Month: August 2016
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
2016 is a sporty year: I’ve picked up cycling, the Euro 2016 has ended little over a month ago and the world is already focusing on Rio. The Euro 2016 was full of surprises and I am sure the Olympics also has some up its sleeves during the coming weeks. Watching teams and athletes exceeding expectations and paying attention to my body’s signals when cycling made me think about what organisations could learn from sporting endavours. Here are three you may want to think about for your own team:
1. Creating environments in which it is safe to fail
The Euro 2016, just like many other tournaments, was not short of drama. We saw players missing important shots and even penalties. However, coaches sent them back to the pitch again and again on the understanding that failure is part of the game. If players felt that every little mistake would be heavily penalised, then they would be less inclined to take the measured risks necessary to ensure an interesting game and the prospect of success.
So what can team leaders learn from this? Well, we all need tolerance of failure within our teams. We need to create environments in which people feel able to innovate and try out new ways of working even if it does not work out in the end. Employees need to be aware that taking measured risks will not cost their career if and when they encounter challenges (and inevitably failures) along the way. One great example of this is Indian conglomerate Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’ award. This award recognises sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results. It is a way of recognising that innovation brings with it the possibility of great successes, but also of opportunities to learn from failure.
The question you may want to think about is how do you, the manager, react when your team makes a mistake? Are people in your team and organisation supported in trying new ways of working?
This is a theme that comes out in many of the Jams we run with organisations. These facilitated, online conversations provide people with the opportunity to discuss their more pressing challenges and it is interesting to see tolerance of failure raised as an important characteristic of any innovative organisations. People need support in testing out new ideas.
2. Analysing performance in excruciating detail
Footballers, basketball players and swimmers constantly analyse their performance: During the match, in the breaks and after the final whistle. Even I note down my time, distance and speed after cycling. This helps us understand the factors that drive individual and team performance, and uncover any areas that need improvement. It also helps us understand individual needs. For example, in football, goalkeepers and strikers have a different diet. Why? A striker runs and sweats more than a goalkeeper, which means strikers need more energy to live up to fans’ expectations. Teams collect huge amounts of data to monitor players’ development and strengths.
What does this teach you about performance? Semi-annual performance reviews will not do the job in a competitive, high-pressure environment. Instead you may want to think about how often you review a completed project or a proposal that you have won or lost? The extent to which you analyse individual performance within the team after a project is completed, or whether you move on to the next project without actually understanding what happened and why?
3. Embracing agility
While sports teams have great icons, it does not mean they are the only players who can score. Take Ronaldo’s injury in the Euro 2016 final against France as an example, but I could also mention Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong’s truly amazing recovery during the London Marathon. She fell over, hit her head, and despite all this, managed to win the gold in the end. Portugal’s recovery was not less remarkable either: Nani took over as captain and Queresma was substituted for Ronaldo. Thanks to their agility, the players were able to change strategy less than half an hour into the game and take home the trophy.
Building an agile team is undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges managers face. In project teams, members may change frequently, or leaders may be called away to other roles or responsibilities and yet the team must continue to perform. This means it’s important to consider what contingency plans are in place if a key person were to be unavailable.
For inspiration from the business world, we can turn to music streaming service, Spotify. Spotify’s teams, or ‘squads’ as they call themselves, are good examples. Dr. Jeff Sutherland, inventor of the Scrum software development process explained that Spotify is able to compete with Google and Amazon in terms of performance by hiring agile coaches, employing seamless coordination and mastering the art of removing redundant steps from the project.
How agile is your team and what can you do to ensure your team performs when circumstances change?
At the Hot Spots Movement we are always looking for inspiration from other industries – sports, Opera, dance – to see what we can learn. Football and other team sports are by no means perfect in terms of managing performance, but perhaps we can take something from the sport’s ability to create a safe-to-fail environment, its commitment to reviewing team performance in detail and its agility.
If you would like to learn more, or have a great example to share, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.