What Improvisation Can Teach Social Change Leaders | Beth’s Blog

What Improvisation Can Teach Social Change Leaders


This post follows yesterday’s post about networked leadership skills.   I had the honor of being a guest facilitator at a transformative leadership retreat with colleagues Heather McLeod Grant, Chris Block, Lance Fors, and David Havens – I got to teach but more importantly got to learn from amazing people.   The retreat curriculum is built around the a framework  called “I-WE-IT” that covers mindsets and practical skills that today’s social change leaders of all generations need as we move towards more collective approaches.

David Havens from Collective Capital, a company that works with business in the area of innovation through improvisation and design thinking.   David comes to this work from a background in the education and educational technology field and he’s on fire!  He lead us on a series of improvisation exercises designed to teach important skills for networked leaders: empathy, awareness, celebrating failure,  being open to change and more.   Okay, I admit the improvisation work is a lot of fun, but there is a lot of learning embedded in the reflection and debriefs.

More importantly, this experiential learning — not just discussion.  It can help apply improv to our work in social change by practicing what it means to have a networked mindset.

David started with some very brief theory about why improvisation skills are important to leadership development in a connected age – for both very experienced leaders as well as emerging leaders.    He first dispelled the myth that improvisation is only about stand up comedy and telling jokes.     He asked us to define it.  Some words and phrases that came up:

  • Responding
  • Flexibility
  • Reaction
  • Co-Creating
  • Making stuff up
  • Bringing your brain to what you are doing

David’s simple definition for improvisation was “Making or creating and doing the best you can with what you have.”     He offered a simple framework for doing improvisation:  notice, accept, and build.    He also talked about the Improviser Mindset VS Scripted Mindset of leaders.  Scripted mindsets expect everything to be perfect in theory, on paper, and in the real world – and when it isn’t they don’t know how to lead.   The Improviser Mindset knows how to take risks, react, co-create, and navigate a complex world.

This reminded me of Margaret Wheatley, who was the keynote speaker at a conference in Alaska where I was doing a workshop  a few years ago.   Her talk on leadership was “We Are All In This Together” – leadership in a complex world. Her points about leadership and change.   While she didn’t teach us improvisation exactly, she lead us through some group discussions on the question:  What do we do when things go wrong? My favorite quote was:  “If you’re not making it up as go along, you are out of touch with reality.”  David’s improv exercises were designed to help us stretch this muscle and apply to our social change work.

To demonstrate the framework, he had do a warm up exercise with everyone closing our eyes and asking us to describe different parts of the room we were in:  what colors are the chairs, what kinds of light fixtures, how many windows, etc.   It was eye-opening to discover what you don’t notice when you are aware.  Next he has us walk around the room and pretend to visualize an object in our hands and then hand it to someone else who accepted it.    While it might feel like play, but it was helping engage with another person in the present moment.  That’s a networked leadership skill!

The next exercise was about practicing awareness and openness.  He had us walk around the room following different instructions and then try to find two people and create a triangle.   This exercise was teaching us to be open to change.   I’ve done variations of this exercise as applied to emergence and collaboration in networks, most notably with Eugene Kim who lead a session at the Packard Foundation.  (See Eugene’s more recent post about improvisation and collaborative mindsets and muscles) What I liked about this exercise, is that is furthers the building the awareness and openness skills in a very non-threatening way.

The next exercise was to teach us empathy and active listening.    We had to pair up with a person and each share a story of direct impact.    The second person had to repeat the story back in the first person.  The second time we did, the person not only had to repeat the story back, but mimic body language.    When I did the exercise, it was a different sort of listening because I had to focus and mindful of every word and not ask clarifying questions.    How many times do this type of active listening to the people we work with?   It reminds of the “Mindful Conversation” exercise described in “Search Inside Yourself,” yet another way to practice mindfulness but not just within yourself, but with others.

He had us do an exercise about celebrating failure. We worked with a partner and had to alternate counting to three.  Then he made it more difficult with adding claps, snaps, and stamps at different points.   Of course, we messed up.   He had examine how we felt when we made a mistake.  Not great as many of reflected.   He then had do a version of the “failure bow” which helped us take the stigma out of failure.    There was a noticeable difference in the way everyone approached messing up the sequence.   The take home lesson was about how we can shift making a mistake into a teachable moment.

I was first did exercise two years ago at the Social Innovation Summit at a session on failure facilitated Ed Alter.     The skill of letting go of failures is one that I’ve been passionate about, especially for nonprofit leaders. It is core skill for networked leadership.  The reaction or relief we feel that we can celebrate a failure versus feeling bad about it – is something we all need to practice in our work.  This exercise is a great way to help build that muscle.

The last exercise we did was about how to co-create.   We worked in small groups and did an exercise three times about planning a party with the phrase “Let’s have a party and bring …”  The first time, we were asked to respond with a no.  The second time we responded with yes, but.   The third time we responded with yes, and.  There was a distinct different of energy.   As we reflected on the exercise, David urged us to bring this simple technique to a staff meeting and see what happens.

All in all this was a fantastic experience.   David does workshops in the Bay area and beyond, so I immediately signed up for their next public workshop, but they also do these workshops for nonprofits and corporations.   Collective Capital will also be at this conference in Silicon Valley at the end of the month.  Taking his workshop is the best way to learn these skills.

I was lucky enough to walk the DISH with David last week and he shared a few books and resources about improvisation, plus one that I plucked from his Twitter stream.

Have taken improv training and applied it to your work in the nonprofit or social change sector? How has it helped build your capacity as a leader?  What did you learn?

3 Responses

  1. Vikas Avnish says:

    active listening is done if we are interested.
    Responding, Flexibility ,Reaction, Co-Creating ,Making stuff up ,Bringing your brain to what you are doing

    these are the building blocks in social communication

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