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!

Creating Otherness


How can we build with our differences?

Can we create opportunities to make discoveries about “the other?”  

How can we bridge the divide between diverse communities?

While the media doesn’t cover the story of people creating new possibilities around the world, they are!

In August I joined Dr. Patch Adams for my second humanitarian clown trip to Costa Rica. I brought two colleagues who also practice the social therapeutic approach to human development and social change. We relate to people of all ages and life circumstances as social performers and creators of their lives.

My colleague, Dr. Tony Perone, and I co-facilitated a workshop at the University of Costa Rica about the performance activism community. We led a room of students, professors, artists and community organizers in new performances of our shared humanity (one of which is pictured above). You can read more about it here:

I attended the CESTEMER (Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research) conference in Chicago as an educator, community activist and improviser (I’m not a scientist). The keynote presentations from the National Academy of Sciences were entertaining! One was about integrating science, math and engineering with the arts and humanities and “Hooray for Hollywood Science” was about The Science & Entertainment Exchange. This grouping of scientists, artists, and educators moved out of our comfort zones and embraced “the other.” We created new opportunities for growth.

Also in Chicago I met with a close colleague, David Cherry, the City Leader of the Chicago All Stars Project. He spoke to me with enormous passion about his work bringing together the city’s poorest youth with affluent donors to create new conversations and new possiblities.

Most recently, I attended a talk by Jackie Salit of independent called Finding Otherness. Jackie travels around the country speaking to independents (the “others”) who are often left out of the mainstream political process. A “postmodern agitator,” she’s creating new performances of otherness in the political arena.

Jackie shared a final thought about what’s needed to create otherness (along with this image from the film Zorba the Greek):

We all need a little madness to create new sources of political, cultural and emotional power.


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.

Playing with fear

20151212_cuk400-20151210_1 When this week’s edition of The Economist arrived I looked at the cover story headline and thought, “This is the perfect title for a new blog post!”  Although it is true that the media and certain public figures are “playing” with our fears in a negative way, when I saw the word playing the improviser in me started playing in a positive way!

You see, it turns out that I had saved the illustration below to help inspire a new blog post; after all, ’tis the season for joy and it’s a moment when many Americans are fearful:

I love the insertion of IMPROV between JOY and FEAR.  Why?  Because performance is the human ability to simultaneously be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming. In the midst of the media assault and events that create our collective (and individual) fear, it can be difficult to embrace the things and people in our lives that create joy.  As a member of an improvisational ensemble, we often find ourselves on stage jumping into our fears and in the relational activity of creating scenes with others we find joy.

And so it is in life as lived.  Playing with fear means taking Shakespeare’s famous quote “All the world’s a stage” seriously. When we create with others, using everything we’ve got to create with, including our fears, we transform; we can be who we are (fearful) and who we are not (joyous).  When we create our lives we embrace all of who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming.

‘Tis the season to be improvising!


Are you listening?

dreamstime_132351051How well do you listen? This is an important question for all of us. I’ve been thinking about listening a lot this week. It is certainly a critical part of my work as an executive search consultant and also in the work I do teaching and coaching. Listening is the most important activity for creating conversation and intimacy. It’s an underutilized “muscle” and therefore it needs strengthening in most of us.

I was interviewing a candidate for a sales position and I was struck by his understanding of the value listening brings to his ability to sell. He described his sales methodology and it was all about his being with prospective customers as an active listener. Because we both approach creating conversation with a shared understanding of the critical importance of listening we were able to create rapport and connection that is a rewarding and valuable aspect of the interview process. I am not surprised that this sales executive has consistently overachieved his targets!

Yesterday I led a workshop for the International Class of the East Side Institute, an international training center led by my colleague Dr. Lois Holzman. I decided to spend most of the workshop leading the participants in an exercise to help strengthen their listening muscles.

I had two participants begin a conversation. The “rules” of the exercise include not asking leading questions and actively listening for “offers” – gifts that we receive in conversation – that when accepted, acknowledged, and responded to will build closeness, rapport, and intimacy. All too often we listen for opportunities to say what we have to say then we ask the question that will lead into what we have to say, rather than responding to the other. That is what I mean by a “leading question”. In our overly-individualized culture the voice we listen to the most is often our own internal voice rather than giving our full attention to the other who is speaking.

When a participant did ask a leading question or was not accepting and building with offers, I would tap them out and bring in a new conversant to pick up and continue the conversation. After a few rounds the conversation deepened and the participants – both the conversationalists and observers – were able to be closer to one another. I was improvising my role as teacher. I was listening to the students and creating with what they gave me.

Lois was also participating in the workshop and when we had a debrief about the experience she observed that we were learning to speak as a creative activity. We were listening to the activity, not the words that were spoken. I found Lois’ response wondrous, unexpected and enormously helpful.

I hope this is a useful guide to active listening. Give it a try and discover
how this valuable skill enhances your professional and personal development.

Build A Good Environment Lately?

As an executive coach, teacher and trainer who uses improvisation to help people grow and develop, one of my favorite things is to develop my skills by learning from master teachers.  Last weekend I had the good fortune to attend a workshop called, “Problems, Problems” with David Razowsky, former Artistic Director of Second City in Los Angeles who is often referred to as an Improv Guru.

Watching someone as passionate as David was inspiring.  I feel a kinship with David’s ability and determination to give each student the opportunity to grow by placing loving demands in a safe and trusting environment.  He worked with each student to help us develop tools to go beyond our “improv problems”.  His attention was both on the individuals and on creating an environment that the group would need to take a step into the unknown and grow.

We often find ourselves in environments that are not supportive of the type of risks we have to take in order to go beyond ourselves, to go beyond our usual ways of performing – whether our stage is a theatrical stage or a professional stage.  We are all environment-builders.  Each one of us can take responsibility for creating the environments we find ourselves in so that people can be heard, can take risks and can grow and develop.

Razowsky encourages his students to be present, mindful and in the moment.  Being in a group of people who are together in this way changes the environment.  (Think yoga class!)  It creates trust.

In a business setting we can create more supportive environments by making minute-to-minute decisions about what we are going to say to peers, to people we manage, to our managers and in meetings.  Strong leaders are passionately engaged in creating the very best environment for everyone to succeed.  Constantly asking ourselves and others, “How will this help build the environment?” is an important element of environment-building.  The environment might mean a corporate culture, or how a team works together, a meeting or conversation between two people in the hallway.

In a meeting or one-on-one you might decide to change what or how you are going to contribute to the conversation.  Ask yourself if what you want to say will support the group (two people being the smallest group).

In an improvisational scene the improviser often thinks of something clever to say; a skilled improviser will ask her/his self, “Will responding in this way support my partner?  Will it support the scene?  Will it support the relationship we are creating?”  These are important questions for all of us to be asking when we are building environments for growth.


‘Tis the season to be playful!

Random musings about the therapeutic and developmental nature of play —

This TED Talk, “The shared experience of absurdity” by Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, is a wonderful example of the value of pointless play. It beautifully illustrates the joy we experience connecting with others in the activity of play.

I’m fortunate to be part of a community that is always discovering how play can help people develop in many contexts — here’s a few examples:

We recently ended a very successful three week class at the East Side Institute on humor and it’s role in development. My co-teacher Mary Fridley and I were fortunate to work with a very giving and creative group of students. In our last session we split the class into two groups and they created and performed two wonderfully humorous skits. Our students created humor out of the things they listed as “not funny” — terminal illness, abuse, our irritations at people, and various difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in. Together we made discoveries about how we can use our wonderful human ability to create with others and in that activity we find humor and joy, even when we are sure there is none to be found.

On December 9th I’ll be joining my colleague Rafael Mendez at the Social Therapy Group’s workshop: Creating the Holidays You Want to Have*.  It’s part of Therapy Play: a series of therapeutic workshops of philosophical conversation and group performance work designed for emotional growth and development.  Rafael asked me to help him create an environment for participants to play with some of the things that come up for all of us during the holidays:

Even as we look forward to celebrating with friends and family, the pressure to feel how we’re “supposed” to feel, to get together with who we’re “supposed” to get together and to give gifts we often can’t afford – can make it difficult to be “merry, happy and gay.”

In preparing to coach another MBA student who told me that he has difficulty, “letting people see my personality” I’ve been thinking about how adults have to reawaken and strengthen our play muscle. This muscle, which was so strong when we were children, sadly atrophies during adulthood.  The good news is that we can all workout in the gymnasium of pointless play in our families, workplaces and frankly anywhere we find ourselves.

Improv Everywere … indeed!

* For readers in the NY Metro area here’s a link to info on the December 9th workshop

Taking play seriously . . .

I’m a fan of Tony Schwartz’s posts on the HBR.  Schwartz is the CEO of The Energy Project and always has good things to say about how we work.  I’m also a big fan of “how” – the often neglected but critical aspect of all that we do.

In Four Destructive Myths Most Companies Still Live By Schwartz takes on four myths that are well worth busting up.  Given my procivities toward creativity and play I am interested in busting open Myth #3: Creativity is genetically inherited, and it’s impossible to teach.

In a global economy characterized by unprecedented competitiveness and constant change, nearly every CEO hungers for ways to drive more innovation. Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t think of themselves as creative, and they share with the rest of us a deeply ingrained belief that creativity is mostly inborn and magical.

Ironically, researchers have developed a surprising degree of consensus about the stages of creativity and how to approach them. Our educational system and most company cultures favor reward the rational, analytic, deductive left hemisphere thinking. We pay scant attention to intentionally cultivating the more visual, intuitive, big picture capacities of the right hemisphere.

As it turns out, the creative process moves back and forth between left and right hemisphere dominance. Creativity is actually about using the whole brain more flexibly. This process unfolds in a far more systematic — and teachable — way than we ordinarily imagine. People can quickly learn to access the hemisphere of the brain that serves them best at each stage of the creative process — and to generate truly original ideas.

I don’t want to quibble with the important things that Schwartz has to say. . . and I think there is more to give readers about our human capacity to create and how to develop that capacity.  Although it might involve “using the whole brain more flexibly” there are some easy-to-teach ways to develop our innate creative capacity.  Readers of this blog probably know what comes next . . .  yes and . . . improvisation is the way!

We are creative beings. As babies we acquired language through creative, improvisational imitation. Adults spoke to us before we “understood” language and we responded with our baby babblings and one day we became speakers.  That activity of being related to “a head taller” than we are continues to be how we grow and develop throughout our lives.  When we relate to each other as “creative” we get back in touch with our innate creativity.  Although there is no human being who is “not creative”, many of us think that about ourselves and need an environment and support to flex and develop our creative muscles.

As a teacher and coach I have found that playing improv games brings out the creative capacity of the group — whether we are passing around improvised balls of different weight, size and color, telling a collective story one word at a time, or creating “yes and” scenes between two people — we can create an environment to teach/remind people just how creative we all are.  Sadly in our culture we often lose touch with our playful selves in the service of “growing up” and becoming “serious”.

There is no doubt in my experience — play is the means by which we experience our wonderous capacity to create.

I also share Schwartz’s desire to bust up Myth #4: The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours:

. . . human beings are designed to pulse intermittently between spending and renewing energy. Great performers — and enlightened leaders — recognize that it’s not the number of hours people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to whatever hours they work.

Rather than systematically burning down our reservoir of energy as the day wears on, as most of us do, intermittent renewal makes it possible to keep our energy steady all day long. Strategically alternating periods of intense focus with intermittent renewal, at least every 90 minutes, makes it possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.

“Intermittent renewal” … hmm what could be better than a play break at the office?

Imagine the level of innovation and creativity that could be produced if we took play seriously?!

Improvisational magic

Not surprisingly I am an improvisation advocate.  This week I had a series of conversations with a diverse grouping of executives, friends, and colleagues about various life challenges.  In almost every case I found myself advocating on behalf of the basics of improvisation:

Say yes
Actively listen
Focus on the ensemble and/or the other
Stay postive
Build and create with others

I’ve been reading a few articles this week that brought improvisation to mind. One article in the HBR this week — How to Really Listen by Peter Bregman — has much to say about listening that I agree with.  Sadly Bregman leaves out play, performance and improvisation and offers readers a cognitive behavioral approach to developing better listening capabilities.

One thing that Bergman wrote in this article jumped out at me and it is this simple statement:

Listening, it turns out, is magic.

I think there is a magic that comes with creating conversation and a key ingredient is active listening. This made me think of the wonderful work that my colleague, Cathy Salit the CEO of Performance of A Lifetime, does with corporate executives.  Cathy is an expert at helping people actively listen and create new conversations.  Here’s a wonderful excerpt to an interview Cathy recently gave with Michelle James on her blog, The Fertile Unknown

What mindsets and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Cathy: Improvise. Perform. Relate to every conversation, meeting, and interaction as an improvisational scene in which you are a performer, writer and director. Break rules and make up new ones — not just in coming up with ideas, but in how we organize what we do together and how we do it in the workplace. Become a creative artist whose medium is everyday life.

We can all become a creative artist “whose medium is everyday life” — now that’s magic!

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 :

“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…