Engineers v. entrepreneurs: the great impro-off

Every played at improvisation? These are the exercises actors use to be able to create whole performances from scratch on the spot.Improvisation in companies takes those exercises and applies them to building skills which help improve business performance.On the surface, it looks like a facilitator having you running around and playing games to stimulate your creativity and capacity for complete ridiculousness. What it actually does is help you practise bringing more of your great ideas to your company.

I’m not a fan of Monopoly or poker but I love impro, charades and Pictionary: games that combine physicality and mental work, with the ultimate goal of stopping your critical brain get in the way of creation.   As experiential learning that is linked well to ‘how do we apply this at work’ it can provide a powerful shift in ‘how we do things around here’ in the office.

Take this simple exercise:

The Yes, AND game in impro goes something like this:

Person 1: Let’s go for a picnic.

Person 2: Yes!  What I like about that is that I love eating in nature, AND we could take our picnic to Regent’s Park.

Person 1: Yes!  What I like about that is that Regent’s Park is beautiful in winter (!) AND we could visit the zoo as well.

Admittedly that version doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but practise these skills enough and you will eventually come up with storylines that quickly turn a picnic into a space adventure with chocolate-infused chartreuse dished out by Richard Branson or supermodels (see previous post for more on that!). Turn those skills back to the company – and innovative ideas on how to improve business performance have a shining chance to manifest.

It’s very often used by strategic facilitators to show people how to generate ideas.  The object is to find something you like in another’s suggestion and build on it.  Business environments are so complex and interconnected, that not listening to input is highly risky.  These skills help ensure that what comes out has 1) engagement from the group, and 2) builds on the wisdom of the group.

At a creativity day run by Expedition Engineering earlier this year, the amazing Belina Raffy of Maffick led a team of engineers through the Yes, AND game and a host of other activities to develop these skills in engagement and handling complex information.  I was invited along by Expedition to observe the creative process as it particularly relates to engineering and recommend how lateral thinking learnt in the workshop could be integrated into their work practices.

The engineers struggled: instead of the Yes, AND game, they tended towards a No, BUT version:

Person 1: We could go for a picnic.

Person 2: BUT it’s going to rain.

By contrast, a session run for entrepreneurs (by actor and engineer Simon Scott) generated a load of random and interesting storylines.  Belina and Simon both led great sessions but the entrepreneurs had a greater capacity for positive, generative thinking.  I had the same experience when I worked with entrepreneurs at The Hub. (Simon has actually done research to show that learning improvisation skills helps develop entrepreneurship skills.)

There’s a lot of talk in the engineering sector about a new way of doing things.  Keith Clarke, from Atkins, discussed a new set of skills to create a low carbon future during his Brunel lecture this week.  The IET is embarking on an ambitious strategy for a global agenda.

We need to upskill the sector to be more intrapreneurial, more collaborative, more creative.  It’s going to require some experimentation. Some Practical Creativity.  And it just might require looking outside engineering for the answers.

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rachaelwest

Speaker | Coach | Founder Yoga for Pain Care Australia

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