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.

Time to take a shot!

UnknownAfter seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical, Hamilton and listening (endlessly) to the score, his lyrics and music have been inspiring me on a daily basis.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the professional and personal activity of “taking a shot,” pursuing a dream or making the choice to change careers or jobs.  In my work as an executive coach I often help people pursue new professional challenges using a performance-based approach.  Many of my clients struggle to fulfill their potential and to see the myriad of  possibilities that lie in front of them.  We can easily become dispirited living in our turbulent and chaotic world and yet we can…

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!

Learning to live in the moment means embracing the words that the Schuyler sisters sing:

History is happening.

And we are making history as we create our lives.  We perform in ensembles – some of us perform on the Broadways stage in Hamilton, others perform in ensembles at the office or in our living rooms, but performers we are.

A wonderful thing about being human is that we can (and we must) learn from failure. We can play any scene over or with a new emotion or intention. We can always grow.

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints,

it takes and it takes and it takes
and we keep living anyway, 

we rise and we fall and we break
and we make our mistakes. and if there’s a reason I’m still alive

when so many have died,
then I’m willin’ to wait for it.

Don’t wait too long.  Take Hamilton’s words to heart:

I’m not throwing away my shot!

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!


The Myth of Cultural Fit

The New York Times recently published a terrific opinion piece – Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work – about “cultural fit.”  The writer, Lauren A. Rivera, is also the author of a book entitled “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” and her valuable insights made me think a lot about the value of working in groups of people who are very different from ourselves. Given our global economy and shifting demographics Americans, in particular, would do well to develop a greater capacity to find ways to build with people who “different.”  I agree with Rivera that the bias towards “cultural fit” might be a fetter to creativity and innovation:

Some may wonder, “Don’t similar people work better together?” Yes and no. For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.

It’s not surprising that the lack of diverse teams made up of people from different economic, racial and gender groupings lead to dysfunction not efficiency. Perhaps this is why confidence in the U.S. Congress is at an all time low!

Rivera is correct that more and more interviews are conducted as “get to know each other” conversations rather than screening for skills and abilities.  “No one asked me a hard question” is a common (and disappointed) response that I hear from candidates when I debrief them about their interviews. The image that comes to mind is a scene from Mad Man, where co-workers hang out an drink together, rather than engaging in the rewarding activity of learning peoples’ differences and then figuring out how to use those differences to build something new together.

Another salient point that Rivera makes reminds me of why I have had a lifelong love affair with the theatre, an ensemble-based creative activity:

When it comes to creating a cohesive work force, managers often discount the power of shared experiences on the job, especially working interdependently on a high-stakes project. The more time we spend with co-workers, the more similar to them we tend to become.

Theatre and performance teach us that we can go beyond ourselves and play and perform with all kinds of people (children do this the best) regardless of whether we have anything “in common.” We get to know each other by working and co-creating together, it really doesn’t matter if we’ve attended the same school or have the same hobbies. The greatness of America lies in our diversity. Getting out of ourselves might just turn out to be more important than fitting in with others!

Interviewing – It’s a Performance! (Part Two)

imagesFrom time to time I get asked to coach MBA students at NYU Stern to help them prepare for interviews to secure summer  internships and/or a job upon graduation.  Most of my coaching clients at Stern have not had an easy time at these interviews and sometimes feel that there is something lacking.  These are very bright and well prepared students who don’t have the performance skills needed to succeed in a highly competitive environment.  This is, of course, also true for seasoned executives who find themselves interviewing for the first time in a long time.

An Interview is a performed conversation.  It requires a great deal of listening, creating conversation and performance energy.  Most people go into interviews looking to “say the “right thing” so they can “get it right” – that activity bypasses the creative activity of developing a performed conversation with someone and, instead, focuses on the end result (getting the job or the internship).  Perhaps you’re thinking “creativity in an interview?” so let’s deconstruct this thing we call an interview and put it into a theatrical context.

The scene begins with a warm smile and a solid handshake.  The performance demands that the interviewee be fully present, making eye contact, seated in a relaxed manner, self-conciously breathing and engaged.  This is a good moment to focus on the person across from you – giving full attention to the slow and steady building of the conversation.  Focus should be on the two words that we use in improvisation – “yes and” – listen to the questions, and respond.  Acknowledge what you’ve been asked (that is the “yes”) and respond in a way that builds the conversation (that is the “and”).  If you keep your focus on this activity versus “getting it right” or “saying something smart” you will build rapport, which is often overlooked during an interview.  Most candidates talk too much when they are being interviewed, which often happens as a result of nervousness.  You might want to stop and ask, “Would you like me to elaborate?” rather than going on and on and ignoring that your interviewer’s eyes have glazed over.  A good performer is very aware of her/his scene partner and when possible, works to make her/him look good.  That might mean saying, “That’s a great question!” with a smile even if you’re thinking, “How am I going to answer THAT question?!”

Another tool to bring into an interview is creative imitation.  A great way to develop an interview performance is to think of someone you admire for their performance skills – a mentor, a professor, a favorite actor, a great TED Talk – it doesn’t matter who you have in mind.  Once you think of that person the fun part is to perform your creative imitation of that person … in an interview.  This is a way to step a little bit (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone and pretend, play and perform as someone other than who you are.  The beauty of performance is that of course you are always who you are and at the same time you are other than who you are!  This uniquely human capability allows us to be shy and perform outgoing, to be insecure and perform confidence.

The magical thing about performance is that, after awhile, you might very well become a person who aces interviews – not by “getting it right” – but by creating a deliberate, self-conscious, thoughtful performance of an interview.

To Be (ourselves) or Not to Be (ourselves)?

self-portrait: to be or not to be..The Harvard Business Review recently ran an article called Do You Really Want to Be Yourself at Work? which raises some interesting philosophical questions like: What does it mean to “be yourself”? What would it look like to “be who you are becoming”?

As a professional recruiter who is invested in human development and creating environments that support people to grow, I read this article with interest, especially when it talks about corporate cultures that are invested in developing employees.

For three years [the researchers] went around the world, asking hundreds of executives to describe the attributes of their ideal workplace. Topping the list was an environment where people could be themselves and where the company invested in developing them (and everyone they worked with) to be the very best they could be.

I would argue that creating an environment, a corporate culture, where people could be other than who they are would help people more than attempting to be “the very best they can be”.  That said, a corporate culture that is, “dedicated to developing every one of its people by weaving personal growth into day-to-day work” is on the right track.  Rather than weaving “personal growth” into the day-to-day work, companies might want to consider putting the focus on the totality of its employees growing.  How does that happen?  One way is by supporting everyone to be risk-takers – all of our mistakes and failures are opportunities for creativity and development:

In these companies employees didn’t spend any time hiding their inadequacies or preserving their reputations. Rather, everyone — from the CEO on down — was expected to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In fact, both organizations had elaborate systems designed to promote individuals into roles a bit beyond their comfort zones to ensure that they would inevitably learn from failure. In this way people became masters not of any particular skill but of learning to adjust to new situations, which produced organizations that were remarkably resilient.

Yes and!  Learning to learn seems key.  The work that I do as a coach is about finding new performances that not only allow people to go beyond their comfort zones but to discover who we are becoming.  I was interviewing a young woman this week who constantly peppered her speech (as many young people do) with “like” and “you know”. I was coaching her to be more self-conscious of this to help her present in a more mature and professional manner.  I suggested that she use performance as a tool to do that.  She asked me, “You mean like my alter-ego?”.  As a good improviser I accepted her offer and appreciated that this is a way she could be other than who she is.

I took the survey embedded in the article to answer the question, Would you love to work in a place where you could truly be yourself?   Yes, I do “thrive in a deliberately developmental organization”!  One important way that an organization can become “deliberately developmental” is to allow people to be other than who they are – to perform in new ways, to play new roles and to perform our potential.

The non-profit All Stars Project Inc. is an example of an organization that is “deliberately developmental” – it is a model that for-profit cultures could learn from.

Let’s develop!


Dreaming of a New Job?

Dream JobThe Wall Street Journal recently ran an article in their Career section entitled When Your Dream Job Disappoints, How to Find Plan B (subtitled Key Tasks: Overcome Disappointment, Make the Most of Your Skills) Thinking about pursuing a “dream job” in today’s world of work, where most Americans are working longer hours in the office and on our smart phones early mornings, late nights and weekends, can overwhelm us. Most of us are working harder for less.

After years of planning, preparing and perhaps paying for an extra degree, you finally land your dream job—and discover you don’t like it.  It’s a surprisingly common dilemma. The idea of a “dream job” is drilled into job seekers these days. Increasingly, people expect to find jobs that provide not only a living but also stimulation, emotional fulfillment and a sense of purpose. The image of a career as a source of passion is promoted by career advisers, self-help books and even the glamorous characters in TV dramas. But fantasies about a job can blind job-seekers to workaday realities and to consideration of the best fit.

“Workaday realities” being what they are, finding emotional fulfillment and a sense of purpose from our professional lives is increasingly rare.  The desire to have a “dream job” or even a fulfilling job is ever changing as we mature as professionals.  A dream job at 25 is quite different from a dream job at 50.  Some people reach their 50s with a successful track record in business and find themselves wanting to give back and make a difference in the world.  Whereas someone’s “dream job” once was a high-paying Wall St. position by her/his mid-50s it might be the case that becoming a semi-retired philanthropist is where fulfillment lies.

Having gone through the recession many professionals are just getting back on their feet and might be thinking about moving into a more fulfilling role.  This often requires changing industries or careers which is not an easy feat in today’s marketplace.  Hiring managers and HR recruiters often look at a prospective candidate in a narrow fashion – if you have not done this exact job, worked in this industry before – you will not be considered… especially with so many people applying for the same (and sometimes scares) opportunities.

I finished reading Ken Robinson’s book The Element, and as I coach people making career transitions while growing and developing my own freelance business, I am thinking a lot about what is called for in pursing our dreams.  It requires a big, bold performance; we have to be fearless and resilient in the face of uncertainty.

When we pursue a new job or a career transition or a “dream job” we have to get comfortable with a new script for a new character.  It is a creative activity of interweaving our past experiences with where we are currently at and envisioning / performing who we are becoming; who do we dream we might be?

How do you go about crafting this bold performance?  Start with your passion and your capabilities.  Give yourself permission to be bold.  Reach out for creative input and direction from friends, colleagues, and mentors.  Be playful!  Someone suggested that I wear an invisible cloak to client meetings with my Wonder Woman costume underneath. At first that seemed a bit silly but I decided to “put on the cloak and the costume” and I do believe it helped me to be bold!


Performing our passion

I’ve been reading Ken Robinson’s book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything and greatly enjoying it.  Thinking about our passion and our careers is not always something we do, as work often leads us away from our passions in life.  Certainly there are some people who have successfully married their passions with their professional lives – this is what Robinson would call being in your “element”.

In a recent posting on the Harvard Business Review – Tell Your Whole Story in an Interview Lara Galinsky makes an interesting point about how we think of our stories as beginning when we first collected a pay check.  Of course early experiences greatly shape who we are including where we grew up, cultural influences, our family histories, our early mentors (that kindergarden or 2nd grade teacher we loved), the games we loved to play, the books we used to read, etc.

Robinson is making a similar case for exploring our passions and creativity to help us find where we belong professionally.  Robinson writes about highly successful people from all walks of life, many of whom did not do well in school, found communities of like-minded people, and created their lives by following their passion.

When I was reading Galinsky’s article it reminded me that in a recent interview with a potential client we were talking about what makes a good recruiter.  A lot of what we do is on the telephone – cold calling, interviewing, networking.  Then I (unexpectedly) shared that when I was a child my mother was in the PR business, then later in life she moved into talent management and she always seemed to have a telephone in her hand, so it’s not surprising that I learned how to “work the phones”.

When we look back at childhood – when play was pointless – what were we drawn to?  Or, as Galinsky puts it, “reflect back on a time when work and play were not always distinguishable”.  When we were bored in school what were we doing while the teacher was droning?  What were our dreams and fantasies?  What are our dreams and fantasies now?  Can we use our passion to recreate ourselves professionally and how do we go about this?

What is the performance we need to pursue our dream?  Recently I was talking to a dear friend about developing my business; she is a very successful and savvy business woman.  She said that I must be willing to fail, be fearless, and resilient.  I imagine a director telling me that my character is fearless and resilient.  What would that performance look like?

All of us can be who we are and who we are not.  Performance helps us be who we are becoming.  By fully embracing our passion we can create ourselves anew.  We can jump into the unknown, knowing we will fail, and that we will use our failure to grow, to build and to be fearless.  We must be resilient.  How?

By finding what Robinson calls our “tribe” – a community, a company, a grouping of people who share our passion and desires.  We create socially; as relational beings we can only create and recreate ourselves with others.


The Best Managers are Performing Ahead of Themselves

Lately I’ve been observing how people approach the role of manager.  Given my training as an actress and improviser, I often think of roles in theatrical terms.  Sometimes people get “cast” as a manager but they haven’t played this role before, nor have they had any training (rehearsal) for the demands of developing and managing a team.

My training in the social therapeutic method introduced me to Lev Vygotsky, an early Soviet psychologist who greatly influenced the field of human development.  Vygotsky talked about performing “a head taller” than we are – I love this image.  For those of us who find ourselves having to manage others, we often have to do things that seem impossible, given our limitations.  Managing people requires great emotional intelligence, honesty and impeccable listening skills.

Recently I’ve read a couple of wonderful pieces about managing people that appeared in the Harvard Business Review – I love these titles and encourage you to read what these authors have to say:

If You’re Not Helping People Develop, You’re Not Management Material

Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better  

These articles, wonderful as they are, don’t say much about the “how” of developing into a great manager, although they give some steps to take, which I wholeheartedly support.  What I’m most interested in is the performance required to allow oneself to give a team the support they need to develop, which is one way of understanding what is meant by “love” in this context.  In speaking to people about their experiences with managers, they often describe the close bonds that are forged when someone takes the time and effort to give to their people.

Some people end up as managers by default and, not surprisingly, they put all their focus on what they from their people, rather on what their people need from their manager. This is an impossible situation, as an effective manager’s mantra needs to be “give, give and then give some more”, especially if you want to help your people develop. (Hint: You might have to develop!)

Sadly in our culture the act of giving is not often cultivated.  After all, we live in a culture that is all about getting.  So most of us who manage teams of people have to perform a head taller than we are in order to give, especially in the moments when we are frustrated, disappointed, or let down by someone on our team.  This is where performance becomes a wonderful tool, as there are countless performances to be created at these moments!  As human beings we are all wonderfully creative when it comes to performing (think back to when you were a child).  The work I do with my clients is all about creating a character, a role, a performance for these challenging moments (this is how you can perform ahead taller and this is how we grow and develop).

Creative imitation is a good way to begin. Is there a mentor from your past, a role model, even an actor who you admire and can imitate?  What I mean by “creative imitation” is to create your version of this person, using them as inspiration to perform a head taller than you are.  Perhaps you steer clear of conflict – is there someone to imitate who is fearless in the face of conflict?  One of my clients decided to perform as Meryl Streep in Iron Lady, which allowed her to perform as a strong woman in situations that would normally intimidate her.

Next time you have to have a tough conversation with a team member, or you feel the frustrations that comes with being a manager, be a head taller than you are … perform (and develop)!

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