The tension between improv and planning at events

Facilitating the closing session at AIN 2015

It began with a tap on the shoulder…
…as I stood in the lunch line on the last day of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN) 2015 World Conference. Turning round I saw Paul Z Jackson, President of AIN. “There’s a conversation going on upstairs that I think you’d be interested in,” he said.

It seemed an innocent statement at the time.

I was about to discover the depth of Paul’s craftiness.

I filled my plate with Quebecois goodies and climbed the stairs to find Diego IbáñezGina Trimarco CligrowPatrick Short, and Betse Green lunching together. I told them that Paul had invited me to join the “conversation”, whereupon Patrick explained that the group was planning the hour-long conference closing ceremony, which began at 2 p.m. Paul joined us and, looking at me, said that the closing ceremony typically included some kind of public evaluation of the conference. I looked at my watch and gulped. We had 40 minutes!

Typically, when designing process for a session with 200 participants, I like to have some time—perhaps a day or two—to think about the best ways to achieve the desired outcomes with the available resources.

This occasion was not typical.

I was not feeling the nervous excitement I usually experience in situations like this.

I was feeling fear.

But…I was with a group of great improvisors. People who had spent decades practicing and living improv. Perhaps we could work together and create something good enough, perhaps even great, in 40 minutes?

I have a simple tool for public evaluations, plus/delta, that I’ve used many times. But how could we optimize it for 200 improvisors?

My memory of the rest of the lunch is hazy. (I was definitely outside my comfort zone.) I think that Patrick made the great suggestion that the evaluations be presented as short improvs. Others chimed in. Together, we fine-tuned the process.

Rushing to the barn where the session would be held, we discovered that the local conference organizers were also working on their plan for the closing ceremony. They had already decided to hold it outdoors—it was a beautiful day—and had lit a bonfire. A few-minute conversation determined that we would hold our evaluation in a circle around the fire, and then they would close the conference in their own way.

We started bringing out chairs from the barn. I found three scribes to capture in writing the conference insights that were about to be shared. We arranged enough chairs and set up an electronic organ for Patrick to accompany the improvs, and it was time to start.

There was no more time to plan. Diego and Gina introduced themselves and me, and I was on.

The conference evaluation
Talking as loudly as I could (there was no sound equipment and I don’t have a strong voice) I explained that we were going to do a rapid public evaluation of the entire conference and gave them an overview of the process. Then I asked everyone to form small groups of 5 or 6 people, and gave them seven minutes to:

  • share their positive experiences of the conference in their group; and
  • then create a short improv piece about the changes they would like to see in the conference to make it better.

There had been some logistical challenges during the conference—e.g. no coffee was available at breakfast on the first day…oops!—and I knew from past experience that participants tend to concentrate on such issues during the change portion of the evaluation. So I made a point to direct the groups to focus on non-logistical/obvious conference improvements while they were working on their short improvs.

Once the group work was done, everyone returned to the circle and individuals began sharing their positive experiences of the conference. I had never done this kind of sharing in a circle before, so I improvised the idea of walking slowly around the circle with my arm pointing to each person in turn. As my attention swept around the circle, people put their hand up if they wanted to say something, and I stopped for them to share. After I had gone around the circle once, I announced I would make two more circuits for sharing positive experiences. This worked well—different people spoke during each rotation and everyone had three opportunities to share or pass.

Next we switched to the change portion of the evaluation. One group volunteered to start, and we began to experience a wide variety of creative group improvs that conveyed the changes the members suggested. (Coffee delivery improvements, were, still amusingly incorporated.)

Normally, I am very aware of time issues when facilitating events. The closing session had to end on time, as one bus was leaving immediately to allow some attendees to catch flights back in Montreal. On this occasion, concentrating on the improvised flow, I was doing a poor job of managing the remaining time for the group sharing. Thankfully Gina noticed this, stepped up, and ingeniously coaxed the remaining groups to spend less time on their improvs. I doubt that anyone even noticed she had taken over on the fly. She supported me and made me look good—thank you Gina! My job was done.

After the improvs had all been presented and enjoyed, the local hosts took over and ran a brief and moving closing, tying together the Nature theme of the conference with everything we had experienced over the previous three days. The contributions of many people were thanked and recognized in humorous, yet heart-felt fashion.

As the session ended, one last facilitation task remained for me. I found the three scribes who had recorded the positive and change ideas and took safe possession of their valuable notes. Later, back at my Vermont home, I photographed the notes and emailed them to Paul so he would have a permanent record available to use for improving future AIN World conferences.

What did I/can we learn from this experience?
We are all improvisors. Every time you have a conversation with someone, for example, you invariably do not know what they are about to say, and your response is improvised. Competent facilitators, leading group conversation and/or process, are improvisors because—despite having a plan for achieving desired group outcomes—they adapt what they do from moment to moment in response to the group experience.

Fifteen years ago I would have quickly turned down the opportunity Paul offered. I saw myself as a process designer and planner, and my fear of “failing” to be highly competent when asked to improvise large group process overrode any perceived benefits. Today, I am more comfortable taking the risk of being less than perfect, of being average, as improvisors like to say. So one thing I learned on that sunny afternoon was that I am willing to step more out of my comfort zone and into the place where magic happens when responding in the moment.

I also learned about the value of trusting support. I would have turned down Paul’s offer if I had had to create the session by myself. Being surrounded by folks trained in improvisation is probably the best support structure you can have! We are all working to make each other look good, because we know that the best things happen when we work supporting each other.

Does this whole experience mean that improv trumps planning when creating and facilitating group process?

No! My experience with plus/delta as an evaluation technique was gained from much experience involving plenty of planned experiments over the last ten years. My planning experience made it easy to integrate the core plus/delta process into the unique circumstances of the AIN 2015 conference closing session. As far as I know, no one else at the event had the expertise to create this form of public evaluation, so my years of planning plus/delta sessions allowed the group to benefit from a process tool that I knew would be effective.

In addition, my very last act for the session—collecting the scribes’ notes in the hurly-burly of mass crowd good-byes, and making sure they were conveyed safely to the AIN organizers—was a reflex planning move that improvisors, improvising in the moment, might overlook. (We saw it happen; remember the absent coffee?) As meeting professionals know, a planning mind-set is essential to reap the full benefits of creative process at events.

The tension between improv and planning at events
I’ve written this behind-the-scenes look at 100 minutes of terror and wonder at the close of AIN 2015 because I think it illustrates that there is a natural tension between improv and planning at events. The tension appears because, at first sight, they are mutually exclusive ways of thinking about what “should” happen when people meet to learn and connect. The mythical planner’s goal it to make sure that everything goes according to plan, while the mythical improvisor’s goal (well, one of them) is a reality where nothing goes according to plan.

You can’t get much more tension than the difference between nothing and everything.

Yet this very tension provides the energy that we feel at the best events and experiences of our lives. From moment to moment, there is a play between improv and planning. It is the Taoist experience, the energy that arises from the tension of opposites.

And it is a tension to be embraced, not feared. That is our challenge.

Photo courtesy of Alex Tran

Improve conference sessions and workshops with Color/Advance

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Last week in Montreal, during a pre-workshop at the fabulous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference, I realized how an improv game could be used to improve group process.

At the workshop, run by the talented Patrick Short and Alan Montague, I was reintroduced to an improv game called Color/Advance. It’s a simple game for two players, a storyteller and a listener.

At any time while the storyteller tells a story, the listener can give either of two commands: “Color” or “Advance”. Color instructs the storyteller to describe whatever she is talking about in more detail, while Advance tells her to continue with the story. The game is typically used to improve storytelling skills, using the listener’s requests as feedback for determining when more detail will spice up the story and when it’s time to continue with the plot.

It struck me that Color/Advance could be used in a different way, as a group process tool, in a conference session or workshop. Often, when I lead a meeting, I have limited information on what the participants want to get out of it. With up to about fifty participants I normally use the Post It! technique to uncover the wants and needs of the group and then tailor the session to fit as well as possible, covering a judiciously selected set of the topics mentioned.

This approach works very well, but there’s no standard way for attendees to indicate during the session that they would like more or less information to be shared on the current topic. While it’s not unusual for people to occasionally ask for more detail, few will spontaneously volunteer that they’ve heard quite enough about a topic and they’d like to move on to the next one.

So I propose that Color/Advance can be given as a tool to session participants to give them control over what is covered during a session, as follows.

After you’ve used Post It! to create an impromptu outline of the topics to be included, explain that at any point anyone can say “Color!” meaning that they want more detail of what is being said. Or, they can say “Advance!” which means “I’ve heard enough about this, please move on to the next topic.” Also explain that people can respectfully (and succinctly) disagree, so that the wishes of one person are not imposed on the entire group.

I plan to experiment with this approach over the next few months, and will report back in the comments or another blog post on how well this works. If you have thoughts about this technique or have used it in this way, please let us know in the comments!

I love discovering how to harness human process in new ways. Body voting makes preferences and opinions public. A fishbowl allows a group to have a useful discussion. And, thanks to my experience at the AIN 2015 World Conference, we have a new tool Color/Advance for conference session or workshop participants to fine tune the information shared to match their wants and needs.

Photo attribution: Flickr user ncindc

How to make your workshop/meeting/conference middle-aged friendly

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At the wonderous Applied Improvisational Network 2015 World Conference (more posts coming soon!) I bumped into Doug Shaw, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa [not shown above; he is far better-looking] and he told me of an unpublished article he’d written on how to make conferences better for middle-aged people like him and me. Doug sent me a copy, I liked it, and he has given me permission to guest post it here…

Hello, my name is Doug. I went to my first conference in 1989. I was young then, and I believed in accessibility — everyone should be able to benefit from a conference. I never thought that one day I would be the one who was having problems benefiting. But yes, I became middle aged, and, well, I’m writing this article…

1) Memory

a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.

b. Name tags are a boon. Actually I’ve forgotten lots of names.

2) Vision

a. Think about your font size on handouts. Less than 12 pt is cruel. 16 point? You are a mensch. My eyes are in constant flux — I’m not used to wearing reading glasses, sometimes I don’t have them, sometimes the prescription is out of date.

b. Dark text, light background. Blue on blue means you are a rotten human being.

c. I see better if there is strong light.

3) Hearing

a. If you aren’t able to speak so I can hear you, get a microphone. I hear better if there is no background noise, it is hard if there is. Hearing aids help if I can’t hear — but the problem is as you get old you still can hear, but you can’t filter out background noise as well.

4) Physicality

a. If part of your group participation involves standing up and sitting down… I can do that, but it hurts a bit. If you make me do it multiple times, I’m no longer going to be focusing on your points, I’m going to be anticipating/dreading having to stand up again.

b. I am fighting to change my diet, having lived 40 years eating badly. Go ahead and put out the cookies, but give me something else I can shove in my mouth, too.

5) Content

a. I’m not asking you to change a word of what you were going to say — but you should know that I’ve been to hundreds of these things, and I am a lot more cynical than I used to be. Clichés make me turn off to you. I know that people’s number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I know that the “jobs of tomorrow” are going to be different than the jobs of today. I know we need to go beyond our comfort zones, think out of the box, adapt to an increasingly global society, etc. Did you know that the phrase “comfort zone” is lazy and comfortable, the phrase “think out of the box” is totally in the box, and that the 21st century is 1/7 over?

b. Motivational speeches don’t motivate me. Not because I’m a curmudgeon, but because I’m already motivated. I come to these things because I want to, not because I feel I have to. It takes more effort now — it means leaving people behind. So I’m motivated. If you spend a half hour with speakers trying to motivate me, that’s a half hour I’m getting impatient waiting for what I actually came for to start. Oh — and I’ve probably seen better motivational speakers than you are supplying. My favorite motivation is, “Hi. Welcome. Now here is content you came to receive.”

6) Memory

a. If there is a smallish group, quickly go around and say names. I’ve forgotten yours and I’m embarrassed.

b. Name tags are a boon. Wait…did I cover this point already? Let me look at what I’ve written so far…where the hell did I put my glasses?

Photo attribution: Flickr user philippeleroyer