Brian Tolle: Improvisation Brings Out the Group Mind, Builds Cohesion and Trust

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This post is written by a member of the Re-Wired team, Brian Tolle.
So here’s my situation.

A prospective client contacted me last week about delivering a workshop for the leadership team of one of its business units. The purpose is to develop these leaders as coaches and to give them an opportunity to bond as a team – they recently created the unit through a re-organization. They’re giving me a day. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The more I thought about a possible agenda, the more the typical leadership training left me uninspired. These are seasoned directors and senior managers for a Fortune 500 company. Is it really a case of knowledge gaps getting in the way of being a leader/coach or is it more likely not enough practice to turn knowledge into ability? That’s when improvisation popped in my head.

By improvisation, I mean the classical, theatrical form of spontaneous, unscripted co-creation. Just to be clear, I don’t mean to turn them into comedians. Having performed and taught improvisation in my younger days, I learned firsthand that improvisation has clearly defined rules and a structure to create within, and because it is so structured it’s easy to use it to counteract the false sense of control that comes from focusing on the typical leadership domains of strategies, plans, objectives, goals, measurements, and responsibilities.

And if you think about it, learning how to improvise is quite in line with learning how to make sense of the daily gyrations and convoluted mish-mash of information when working in the marketplace.

So how will a leadership team benefit from learning to improvise together? Consider this:

1. You learn to listen to each other. One of the fundamental rules of improvisation is “yes, and…” Whatever your partner contributes to the scene (“Isn’t it grand to be in the Sahara Desert again.”) must be acknowledged by the other players and expanded (“Yes, and this new Sand Castle Hotel is quite luxurious.”) Only then can the scene expand and take on new dimensions. But you can only build upon what you have heard. All it takes to kill the scene is for the partner to reply, “We’re not in the Sahara Desert, silly, we’re in mid-town Manhattan.”

2. You start doing. There’s nothing more tedious than to watch improv players “talk” about digging for gold. For Pete’s sake, start digging! Only then will you discover new twists and turns that will make the scene magical.

3. You build a group mind, the springboard for trust. Here’s how the gurus of improvisation, Charna Halpern and Del Close, describe what they refer to as group mind:
We already know that people have incredible individual capabilities. Unlike the real world, however, when a number of players are on stage, their intelligence is actually increased. The group intelligence is much more than the sum of its parts. When a team of improvisers pays close attention to each other, hearing and remembering everything, and respecting all that they hear, a group mind forms. The goal of this phenomenon is to connect the information created out of group ideas – and it’s easily capable of brilliance.

So, it looks like we’ve come closer to an answer. Should a leadership team learn to improvise? Absolutely. But can leaders learn to improvise? That sounds like the bigger question…coming up next.

You can buy a copy of Brian's newest book, Shortcut: Getting Through to People Who Slow You Down, at Amazon.

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