Lessons from improv: Be Average!

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

“The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”
—from Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Patricia Madson’s fifth maxim is be average. Be average? Who wants to be average?! Hear me out.

Back in January I wrote Everyone Makes Mistakes about how many of us were taught while growing up that we had to do things perfectly in order to feel good about ourselves. Eventually I discovered this doesn’t work. The emotional stress incurred in attempting the impossible task of being perfect far outweighs any small increase in the perfection of work, and, most of the time, that same stress leads to a decrease in effectiveness. But there’s more to being average than letting go of perfectionism.

Because being average is a great approach to being creative. Here’s how.

When we’re working on being creative, there’s an assumption that we must try to come up with something that’s different, something that’s “outside the box”. Not necessarily, says Patricia Madson, and she quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, she suggests that we look more carefully inside the box.

When I was an information technology consultant, clients would often expect a shiny new high-tech answer to their problems. Instead I usually came up with mundane but creative solutions that took best advantage of available resources. My clients were momentarily disappointed—until they heard how inexpensive my proposals would be. (Luckily for them, I just charged for my time rather than the amount of money I saved.)

Think about Magritte’s pipe that isn’t:
pipe

or Duchamp’s Fountain:
Duchamp_Fountain

These artists expressed their creativity through household objects depicted in new ways.

One of the nice things about this kind of creativity is that we can all practice it using the gifts we already have. I find that dreaming up “way out” ideas is hard. It’s simpler for me to concentrate on seeing something familiar in a new way and be open to what pops into my consciousness.

There’s a delight in this kind of relaxed creativity. Be average and focus on the obvious. And, if nothing fantastic occurs to you right away, don’t worry.

Just lower your standards.

Conference facilitation lessons from improv: Say Yes!

improv-say yes-3588343908_cbfcbf005c

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

Patricia Madson’s first improv maxim is say yes. Which reminds me of a harrowing incident not so long ago…

I was facilitating the closing session of a West Coast peer conference using a fishbowl format that wasn’t working so well. People were eager to talk, but instead of a conversation developing we were jumping disjointedly from topic to topic.

And then things got worse.

“Selma”, a senior state official, began to speak. Listening, my heart sank as she shared that the conference had failed to adequately involve the significant numbers of minority and low-income attendees who were present. I felt shocked and dismayed. The conference organizers had made heroic and successful efforts to make it possible for a wide variety of people to attend, so Selma’s verdict seemed like a serious indictment of the conference process we had used, a process for which I was responsible.

Looking around the room, it was clear that people were upset by what they had just heard.

And then things got even worse.

Instead of responding to Selma’s comments, John, the next person to speak, started talking about something entirely different. I felt the credibility of the session shrink rapidly toward zero. People were disengaging. We couldn’t even face a difficult issue head on—instead we were going to avoid it and change the subject!

John finished, and I knew we were at a tipping point. And if, as an exercise, someone had described the situation and asked me what I would do, I would have drawn a complete blank.

But this wasn’t an exercise.

Somehow, at that moment, I accepted the situation and acted from my gut.

“John,” I said, my voice quavering a little, “please excuse me, but I feel we need to talk about what Selma just said. If we don’t discuss the issue she’s brought up, then I think we are all going to feel pretty dissatisfied with our time together today.” I turned to Selma. “Selma, I want to hear more about how you think we’ve failed some of the attendees at this event.”

That was enough for Selma and the group to enter an intense discussion of the issues she had raised. There was no more rambling conversation. And, though the resulting dialog was difficult at times, the tension in the room subsided as the participants shared and felt heard. The session became an authentic reflection on tough topics; a fitting end to a conference that had raised more questions than could be fully answered in the time we were together. And that was just fine with me.

I’m proud about how I responded at the crucial moment. In Madson’s words, I said yes to the situation I was given and responded from my authentic self. It wasn’t easy for me. It would have been safer to not take a risk by saying nothing and letting the group ramble on disconnectedly. But when we say yes to the challenges that come our way,  amazing things can happen. Try it!

P.S. If you’re interested in the inspiring organizational and cultural consequences of saying yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Peter Block’s great book on the subject The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters.

Have you said yes at a difficult moment? Share that moment below!

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feastoffools/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0