Fitting into the unknown

For those of you who don’t know this yet: I’m a big fan of Improv, both for personal and professional reasons. On the personal side I find it simply amazing: in most of the shows I’ve seen I get that feeling of awe packed with lots of fun. On the professional side because I’ve blended improv into my work and I’ve seen what it can do for people and companies.

As in every of the last 6 years, in 2018 I’ve taken my seat in the audience of the !MPRO Festival, here in Bucharest. And I started to enjoy the shows, one by one. I’ve had fun, taken notes (and I noticed I’m not the only one taking notes during an improv show!) and laughed to the limit of falling off the chair.

There are many good things to be said about every show. I highly recommend you go see several shows, so you can get a grip of what this is all about. Today I want to write about one short form improv game, which was performed in the Improv Games show on Saturday night.

!MPRO showThe theme of the game was offered by the audience and selected by the team on stage: Customer Service. The objective of the game was to do short scenes on the topic of Customer Service, until the coordinator (Mick Napier in this case) concluded with the word SCENE. However, just before starting, a twist was introduced: each actor would perform in his native language, meaning that the text would be spoken in 2 languages, at random, with no translation in between.

A piece of context for you to consider: given that the festival itself was in an international set up, all of the Romanian actors knew English. So in the case of a scene which started in English, we can admit that the sense of the words would also be involved in the choice of text for some of the actors. However, and this is where it gets interesting, the mirror situation was not true: the native English-speaking actors did not speak Romanian at a level which would allow them to understand text so as to build live-acting-dialogue on it. So, they went at it the hard way: most of the scenes started in Romanian and where continued in English.

And here is where the magic of Improv started happening: the scenes made PERFECT sense, although at times one or two of the actors came in and said something only based on the body movements, the tone of voice, the emotional state or the relationship built by the ones who had started the scene. I will highlight it: the scenes made PERFECT sense in terms of dialogue. They were factual correct, witty and funny.

How did they do it? The structure is quite simple (?!) : 1) being present, 2) being aware, 3) connecting to the overall context (the theme was Customer service), 4) allowing time before intervening, 5) listening to the body and the voice (not to the actual words), 6) “Yes, and” to all 5 previous points, 7) contributing just enough to advance but not to distract from the core.

Being present means actually working with and from the present more than with/from the past or the future. The previous scene, or team meeting, might have been efficient or not, our hopes for today might be higher or lower than what is actually going on. In reality, the only thing that counts is who is actually on stage, in the meeting, and what is the task at matter. Nothing more, nothing less.

Being aware refers to understanding your inner world and the outer world. What is your role, what is the scope, what is outside your role and scope, who else is involved, what are their roles and scopes, what is the ensemble, team, overall objective? And so on…

Connecting to the overall context gives everyone a rather fixed and known reference. In this case it was the theme “Customer service”. In day to day business it can be the purpose of the business, the clients, the project etc.  Connecting to it is a must-have element for building a framework where people can contribute to the extent of their will and potential.

Allowing time before intervening is difficult to do in real business-life because sometimes we mistake “the appropriate time” with “the earliest possible” or “yesterday”. Sometimes being ahead of the market is just as off-timed as being behind-the-market.

Listening to the body and voice is one of the basic skills of communication we should all be keener on developing. Please put on a context onto this one: in day-to-day business we talk about acceptable or accepted information, notions, content. And yes, how you say it matters more than what you say! Try saying “thank you” without looking at the person you’re saying it to, or better yet, remember what you said to your child the last time he/she was talking to you while avoiding eye contact.

“Yes, and” is one of the core elements of Improv. It means contributing, advancing, building on something already built by others. It’s the key to speed and efficiency in business and it’s a handy tool when it comes to avoiding the ego.

Contributing just enough is about advancing into the task while not playing an ego game. It’s about serving the purpose and the team.

Improvisers do this in minutes, on stage, live. I’m learning to do this deliberately, every day. I encourage our clients to do the same. I believe it allows us to use our energy for the important stuff while completing the tasks we’ve signed up for, in due time.

Fitting in for the purpose of contributing is a choice, and it’s not about neglecting the individual. It’s about searching and finding a role where that individual (every one of us) can create and obtain value. This game proves that if you want to fit in and you train for it you can do it, even in contexts where the unknown and unpredictable clearly out-weights the known and the predictable.