June 12, 2014

The pleasure and the usefulness of improvising together

In our training courses we sometimes use some nice improvisation exercises. This week that happened once again. We asked participants to form small groups of 3 or 4 people and to go and stand together somewhere in the room while facing each other. Then we gave the following instruction:
We are asking you to start improvising together. The first person will say a word, the next person will say a word that builds on the first person's word, the third person will say a word which builds on the second person's word, and so on, in such a way that you will produce well-formed sentences together. Make sure to do this rather quickly and once a sentence is completed you can start to produce a new sentence. So please, go ahead and try it out.
The participants started and soon we heard laughter from different parts of the room. This went on for the next several minutes. We noticed that the participants gradually got the hang of it and started to improvise and work together more fluently. After about 8 minutes we extended the exercise by adding this instruction:
We are going to change the exercise a bit now. One person will ask a question about the progress-focused approach and the other members of the group will improvise answers to that question just like you have done just now, one word at a time. When the question has been answered it is the next person's turn to ask a question after which the rest of the group will improvise answers to that question. And so on. Please go ahead and try it. 
The participants started right away and there were lots of thoughtful facial expressions and there was also lots of laughter. After about 8 minutes we ended the exercise and reflected on it. Participants said that they found it hard to keep from trying to control the conversations by trying to influence what other people would say. Also they said they enjoyed the exercise a lot.

The nice thing about exercises like this is that they are not only fun parlor games but also that there can actually be some useful sides to them. A first yield is that it is an enjoyable way to practice your listening skills and your skills of working with whatever your conversation partner brings forward (which is essential in progress-focused work). A second yield is that people can experience that something new is produced (well-formed sentences, good answers to hard questions) by the group as a whole. The fascinating thing is that no individual controls the content of what is produced while the content can be interesting and useful, still. This is a good example of what is sometimes called co-creation which happens a lot in progress-focused work and which means that something creative emerges between people.

A third type of yield is that people often quickly become relaxed and positive while doing the exercise because they like it so much. This positivity is not only pleasant, it is also useful. As Barbara Fredrickson has shown, positivity can stimulate creativity. This makes it possible to let people answer all kinds of questions while improvising. Sometimes the answers may be hilarious and absurd but sometimes they may also be surprisingly relevant and useful. Those question can be about anything which is important for the team.

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