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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.
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.
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.
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.
Covid-19: The new normal
As countries around the world continue to implement coronavirus-related lockdowns and social distancing policies, consumers are very quickly having to adapt to the digital world and a life where they access their favourite brands remotely. It is interesting to note that while end-users and customers have long been prepared for the digital shift, (as we […]
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Banking and Insurance are amongst the sectors most impacted by digital transformation. According to a recent study*, financial services firms could waste almost US$45M on digital projects by mid 2019. Due to strong technical legacies, as well as complex security and legal issues, the banking sector is gradually loosing sight of the scope of transformation needed to face the new contenders, namely fintech and neobank. Daniel Ramos, Technical Consultant at ekino, analyses this complex market, challenged from all sides. Interview.
Why is the banking/insurance struggling to transform?
DGR: This problem is actually due to the fact that the banks and insurers were late to develop their digital services and user centric approach. It has now became a race against time: the firms in this sector find themselves having to catch up, which generates the wastage. It also means a heavier investment than previous years, but with tighter deadlines in order to evaluate risks and define digital projects correctly. The firms have reached a point where the challenge is no longer the amount of investment, but their capacity to keep up with consumers.
What are the areas of resistance?
DGR: The main areas of resistance are brought about by their structural, legal, technical and security complexities. Given the structure and size of these companies, putting initiatives in place is more complex, specially around their current information systems where oftentimes new initiatives don’t even get adopted after all.
Furthermore, due to the value of the data these systems handle, security is at their core. There are more challenges than on other sectors, which can slow down the evolution of their information systems.
The legal frameworks imposed on their activities can also be very constrictive. For example the creation of the Prudential Supervision and Resolution Authority in 2010 (ACPR in France) introduced a high degree of control on the banks and their insurers. In fact, every year, millions of euros in fines are imposed on banks which fail to follow its recommendations.
How can we help these firms better prepare?
DGR: Firstly, we need to fully understand the way they run their business, so we can propose practical solutions for the short and mid terms, matching their needs and challenges. We need to demonstrate the feasibility of the projects for digitising their IS. In our projects we regularly experience resistance due to security, and our role is to work with our client partners to find the best solutions, specific to their particular challenges.
Secondly and also very important: we support our clients in the development of their digital services by actively engaging their stakeholders. In the big companies we see that multiple departments contribute, though sometimes these contributions are mandated, vs contributing out of actual faith on the projects – this is why the different voices must be integrated throughout the project lifecycle. Methodologies such as agile frameworks foster better involvement and enable stakeholders to be fully involved and be part of the solution. The role of the Technical Consultant is critical in successfully bridging the different stakeholders, bringing them to the table and ensuring that there aren’t any friction points that can put the project at risk.
For 66% of the financial services firms, the main goal of the digital initiatives is to allow for innovation on customer guidance. Nonetheless, only 4% consider themselves ready to revolutionise the end user experience. How do you explain this?
DGR: This is also linked to their complex structures, which cause a large number of issues to arise between the project definition and its delivery. It’s precisely this context that enables FinTech to stand out, since they have lighter legal constraints and more modern infrastructures.
Is this linked to the fact that the financial sector was one of the first to adopt computing, and hence has a stronger dependency on its technical legacy?
DGR: Exactly, as explained above, the finance sector is very dependent on existing infrastructures, which are a struggle to maintain, and have very considerable interconnection costs. This makes the development of the online offering more complex, considerably limiting the features that can be offered to the end user.
The percentage of new accounts opening through online banking has almost doubled on the last four years, and we know that knowing the client is a core issue in the digital transformation. Are the firms in this sector aware?
DGR: Yes, most of the firms in this market know that they are behind with the digital service offering for their customers, specially for the younger target audience, which is more naturally inclined to interact on the digital channels. This market shift is responsible for big French banks offering 100% online banking through subsidiaries like Hello bank! from BNP Paribas, or BforBank from Groupe Crédit Agricole.
How are these firms positioned on the new innovations front?
DGR: Contrary to expectations, even the more traditional firms are trying to modernise as fast as possible, so they can offer tools suitable for their users. However, they don’t have the flexibility of the neobanks, which have market revolution at the core of their offering. Having said that there are some firms which offer a completely different functionality and user experience than classic banking applications.
There are also new markets focused on services for financial and banking products. Aggregation systems like Curve or Max show a new offering, which gives a taste of the diversification that we can expect from banking services in the next few years.
Are Agents starting to question their role on the transformation age?
DGR: I don’t think the agents will see any real impact on the middle term. We are not so much on a transformation of the customer-agent relationship as in an “improvement” of the agent via digital tools. There are many projects around “augmented” agents which focus on making the agents more efficient in dealing with their clients. The aim is to better manage the different client needs, and to support them on proactive customer management. This requires tools to help on sales, decision making, and during face to face client meetings.
*Study conducted by the database editor Couchbase. Report based on online research during June and July 2018 by Vanson Bourne covering 450 digital transformation managers in the USA, UK and Germany.
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