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Could you use improvisational techniques for workplace discussions?

In ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, author Malcolm Gladwell has a section on improvisational theater. In acting, the goal may be a 30 minute performance in which the players agree they have to accept everything that happens to them. They have no net, no script, no plot. They practice to become better listeners, to follow what another has said and done, to keep a good pace without suppressing action. After performances, they critique one another and how the audience reacted.

It seems to me those would be interesting techniques in the workplace.

My goal is to advocate for workplace meetings and discussions that employ constructive debate focused on finding the ideas or solutions which are most likely to succeed. Take away the ownership and defense of ideas, the remarks that seem to be personal attacks, the predetermined outcome.

Neither improvisational theater nor constructive debate is totally random. Actors come to the stage with personal knowledge and experience. So it is for workplace discussions. People need to feel their opinions and ideas are valued, that they are contributing or getting information. They need to feel their time is well-spent, that there is progress. They need to feel they belong.

I find real value in group thinking, that often the best ideas surface when you have a team of people with various roles come together to define work, tackle projects or find solutions. There could be improvisational-type ground rules such as you follow up on the ideas of others; you focus on ideas, not personalities. Everyone plays a part, large or small. There can be debates, being responsive more than reactive. It is taking the ego out of the discussions and letting free thinking shine.

Gladwell writes about improvisation: You create the conditions for successful spontaneity, the framework for fluid, effortless, spur-of-the moment dialog. For meetings, I think the framework includes an agenda, a meeting leader who seeks ideas of all, who is not intent upon forcing his or her ideas upon the group, who controls the meeting to keep one or two people from domination, who keeps the meeting focused and moving toward resolution.

Gladwell writes about spontaneity---not thinking about something a long time, not having to write about it, but ‘being in the moment’. I think we’d find some neat solutions and enjoy real buy-in to projects begun this way.

P.S. I plan to submit a civility in the workplace workshop for this fall’s annual extension conference. This idea of constructive debate is my idea at present. What do you think would be a good focus for a civility workshop at annual conference? It doesn’t matter if you will attend or not. I’m just looking for good ideas.

“Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.”
Publilius Syrus, Latin writer of maxims, improviser (1st century BC)



Refusing to participate in group discussion in a constructive manner is incivil on its face. We don't say it enough. It is disrespectful of your coworkers, your organization and it violates the trust your employer has placed in you when they hired you and while they continue to write you a paycheck. To refuse to entertain new ideas, to actively block innovation and to sit back with a superior "I know more than anyone, including the boss, about how things OUGHT to be done" is grotesquely self-serving.

Enough said?

When we engage in these behaviors, we reinforce a sick culture that rewards stagnation and the status quo and is satisfied with only "good enough to get by."

Naysaying has its place, don't get me wrong, but its place is a limited one - in helping identify and plan for risks - too many organizations and managers within those organizations tolerate dissent long past the point of its usefulness.

Worse than naysaying is checking out, refusing to participate in any level until your own ego is satisfied with the level and shape of your role/influence.

I am ranting already and it's only Wednesday.

Better close while I can.

Hi Lynette,
Improvisation -- that's the most enjoyable, productive way for me to engage in conversation -- using a spur of the moment, fluid exchange of ideas. I call it "thinking out loud." It requires trust of others in the conversation. Building that trust is essential, and not always easy in the workplace. We must be friends to one another -- "a friend is someone before whom I can think aloud" -- that's a quote by somebody. And, you know, it's so much more fun when people can speak freely -- and it's exciting when the ideas start to gel. I'm intrigued by the possibility of this topic as a workshop.