As I learned about theatre, I assumed that for the best results, you needed a script, a director & rehearsal. It was obvious. The play was written by some great author, directed by a renowned director and got better and better as the actors worked out how best to deliver it.
This is the majority of the world’s default setting, not only for theatre, but for everything from parenting to presentations to the 3-year organisational strategy.
It’s easy and familiar to see the world in terms of plans, leaders and practice-makes-perfect. That’s certainly how I saw it, until my brother insisted I saw an improv troupe perform in London, and they upset my assumptions by being brilliant, contemporary – and they were improvising. What did that mean?
Instead of a script, improvisers recognise and embrace uncertainty.
Instead of appointing the leader and everyone following directions from the top, anyone can be leading at any moment. Centralised heroic leadership is not usually required and it will show up if and when it’s needed.
Instead of rehearsing until all decisions are made and all mistakes and surprises are eliminated – improvisers allow for spontaneity and creativity emerging on the spot to be just as valuable – and probably twice as exciting.
All of that is true in organisations as well as in artistic performance. But not everything that’s true in performance is true in organisations. And one of the biggest tasks of Applied Improvisers – and therefore of all of us as the Applied Improvisation Network – is to work out what we can say about improvisation that does apply away from the stage and away from the privileged environment of workshops.
For example, a lot of beginner improvisers are enthusiastic about mistakes. ‘Make more mistakes’ they say and ‘woohoo!’ And you can see their point if they want people to relax and become more creative, and the cost of the mistake is virtually zero. But the cost is zero because it takes place in a game. A game is defined partly by its distinction from real life. We play to prepare, to practice skills, for the fun of it. Mistakes in this context are trivial by definition.
You really don’t want to encourage mistakes most of the time. If you make a mistake with a computer password, it’s annoying. if your dentist makes a mistake when drilling your teeth, it’s painful. If a motorist makes a mistake when your child crosses the road, it’s fatal.
When we work out what does translate from our shared experiences of improvisation, then we’ll have a powerful message. We can position improvisation as central to the success of organisations and to our best functioning in everyday life.
We already know that many of the most successful contemporary companies are saturated with improvisation. Here in California, especially Silicon Valley, where the pioneers all grew up with improvisation as part of their environment, and they are using it to radically change our world.
That means that if we don’t describe organisations in improvisational terms, then we are misunderstanding what’s going on in organisations. They’re emergent, can be chaotic and messy, they pivot and adapt, they experiment to find out what works, so that they can abandon low-cost failures and learn from low-cost successes and build on them.
‘Have a go’ and ‘Accept and build’ are their watchwords. They let go of unnecessary perfectionism, which frees them up to play and thrive.
The skills the world needs now are improvisation skills – listening, collaborating, being more playful, working more intelligently with risk, having a go at things, adapting, making better use of limited resources for sustainability.
The AIN contains probably the world’s best teachers of these skills. And our network is among the most improvisational organisation in the world – it consists of the emergent interactions of its members. Minimal structure for maximum freedom. And we are all pioneers, who have only just started.
Not everything needs to be Scripted Directed or Rehearsed to be any good. A great improv performance is one powerful counter-example. Applied Improvisation is about finding and creating all the others.