Trying the Iguana Cha-Cha: Thoughts on Steve Portigal's Interactive Talk on Improv

We try to bring creative energy to our work. Doesn't matter if we're designers, engineers, project managers, or anthropologists, I don't know a single person who likes to just phone it in or to be the naysayer in the group...OK, maybe I know one person like that. An easy way to start being this awesome, upbeat, creative type person you've always wanted to be at work is to just say, "Yes!"

For example, your research team comes to you and says, "Let's try out some new methods for enhancing the user experience."

You say, "Yes! That sounds new and exciting."

Your design intern says, "I'm using some new rendering techniques on the hydration system concept, is that cool?”

You say, "Yes! Thanks for taking the initiative."

The office manager comes to you and says, "What do you think about hosting a bikini zipline competition inside the office?"

You say, "No. HR would never allow it and we'll be sued for sure." Sometimes you gotta say no.

Once you've got the "yes" part down, the second task is to say, "yes, and..." meaning you add to the idea and help it along. For example, "Let's try out some new methods for enhancing the user experience."

You say, "Yes! And...I've got some great resources we can use. How about making these tools more interactive with room for feedback?"

Before you know it, you're creating something new and interesting - along with cheer and good will inside the office. This principle works especially well during brainstorming sessions where the whole point is to come up with tons of ideas, leading the group in all kinds of wacky new directions to see where you end up.

These were some of the takeaways from Steve Portigal's talk at an IDSA Silicon Valley event, called Yes, My Iguana Loves to Cha-Cha: Improv, Creativity and Design on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. (Unfortunately, there were no iguanas at the talk.)

I met Steve for the first time at this event, but I already knew him to be a guru on the topics of design, culture, and trends – putting people and everyday life back at the core of business and design. He's the founder of Portigal Consulting, which is curiously located in the fog-laden land of Pacifica here in the Bay Area. You can read more about Steve, in his own words, here.

At the interactive talk, Steve says that improvisation has a lot in common with designing, and we can use the rules of improv to bolster creative energy. He explains that improv is not the same as stand-up comedy. Instead, it is a “series of games with rules that offer huge degrees of freedom within a set of constraints.” Players rely upon “quickly-understood-and-communicated rules of culture that are implicit, not explicit.”

The first activity at the event (he warned us that it would be interactive!) is called Storytelling Circle. He prefaces the activity by saying he'd like volunteers to come readily and happily. "Do not make me beg." As he says this, my pulse quickens. Going up in front of a group of strangers to do something silly makes me want to die. I wish I could tell you that by the end I overcame my fear and participated in the activity, and I'm a whole new person because of it. But, (spoiler alert!) I can't say any of those things. A sweaty mess by the end of it, I never did get up there. I did, however, observe and learn, and am embracing the principles of improv in my work and life which I think was more the overall point.

 

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The first activity involves 6 volunteers standing in a circle. The challenge: tell a story. The constraints: each person only gets to say one word at a time, taking turns in order around the circle. For an added challenge, Steve solicits 3 key words from the audience that the players should try to incorporate into the story. The words are "oranges, Cleveland, and AIDS" which is I-guess-you-had-to-be-there funny because we had just watched a clip of Liam Neeson and Ricky Gervais doing an improv session on the topic of AIDS from the show, Life's Too Short.

Overcoming one's fears to do improv in front of a group of strangers must feel so empowering, but watching it can be excruciating. Some people are deer in headlights, whereas others are composed and focused. But the activity goes well, meaning everyone manages to say a word in turn, and at times the sentences actually make sense. “How did it go?” Steve asks when they're done. Participants share that it was hard to anticipate what would be said, so they had to be "in the moment." You can't control the sentence and so just have to go with the flow. Sometimes you have be a "the" person or an "and" person to help the sentence make sense, sacrificing a cool word choice to help the team. Get where this is going? Good collaboration tips. Personally, I love to see the player's expression the second after they say their word. Eyes wide, relieved that they said something, hopeful to see what comes next. It was exciting.

 

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Improv game #2 is called Telephone 2.0 (did you know that the game, Telephone, is called Broken Telephone in Canada? Oh those Canadians). This involves 8 people split up into pairs. The first pair has to act out a few lines (anything they want) and from then on each pair has to copy the pair before them perfectly, word for word, action for action. The first pair is gung-ho, "Oh my god, did you feel that?" The tall lad exclaims looking around nervously. His partner joins in, "No! What was it?!" This continues for a few more lines, and I remember thinking, how the hell is the next pair going to copy this? After a couple silent seconds negotiating who would start, the next pair jumps forward and begins acting it out, "Oh my god, did you feel that?" And they're really good! I'm so impressed. But then it quickly devolves from there, like the traditional game of Telephone does.

Steve debriefs. "So the second activity went a lot worse than the first." This is actually something that Steve says out loud. This is awesome because usually leaders of team-building type exercises are over-the-top upbeat about how things went. He, on the other hand, was honest, critical, constructive, and facilitated some thoughtful insight and conversation. No BS. Done correctly, this game forces you to carefully observe others and enhance self-awareness.

I love brainstorming, and I think the rules of improv are well-suited for it. So often we want to keep things grounded in reality. We all know why something can fail, or why it's a bad idea. So why not take a couple hours to say, “Yes, and”? We should all try out the rules of improv at least once. If it doesn't have to be on stage, it's even better.

For some more background information and other great resources on improv, see Steve's slide presentation from the event. One of my favorite takes on improv comes from Tina Fey's Bossypants, which she promises will, "change your life and reduce belly fat.*”

*Improv will not reduce belly fat.

 

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A super big thanks to Steve Portigal for a great talk. Thanks to Jeffrey Greger, Debora Kaashoek, and Douglas Schaller for organizing IDSA Silicon Valley's first big event!! Thanks to the Computer History Museum for a beautiful space. And thanks to all participants, especially those who made a fool of themselves in front of us in the name of learning.

 

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Alicia Dornadic is a freelance design researcher and writer. With a master's in Applied Anthropology, she uses her powers of observation and interviewing for good in Silicon Valley and beyond! She loves designing products and services, data viz, and art that is miniature. Want to collaborate? Email: alicia@dornadic.net or stalk her on Twitter/Instagram: @adorndesign or read her ramblings on art, design, and the underbelly of social gatherings at spikedpunchbowl.com