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Improvisation in Project Management

29/06/2020

Transformed by improv

I have been doing improvisational theater as a hobby for many years, and though it has undoubtedly helped me professionally from the very beginning – I became more confident in meetings, listened more, reacted more quickly – I have been feeling lately that, besides the general surface skills (listening, talking to a crowd, reacting, etc), something deeper had changed. My whole mental professional map has changed. I often find myself navigating a project as I do an improvised scene. The two situations – managing a project and taking part in an improvised scene – seem to share many common points.

My aim in this post is to try and identify these points to determine the underlying skills that are useful for both situations.

A glimpse into the future

An improvised scene has a start, an end, and a story structure that defines what the scene should probably look like after it’s been written by the actors on stage. This is also similar in a project, you know what the structure of a project should look like, but you don’t know how this particular project will look like after it’s finished.

Sometimes in an improv scene, it is useful to try to imagine the end of the scene from the audience viewpoint - what global impression of the scene will stay with them after it ends? - in order to know what ideas to suggest on stage. This can also be a useful practice in project management. Imagine the end of your project before diving into the very first tasks.

You are not alone

You walk on stage and the audience looks at you waiting for what you’ll say or do next. Luckily, you’re not alone, your stage partner is here and you’re in this together. Also, you have hidden partners a few meters away, waiting for an opportunity to come and help. When you hear an improviser say on stage “I wish my brother was here”, the brother will undoubtedly show up in the next couple seconds.

Same in your project. You are in the same boat as people you interact with on a daily basis, and you have more distant people (experts for example) who are not there all the time, but who will gladly help you if you need them. In improv as in project management, take care of the people working with you, trust them, and don’t hesitate to call for their help if needed, they will come. And above all, enjoy the journey you’re having together.

Randomness

Bottom line: it is good for you in moderate doses. You’re working with others, and they have a different view, a different personality, a different way of thinking, a different way of working, a different life. It’s only normal you won’t always be aligned. But the aim is to find a common ground. And this is good for creative and innovative solutions.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the book “Antifragile” puts it, there are fragile things that break at the slightest unexpected event. Then there are robust things, and those still break, but they need a bigger force to be broken. And finally, there are antifragile things that benefit from a small dose of randomness. The bigger your project, the more diverse your team is, the more complex your technical architecture is, the more randomness you’ll encounter. Don’t be rigid, don’t be fragile, be antifragile.

A fuzzy path

Since randomness plays a part, you will not have a detailed picture of the road laying ahead. Walk it slowly but surely. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to know where your destination is, just allow yourself a degree of freedom in your actions. However, this is not an invitation to make big unexpected leaps, stay in the fuzzy path. Keith Johnstone – famous British improviser and author of “Impro” – talks about the “circle of expectations”: the new ideas you are suggesting when you’re on stage must fall in the circle of what the audience is expecting to see. It might very well still be original and surprising, but they should be thinking “that’s interesting and totally makes sense” instead of “it’s far-fetched”. Go too far with your ideas and you will lose the audience. You will be surprised at how many times a simple obvious step changes the meaning of an entire scene.

Mistakes

They will happen. This is linked to the degree of randomness your project has. Every improviser knows that some show nights are exceptionally good, and others are not, with no apparent reason. There are just too many random things you cannot control, like your state of mind that night, the audience's reactiveness, your partners’ improvisational style, or anything that was improvised on stage, to name only a few.

So, the improviser’s advice here is: cherish mistakes. It’s ok, everybody makes them, it’s part of the game. You are putting yourself in danger in this random environment, you are facing the unexpected. And if you don’t fail from time to time then maybe you are in fact working in an environment you know too well and that doesn’t offer as much unexpectedness as you thought.

If you are making mistakes – and if you know you are making them – then you are also making progress. And on the flip side, mistakes can lead to innovation. In improv, acknowledging a word that was unintendedly spoken on stage – if you say you are seeking advice from the rabbit instead of the rabbi – can lead to great scenes. All you have to do is to treat them as part of the scene and play as if the word was actually said on purpose.

Try not to make mistakes, and therefore constant training and learning is important, but know you will make them, and that it’s ok.

Be prepared and take a step back

Before an improv scene or before an important meeting, prepare yourself. Get the blood flowing in your brain and body. Be aware of your surroundings. Focus on your voice, your intonation, your posture. Don’t overdo it, you don’t want to fake it, you just want to synchronize your body and mind into the same state.

You do not have to always be on stage. Feel the scene. Are you needed? Will your intervention help the story? If it does, go in, and if not, well, just wait for another moment. Be prepared to intervene at all times but know that most times you won’t have to.

Forget the hammer, imagine the house

As with every passion, you are always exploring, always discovering new schools of thought, and often having those enlightening “Aha!” moments.

My last one was during a workshop with Australian improviser Nick Byrne. During this workshop, he told us to imagine that we are on stage improvising a scene with someone we genuinely care for (a close friend, a lover, a family member…). When you do this, you see that you don’t have to put much effort into applying your learned listening skills. You care about your partner, and thus you will naturally be attentive to everything they say or do, and you will see every detail that will help you take their needs into account when improvising.

Of course this is not to say you don’t need the basic tools to improvise (how to listen, storytelling, creating a character, speaking to an audience, etc.), they are all very important skills and you should learn them and keep practicing them. No, this is to say that once you have learned and trained to use the tool, you can forget it and focus on the bigger picture. Forget the hammer and focus on the house, your brain will unconsciously know the hammer is there and will use it out of instinct when it is useful. It is what Daniel Kahneman calls “system one” in his book “Thinking fast and slow”, it’s the heuristics master chess players rely on to make quick decisions once they have learned and mastered the chess rules.

This applies to improv. And it applies to project management. You must learn the ways of managing a project, how to draw your Gantt planning, how to use a burndown chart, how to evaluate risks and follow up actions, how to run a workshop… But once you’re confident enough with your acquired skill and have used them enough times they’re now part of your system one, it’s time to redirect your attention away from them, and focus on seeing the global picture, but also on your compassion – genuine compassion - for other people in your project. Feel their worries, see their genius, share their happiness, and trust your mind to give you access to the right tool at the right time.

In conclusion

Project management is a tool for helping people work together. So maybe once we have learned a few tricks from the most experienced (for example by learning scrum methodology), we should focus on what it is really all about: the people who are working together. Make your project a safe place for everybody, make them feel useful, trusted, appreciated, and confident to communicate with others. Take care of yourself and of everybody else. The success of the project will follow.