesting . . .

Transformation, creativity, learning, development and emotionality. All of these words come to mind in thinking about the impact of having recreated my career at the age of fifty-five.

Yesterday I found myself sitting in a conference room on the 30th Floor looking over Central Park in a meeting at a financial services firm where I am a currently on retainer as a consultant.

I sat at the meeting having a wonderful experience enjoying the activity of learning, and learning things that I never ever thought I’d be interested in. It was joyous and at times a bit disconcerting. The image I once had about “who I am” is fading.  I’ve transformed!

I’m always grateful for the many giving and smart developmentalists that I have the good fortune to live my life with.  The late — but always very present in so many peoples’ lives — Dr. Fred Newman once gave me some advice on his radio call-in program “Let’s Develop”. I couldn’t help but think of Fred while I sat at the meeting yesterday.

About a dozen years ago or more I was first having to learn about the value of executive compensation packages — options and restricted stock. Coming to a job in “corporate America” by way of community organizing, theatre and not-for-profit work I was having a tough time learning.  I called in and told Fred, “I’m not interested in learning about Wall Street!”.  He responded by saying, “Get interested and then you’ll be interested”.  A simple-sounding philosophical and performance direction. He was right, I started to perform as though I was interested and well, the rest is history.

I thought of Fred as I experienced new emotions, emotions that we create when we learn new things and learn in a new way, and when, most importantly we let others impact us.

There I was, so very interested in hearing about the young analysts who are so creative in what they are able to do (I’m interested in creativity!), the challenges of investing in emerging markets, and other matters that once upon a time I would have had no interest in.

Today the person I work for asked me how I’d like to develop and how he can support my development at the firm.  I don’t know the answer to his question – but I’m interested to find out!

Thank you, Fred!

Improvisation, Giving, and Career/Self Reinvention

Today is my first day of work as a freelance recruiting professional.  I am thrilled to have two projects to sink my teeth into.  It’s been a wonderful process to get to today.

This past week my mentor, friend and colleague, Dr. Fred Newman, passed away.  Fred taught me many, many things but one of the most important things he taught me is to give, give again, give some more, and give in the particular way that he expresses in his practical guide to continuous development, Let’s Develop:

Be unexpectedly giving for “no reason at all” to someone who is unlikely to give you anything in return.

It’s been a hard road to learn how to give in this way, after all we live in a culture that is all about getting. Learning this from Fred and other colleagues has changed my life.  How did I get here?  I gave everything to my friends — the fear, the insecurities, the doubt that I could leave a job after 15 years and go out on my own.  And then I accepted the offers that my friends gave to me, I built with them (giving to my friends in this way), even if I thought they were asking me to do the impossible.

Accepting all the offers people give us, saying yes, and building with everything we have is the essence of improvisation.  As human beings we have the opportunity to create and recreate/reinvent our lives.

As one friend put it, “Let’s soak up all the offers the world has to give us” — yes and let’s develop by giving.

Thank you, Fred.

I am quite pleased that a wonderful article written by Jude Trader-Wolff was just published online; it features an interview she conducted with me about improvisation and career/self-reinvention.

Building conversation (philosophically speaking)

I am very fortunate to be studying philosophy with Dr. Fred Newman, a brilliant “people’s philosopher” and long time mentor, colleague and friend. Fred has been giving our Developmental Philosophy Group practical training in the art of discourse.

We are learning how to talk to one another. It turns out that most of us are not particularly skilled in building a conversation and in speaking to each other without putting ourselves at the center of the conversation. Fred asked us, “What if you eliminated the self all together and think only of the other?”.

Not surprisingly we were able to build more in our conversations. After all, we live in an “arrogant culture” where we often don’t think others have much to say. We try to say “the right thing” in order to be the smartest person in the room. It turns out that “saying something right” stultifies the conversation.

This way of conversing goes on everywhere and especially in business. It’s an individuated way of knowing and relating. A building versus a knowing learning model is where creativity and innovation live. We all have the capacity to build, organize, help each other and create conversation. It’s a lot more intimate and, frankly, it might just be the right thing to do!

A philosophical tidbit

Yesterday I had the pleasure of re-joining the Developmental Philosophy Class, taught by Dr. Fred Newman, here in New York City.  Newman is a Stanford-trained philosopher who has been my friend, colleague and teacher for many, many years.  Learning philosophy and politics from Fred has enriched my life in more ways than I can express in words.  So it was joyous to be back in class this week.  You can read more about Fred Newman at his website:

In a previous blog post I referenced a paper that Fred recently wrote with Dr. Lenora Fulani called “Let’s Pretend” [] — the class was an opportunity for us to discuss our understandings of pretending and its relationship to development and transformation.  In the course of our philosophical conversation I deepened my ability to recognize the ways that we are overly cognitive in our understanding of ourselves and the world.  Cognition is, of course, important and our cognitive bias prevents us from embracing the fact that we are a performing species.  

Fred shared with us how he learned to ride a bike as an adult while he was at Stanford.  His friend told him to get on the bike and pretend that he is a bicycle rider.  He wasn’t “pretending to learn to ride a bike”, which was our overly cognitive way of understanding Fred’s story.  In the moment of learning to ride a bike if you start to think “oh boy, I’m riding a bike!” it’s not uncommon to fall off the bike.  The activity demands full attention.  This is an important distinction — it is not a cognitive activity — it is a performance. 

There comes a moment when we stop pretending and we become (in the case of Fred’s story, a bike rider), therein lies the transformation.

For the world to transform — along with all of its people — we will have to create new paths to take and that will require “a lot of pretending”.