Have you ever seen really good improv? Did you walk out of the experience willing to swear that the actors had rehearsed it ahead of time or it was some kind of magic? I’ll let you in on an actor’s secret: chances are the work was neither rehearsed nor magic! What’s more likely is that the group performing the improv was a true ensemble of actors who had trained and practiced the principles of improv and were accustomed to working together.
When it comes to knowing how to achieve innovative design, you may be just as mystified as you were watching that improv. Everywhere around us today, we feel the desire and drive to build innovative products and find creative solutions to design problems. I’m sure you have, at times, thought those were impossible goals to achieve. But if we take some lessons from the practice of theatrical improvisation, we’ll discover it isn’t really that hard at all.
Many of the skills actors use expertly are the same skills we use in our daily work lives as UX designers. In fact, the Creative Engineering Web site says:
“Both [improv and design] engage in solving a problem while creating or discovering something new within a given set of constraints. In business, the constraints are often represented by money, time, talent, resources, and the self-imposed limitations of conventional wisdom. In improv, the process is constrained by its rules and the different characteristics inherent in individual exercises or games.”—Creative Engineering
If this is true—that the creative process is the same, even though the constraints are different—anyone is capable of becoming an expert in the art of improvisation, just as actors have. And my belief is that this is true, because we find the basis of improvisation in natural human expression—through words, postures, gestures, facial expressions, and vocal inflections.
Five Truisms of Ensemble Improv
Unfortunately, management often harbors a couple of major misconceptions about improv—and may be familiar with some misuses of improv, too—that hinder the success of improv approaches in the business world.
The first of these misconceptions is their focusing on improv’s being spontaneous, without understanding that a lot of individual work and teamwork goes into spontaneity. Similar to improv, achieving spontaneity and collaborative teamwork requires
an understanding of domain knowledge
a commitment to practice
true collaboration by a multidisciplinary team
the development of shared experiences, language, and gestures
embracing the philosophies of Yes, and, as well as presence
The second misconception is the expectation that every improvisation will be successful and result in a perfect solution. What they fail to understand is that you may have to try and try again, iterating on many ideas to get the best result. Improv requires that you learn to be okay with failing sometimes. You must understand that you can learn a lot from your failures, with the result that you’ll come up with even better ideas. No moments of brilliance would happen without the previous attempts leading up to them.
So, to help clear things up, there are some basic truths I would like to explore—Five Truisms of Improvisation. I’ve adapted these truths from an article by Vera Dusya and Mary Crossan, titled “Improvisation and Innovative Performance in Teams,” which discusses how a team’s learning about the principles of improvisation and actually practicing improvisation can help lead the team to greater innovation.
Your team will improvise more freely—leading to increased innovation—the more your team members
know about the domain in which they are problem-solving
collaborate, learn about, and trust each other
can be present in the moment and pay attention to what is happening right now
can learn to recombine and reincorporate things they already know
practice, practice, practice
Improvisation Isn’t Just Thinking on Your Feet
Now, I know I told you that any particular improv isn’t rehearsed, but you can prepare for being spontaneous—and that’s a kind of rehearsal. Actors most certainly engage extensively in this kind of preparation. And this is what business managers often don’t understand—that being spontaneous does not mean thinking on your feet and coming up with stuff out of nowhere, with no background or context. Improvisation isn’t just making it up as you go along or winging it. Rather, spontaneity in improvisation means being well versed in a domain and the principles of improvisation, so when called upon, you can take what you know and use it creatively in the moment.
The essence of creative spontaneity isn’t the ideas that come out, but the moment in response to which they come out. The ideas themselves come from the preparation. Though there isn’t a script for an improvisation, there most certainly is a foundation on which actors spontaneously build their dialogue.
To build your team’s foundation, you must first understand the rules of improv and follow them. These rules are pretty simple and center on what it takes to become and work as an ensemble. You must do the following:
Communicate with each other. This includes both verbal and nonverbal communication. Communication is a two-way street.
Work together collaboratively and support each other—no matter what.
Build trust by coming to know each other.
Adopt accept, agree, and add as your motto—otherwise known as Yes, and—when improvising in response to ideas other team members throw at you.
When improvising, your team needs to understand the domain you’re working in. There just isn’t any getting away from that fact. The reason an ensemble works so well is that it comprises people whose knowledge you can rely on—one person doesn’t have to know everything. This is also why it’s best to have a multidisciplinary team, so you can take advantage of people’s different insights, perspectives, and knowledge.
For spontaneity, the best toolbox a team can draw upon is having lots of different inputs. So stimulate your minds through constant exposure to varied content and experiences, in analogous and related domains. It’s all helpful. Any artist always looks for stimulation and inspiration from every source and genre available. Read, listen, see, and generally be aware all the time, so you can absorb as much input as possible.
If you’ve done a good job of building up your toolbox, recombining and reincorporating all of these inputs will be easy. Improvisation may feel like chaos at times—like things are coming out of nowhere—but that’s not actually the case. Great ideas almost always come from taking pieces and parts of existing ideas and reassembling them in new ways to serve new purposes. And a good storyline—or a workflow or taskflow in business—reincorporates things you’ve already discussed.
Finally, iterating on or playing with different ideas—or even exploring variations on a theme—helps you push forward your team’s best new ideas and eliminate what doesn’t work. In the end, you can create a wonderfully innovative idea by putting together all of the pieces that work well together. On the other hand, you’ll learn from your failures, with the result that you may discover new ideas you never would have had if you hadn’t given yourself a chance to try again.
What Does It Mean to Be an Ensemble?
An ensemble is more than just a team of people who get thrown together to complete a particular task. It is a group of people who have developed their relationships and tools together over time, so they can work together effectively, as a cohesive group, and achieve a successful outcome. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it can happen quickly when you commit to spending time together and focus on building the ensemble.
The most important qualities of an ensemble are collaboration and trust. This means the individuals in the group know and respect one another. It also means you never leave anyone stranded in the moment—which might occur if you neither accept nor add to someone else’s ideas or if you’re not all fully present and aware in the moment, so you can jump in when you’re needed. Part of collaboration means, in addition to paying attention in the present, you also get to know your team members and learn their nonverbal gestures and cues. This helps you know when and how you can support and add to their ideas. The members of an ensemble know when they can rely on one another, because they’re aware of what the others know, what their skills are, and how they work. Unless your ensemble’s group dynamic is strong, you’ll never be able to improvise together creatively.
Building a Shared Language
One of the most fascinating things about an ensemble is that, over time, it’s members naturally build a shared language—comprising words, phrases, gestures, and experiences that encapsulate their common world experience. This shared language becomes a critical factor in the kind of improvisation that leads to innovation. A shared language is the key thing you can rely on and fall back on in moments of spontaneity with your ensemble. And it is what makes improvisation fast, smooth, and seamless.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. If I walked up to your team and asked for some Spanish carpets to store some papers in, you would probably look at me like I was crazy. But I recently worked with a team for whom this term was an important communication clarifier. It also happened to be a funny joke.
In a short time, this team had managed to become a true ensemble—all while overcoming the additional obstacle of having to talk to each other in what was for many of them a nonnative language. The members of the ensemble were from several different countries and used English as their common language. To this group, Spanish carpets meant folders. This term came to be when someone tried to ask for folders, when the group was in Spain—the location where the group was then gathered. There was some confusion, because in Spanish, the word for folders is carpetas. I think you can see for yourself how we started referring to folders as Spanish carpets.
This joke—a little bit of shared language—not only built camaraderie, but also became critical in keeping communication moving smoothly. We now had a shared reference point anyone could call upon at any moment, and the whole group would understand. Shared language doesn’t have to be verbal; it can include gestures and shared experiences the group has had together.
Ensembles frequently develop these kinds of communication shortcuts and shared references, which are imperceptible to everyone outside the ensemble. And this is the stuff from which great improvisations arise. By using shared language, you can instantly make apparent to the whole ensemble what you are thinking and where you are going—without anyone outside the ensemble realizing it. To the audience, it seems like there are no clues at all. This is just one way in which the ensemble recombines and reincorporates what it already knows.
The Secret Behind the Magic Isn’t Such a Secret After All
As I said earlier, spontaneity—and, therefore, innovation—doesn’t come out of nowhere. It actually does take preparation. But with this preparation and practice, spontaneity becomes possible. This doesn’t mean the idea of being spontaneous and innovative might still not be a scary prospect for people.
As an actress myself, the prospect of having to improvise is still one of the things I dread most, because I know I’ve improvised successfully only with groups of people who work like an ensemble. But when I rely on the rules and foundations of improv, I find, over and over again, that it works. If you look carefully, you’ll see how, time after time, I use improv in the writing of this column. When people ask me how I come up with my ideas, the answer seems obvious to me. I constantly pay attention to inputs for inspiration, and I reuse, reincorporate, and expand on thoughts and concepts I’ve talked about before.
The more you practice and work at building your team into an ensemble, the more improvisation and, therefore, innovation, will happen. And you’ll truly understand why it takes an ensemble, not just a team, to achieve the inspired creativity that innovation requires. Don’t ever again be fooled into thinking it’s magic! There’s really no secret to improv. With practice, anyone can learn the principles of improvisation, and any team has the potential to become a true ensemble. You can do it, too!
Dusya, Vera, and Mary Crossan. “Improvisation and Innovative Performance in Teams.” Organization Science, Vol. 16, No. 3, May–June 2005.
With over fifteen years of experience as an interaction designer and user researcher, focusing on user-centered design methods, Traci has experienced a broad range of work practices. After ten years of consulting, Traci transitioned to working on staff with product teams at companies such as Avid and Oracle. Through her UXmatters column, Dramatic Impact, Traci shares how she infuses aspects of theatrical theory and practice into her design practice to bring a more empathetic, user-centered focus to her work. Traci holds an M.A. in Theater Education from Emerson and a B.S. in Communications Media from Fitchburg State College. She is a member of the Boston chapters of UXPA and IxDA and has spoken at conferences such as the IA Summit and Big Design. She is also a nominee for the 2016 New Hampshire Theatre Awards in the best supporting actress category. Read More