I recently taught at a residential improvisation festival with my friends and colleagues from the Maydays

One of the benefits of teaching a residential retreat is working with participants who are already in the zone when they walk in the room. There is a sparkle and an openness which means there is no need for warm ups. For this reason I ran a Pressure Cooker session on day 5. This is 90 minutes of immersive improvisation with no preamble – other than discouraging those who may find the experience challenging or disturbing. I have been evolving this format over several years after an initial debut in Limerick and only offer this class when the time and place are suitable. It is not for the faint hearted.

Participants arrive at a meeting conducted by myself as a facilitator who is in character. No one knows the nature of the meeting up front and it unfolds organically. It soon becomes apparent that the facilitator is on a power trip and is blind to his own hypocrisy and lack of integrity. The most recognisable figure from popular culture is Nurse Ratched from “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Each participant is given a name tag and starts to discover/uncover their character in reaction to the situation. In the most recent session the group found themselves at the sixth class of a twelve week course teaching “Non-Blaming Communication” Inevitably “Roger” the facilitator would blame group members for loss of privileges due to petty infractions while ignoring or supporting more serious infractions of the rules. As members start to react to the unfairness of the situation they are undermined and belittled – all in the name of “making them a better person” Each member is encouraged or cajoled into disclosing the reason that they are attending the group and every heartfelt acknowledgement of their shortcomings is framed with a trite New Age aphorism from “Roger” One member was even shown how to applaud properly because “what gets recognised and rewarded gets repeated”

As the session progresses friction increases between characters, “Roger” plays favourites and any initiative shown by members is suppressed. The atmosphere grows increasingly oppressive and surreal as tea and smoking breaks are cancelled and mantras such as “blame and shame are a negative game” are repeated; those who nod most vigorously get a big smile from “Roger” ”Roger” even punishes one member for attempting to save a seat while announcing “no one has their own seat in here” all this as he sits in his chair, the only one with “staff cushions”. In this tense environment each participant discovers how their character reacts to authority and accesses a range of emotions. No one breaks character and there is not a single laugh in 90 minutes.

You may well be wondering why improvisers would rush to sign up for such a class! Participants tell me that it builds on their ability to stay in character and discover a gold mine of reactions and emotions which are often glossed over in other improv work. The lack of laughter both removes the pressure to be funny and opens up space to be more authentic. There is a fundamental question that arises: “Why am I improvising without the payoff of laughter? How do I navigate this? “              The sense of being trapped in an unfolding and bewildering situation promotes a heightened alertness which is useful in longer scenes and structures. By far the most common response when talking about the benefits of this structure is the feeling that many participants express as follows    “If I can survive the pressure cooker then I can deal with anything on stage!”

Improvisation and Recovery

The comedian Russell Brand recently launched and hosted ’Give It Up for Comic Relief’ an all-star gig to raise money for people in the UK affected by drug and alcohol addiction. As a recovering addict himself Russell is passionate about raising the awareness of abstinence based recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and speaks candidly about his own journey.

I was recently asked to explore how learning improvisation skills could support people in recovery to find more fulfillment in a life free from using drugs or alcohol. Here are my findings based on many years of teaching improv to a diverse range of delegates from CEOs and entrepreneurs to incarcerated addicts and homeless teenagers.

Addiction thrives in an environment of secrecy, isolation and distrust where the thinking of an addict ultimately reduces to one binary choice – to use or not use drugs. Using is predictable and in a perverse way this makes it feel “safe”. Primal parts of the brain are engaged in a repeated pattern which is reinforced by a corrupted survival instinct. We are hard wired to seek warmth, safety and comfort and by using drugs and staving off withdrawal symptoms the addict is crudely satisfying these basic urges. When not using drugs an addict feels raw, lonely and exposed and that something fundamental is missing; an addict generally has to maintain the secrecy of their addiction from non-addicts, so they live a series of lies which isolates them further. Other people are seen not as a source of connection and support but simply as a means to an end – getting and using drugs.  The average addict acquires a formidable array of manipulative role playing skills.

Improvisation, on the other hand can only flourish in an environment of safety, trust, openness and collaboration. A skilled improv teacher creates a non-shaming atmosphere where mistakes are celebrated and the past is immediately dropped as the next moment unfolds. Here are some of the ways in which learning improvisation benefits those in recovery:

  • Building Confidence:   The experience of being in a group of people who have agreed to learn without blame or shame allows an addict to take part without fear of condemnation. Most addicts have more than enough shame and self-hatred already! By joining in an improv session they also get to receive the authentic and instant positive feedback of laughter.
  • Sparking New Neural Pathways:   Addictive thinking is by nature repetitive. Improvisation thinking is novel and surprising so addicts experience accessing a range of choices in a safe environment where none of their choices are “wrong” This creates a profound shift in the thinking process away from an “either/or” mentality and towards a more open range of options. This supports problem solving when an addict is faced with new choices.
  • It Is Enjoyable: Many addicts experience ahedonia – the loss of the ability to feel pleasure as an after effect of disrupting the dopamine circuits of the brain. This is often a factor in relapse as an addict comes to believe that they need drugs or alcohol to have fun. This message is consistently reinforced by alcohol advertising. I find in working with CEOs and thought leaders that they are genuinely amazed that they can laugh a lot without alcohol. Laughter releases floods of endorphins and lowers cortisol levels and we then seek to repeat this experience.
  • Healthy Risk: Improvisation is unpredictable and requires self-management every step of the way. Addicts learn that they don’t need self-flagellation to make progress in learning new life skills. They learn it is OK to make mistakes and try again while satisfying the thrill seeking impulse that wrongly equates abstinence with boredom.
  • Collaboration: Improvisation flourishes when people work together and grinds to a halt when the ego tries to compete or to control the process. This is an instant feedback mechanism and addicts learn to reach out for support and to support others. Addict learn they have something to offer and that they can trust other people
  •  Expanding Learning: The skills acquired in learning improvisation soon spread outside of the training room. The basic principles of listening, saying yes and commitment are easy to remember and to apply in real life. Addicts can stop taking themselves and life so seriously and become open to new experiences – maybe we all can.

Improvisation and Learning

Our mainstream education system is based on an industrial model of mass produced learning. We compel lively and inquisitive young people to sit in rows and be “educated” according to an outdated and rigid curriculum. In essence children have their minds filled with information and are regularly tested on their ability to retrieve this information in competitive examinations. They are graded and rated and appear in league tables. The underlying message to the child is that they must conform to the system and turn themselves into efficient filing cabinets. This process stifles the innate desire that young people have for learning because it ignores, devalues and actually subjugates spontaneity, curiosity, playfulness, creativity, collaboration and the enjoyment of discovery.  Subjects that could be truly astonishing to explore become processed and lifeless matter which is to be unquestioningly consumed and regurgitated. Those children who are unable or unwilling to limit themselves to imitating filing cabinets are labelled as being somehow inadequate or deficient. Michel Thomas was a French resistance fighter who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and subsequently developed a method of rapid language learning. He was renowned for his ability to teach language skills to the most challenging students by cultivating their buried appetite to learn. Here is Michel Thomas talking about mainstream education

“We handicap and hobble and put a heavy lid on the immense innate learning potential of the human mind that is in everyone. Education has become a conspiracy between parents and governments to control children. Every child is institutionalised at the age of five or six and sentenced to at least ten years hard time until so-called graduation. Children serve time by law and I call it a conspiracy because their parents consent to it and the government enforces it. So children become prison inmates – except unlike prison inmates they do not have a voice with which to protest, or advocates to protect their rights. Children don’t have anybody. They have to serve their time unconditionally”

It sounds like Michel was as angry about this situation as I am! He then focusses on the aftermath:

“After such an experience many naturally feel that they have had enough of education and learning. They have no wish to continue. School is over and done with – learning is finished. From childhood on we are conditioned to associate learning with tension, effort, concentration and study. In essence learning equals pain. The educational experience has been a painful one and has capped the immense learning potential of each child. This is a tragedy. Conventional teaching closes rather than opens the mind and cripples even the best students, blocking the subconscious because of the tension it creates”

I am indebted to my fellow improviser Francis Passmore for the following insight “When someone tells you that they are going to teach you a lesson it is unlikely that what follows is going to be pleasant!” This is where improvisation skills can bring rich rewards. In teaching improvisation it is essential to create a collaborative non – shaming environment where it is impossible for participants to fail. By speaking to the long-buried curiosity and playfulness within all of us we can sneak around the internal education programme and rapidly liberate the innate talents that are waiting to emerge and engage once more. Human beings just want to get along and explore the world together in joyful ways (unless they are sociopaths or psychopaths) This process can be quite miraculous and the after effects often lead to surprising new pursuits. Here is how Michel Thomas puts it:

“Why not make use the full potential of the human mind, by combining the conscious and subconscious? You can only tap into it if someone is in a relaxed and pleasant frame of mind. It is important to eliminate anxiety and tension. Then and only then is a person completely receptive to learning. People do not want to expose themselves to more pain, or face what they think are their own inadequacies. Yet these are the very people who become most excited when they see that they can absorb and progress quickly and easily”

In a recent TED talk Sir Ken Robinson spoke passionately about this subject CLICK HERE TO VIEW

I have seen this transformation occur in individuals and within organisations that are open to change. Learning flourishes when we are freed from competitiveness and delusions of inadequacy. Once people experience the lightness and freedom of a supportive improvisation class and reconnect with their inner spontaneous creativity it is difficult for them to climb back into the filing cabinet.

Improvisation and Opportunity

In our current era of information overload and instant everything it seems that our attention spans are getting shorter. Much of our mental processing gets taken up by screening out input in order to find the information that we need. Personally I find it extremely difficult to use a browser that does not have Adblock Plus installed – and also set to exterminate graphical ads! At the same time we are constantly seeking opportunities to connect with like minded people and engage in meaningful and beneficial ways. This requires us to focus our attention in the present moment and bring as much of ourselves to the conversation as possible. The balancing act we are called upon to carry off is one of staying sane under a barrage of stimuli while being open to the possibilities that arise through engaging fully with clients and colleagues. It is my experience that the practice of simple improvisation techniques support the resilience to forge through the clutter while retaining access to the flexibility and enthusiasm that opens doors. Listening is a basic requirement for human interaction and the bad news is that real listening seems to have become a lost and mysterious art practiced only by a select few. The good news is that it only takes us a split second to recognise that we are not listening to another person and use the awareness to jolt ourselves rapidly back into the room. Opportunity appears and disappears on a moment to moment basis and the habit of relaxed alertness means we are here for more of the time and therefore for more opportunities.

I was fortunate to take part in a recent workshop where the Maydays were coached in one specific improvisation technique by the superb Brandon Gardner from the Upright Citizens Brigade. We focused on “Game of the Scene” which meant that we were identifying the patterns that naturally arise in conversations in order to consciously use them to construct satisfying comedic situations. The game of the scene is the structure that underlies such classics as the Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch or Four Candles by the Two Ronnies. By establishing a pattern that the audience recognises comedians let them in on the joke and simply have to repeat the pattern to elicit increasing doses of laughter. The audience is subconsciously saying “Do it again!” once they have spotted the pattern. The energy between the performers increases as more emotion is evoked by playing the game e.g. John Cleese’s rising and unsuccessfully suppressed frustration at not being able to name a cheese that was in stock. To be able to spot and play the game of a scene while improvising the scene requires discipline, trust and practice and when it comes together we are truly in the flow with our stage partner, the audience and ourselves

When we are able to identify a pattern in a conversation in our regular or professional lives we have an invitation to increase rapport with the other person and to explore and to mutually create new possibilities which would otherwise be missed. By listening for the golden moment we can add our “yes” and start to build a foundation to support collaborative creativity and shared opportunity. Every manufactured material object in our physical environment began as an idea that the inventor said “yes” to and then got agreement from someone else. If you reach out and grasp a man made object right now then you are holding the result of an improvised string of “yes’s” – including the “yes’s” that lead you to be in the proximity of that object right now. Every project, team or company is the result is a string of “yes’s” and continues to exist through an unfolding stream of “yes” T

When we fully embrace, create and share success then we must embody the basic principles of improvisation Listen, Say Yes and Commit. Otherwise everything fizzles and dribbles away into the ether. So whether you are listening intently to a client talking about a big exciting new project or a knotty problem that needs solving or you are just having a laugh with a friend, then in that moment you are merging with the underlying miraculous creative pattern of the biggest game of the scene we know of – life on Earth. Enjoy the ride!

Bridging The Gap

In our binary world we love to separate our experiences of life into two categories and in many ways this ability serves us. As children it is vital to make sense of our world and we are taught to differentiate right from wrong,  good from bad and safety from danger. This is a useful framework to use in navigating our journey through a complex and potentially confusing world. As we gain experience and confidence we come to recognise shades of grey and multiple levels of perception and start to see beyond black and white.

In the words of William Blake ” If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is  – infinite”

When we find ourselves under stress or faced with new horizons we often revert to the previous programme of either/or thinking and miss many of lifes richer possibilities. This dynamic is clear in the realm of politics where the more democratic nations almost invariably develop two party systems with the adherents of each party claiming their party is right and good while the opposition is wrong and bad.

This dualistic division is especially apparent in the ingrained split between business and artistic creativity. This one starts early in school when we are presented with a choice between arts ands science with the message that the smart ones do science and mathematics and the weird ones do drama or painting to keep them out of trouble. Business types then go to business school and train for financial success and arty types flit off to get by or find a wealthy patron.  As a result we find wealthy business owners who are stiff and isolated in their roles and creative people unable to actualise their talents due to a lack of focus and resources. This reductive worldview of a  split between art and science is a fairly recent invention, it was natural during the Renaissance for people like Leonardo da Vinci to be an inventor, scientist, painter, botanist, engineer and writer.

William Blake raged eloquently against the narrowing of human vision ” May God us keep, from single vision and Newton’s sleep”

There is a tremendous richness to be found when we find synergy between business and artistic creativity and find clarity on the mutual benefits of embracing both disciplines. I am indebted to Joanna Jesson who mentored me in finding ways to communicate the business benefits of improvisation and see to it that the twain should meet. The outcome is a project called the Business Improv Lab which was founded last year by myself and Neil Mullarkey of the Comedy Store Players. This is a monthly masterclass in London where a small group of consultants, coaches and business leaders improvise together and develop applications which are then used in the workplace. The benefit of regular meetings is that the learnings can be refined and also members can bring specific issues to work with. The outcomes were used with an executive team of a major bank and the results exceeded expectations. When we unlock the talent and creativity of a team in an experimental setting and then focus the new learning on a project the impact is dramatic. With accelerating change in global markets maybe it’s time for some new Renaissance men and women on the stage of commerce!

Yes and

Collaboration is part of the essence of improvisation, each participant contributes and builds on the contributions of their fellows. The outcome is a mystery and the journey is delightful and surprising. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Anthropologists contend that it is the ability to pass on learning to other humans that has lead to the numerical success of the human race on Earth. Sometimes you don’t have have to do all the work by yourself. With all that in mind I shall relax and direct your attention to two superb pieces of work about improvisation written by people I have been fortunate to collaborate with on many occasions

Ian Gotts is the CEO of Nimbus Partners, he has taken improvisation to heart and is really making the most of the benefits that unfold with regular practice. He has compiled a collection of articles from people he knows who actively apply improvisation in the world of business. Ian has made it freely available as an ebook here

Asher Rickayzen is a consultant with Relume who manages to combine a deep knowledge of strategy with a delightful sense of humour. Asher uses improvisation to enrich his work with organisational development and facilitate change. He has written of the lasting impact of his first surprising taste of this transformational work  here

The Beginning of the End of Blame

One highly valuable element of improvisation practice is the idea that it is impossible to do it wrong. This principle creates an environment that promotes creativity and invites risk taking.  The essence of improvisation is that it embraces whatever takes place in the moment. An alert improviser will gleefully seize upon any anomaly, stumble or mispronunciation and actually hold a spotlight on it. This creates truly exhilarating performance as the twists and turns are exaggerated and ridden wherever they may lead. Audience and performers alike are thrilled and inspired by this bumpy high energy process and the results are inevitably greater and more memorable than the glitches.

The world of business however can hold an entirely different view on the concept of mistakes. In a blame culture anyone making an error is immediately impaled on the skewer of disapproval and left to squirm in the gaze of their colleagues. People very quickly learn to avoid making mistakes and if they do slip up, to keep their head down and cover up the evidence. This pattern is learned early on in school and reinforced in the workplace. We end up with bland soulless environments where employees reserve their creativity for weekends. In the current climate companies need every ounce of creativity that their people have to offer.

Challengers, those who are passionate about the potential of an organisation and seek to drive change face unnecessary resistance in these environments. Ultimately it is the organisation which loses as the creative impulse is stifled and many true leaders leave to find a more supportive environment. Human beings have an innate desire to contribute and make a difference. Allowing this impulse to be expressed and supported in the workplace is a massive Win/Win. Creativity begets more creativity, as anyone who has had a go at the classic “Yes and” improvisation exercise will tell you.

I was delighted to encounter a company recently that is doing things differently, with some great results: NixonMcInnes are a digital media agency specialising in social media based in Brighton UK.  They have established a “Church of Fail” where they meet as a company every few weeks to confess and celebrate their failures to wild applause. The bigger and more dramatic the failure, the bigger the applause. The purpose behind this light hearted practice is to have a bit of fun but also to change some of the feelings of shame so they can share the learning from their mistakes. Of course on one level we can say this is a bit silly, at a deeper level this is some highly effective reprogramming.  Their favourite quote connected to this practice is from former IBM President Thomas J Watson “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate”

You can read Nixon McInnes full blog post “Loving our mistrakes” here. We learn from our experiences when we share them with other people, when we label them “wrong” or “bad” and hide them away then we miss golden opportunities and also withhold the learning from others. If you want to put an end to blame in your organisation then start celebrating mistakes, loudly and publicly, especially your own!

Eye of the Storm

Change is unavoidable, much as we would like things to be otherwise. Most of the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control and our comprehension. We seek to make positive changes with specific gaols in mind and then somehow reality intervenes in the shape of the unexpected. Chaos is an inevitable ingredient when we endeavour to make changes. Attempting to control chaos leads to increased chaos and a decreased ability to respond effectively. How well we function during the chaotic times often determines the outcome of  a project.  Also, how well we appear to function in chaos has a tremendous influence on those we lead.

Watching improvisers, whether seasoned veterans or those discovering the thrill for the first time, I’m always entranced by the quality of spirit that is evoked when we make a choice to take risks. Something magical arrives in the unprepared yet committed moment, factors that seem at odds somehow combine to produce surprising results. An experienced leader has a quality that engages our attention, we watch them respond creatively moment by moment, walking the tightrope and staying upright and poised. Improvisers stand in the paradox of alertness and calm, buzzing with energy and possibilities while returning to stillness and feeling the moment, sensing the impulse and engaging with their fellow actors.  There is a combination of flexibility and determination that meets and overcomes obstacles which we access when we respond authentically from within.

Someone I consider to be a true hero is Ernest Shackleton, who battled a seemingly endless series of catastrophes under extreme conditions and managed to triumph through sheer force of will combined with supreme adaptability. I have read and reread his story many times and was fortunate to see in Boston museum the 22 foot lifeboat in which he made an 800 mile journey in winter through the worst sea in the world, the South Atlantic. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and frustrated under the stresses of modern life – and difficult to stay that way when we go within and bring ourselves more fully into the moment. It only takes us one conscious breath to come back to our centre, right here, right now; which is where everything happens.

Supporting Cultural Change with Improvisation

Challenging the existing culture in a large organisation is risky and invigorating. I recently worked with a forward thinking VP within a global blue chip company who is commited to driving change. He brought together  a large team, laid out the vision and invited their input. With significant buy-in and enthusiasm clearly evident it was time to experience change rather than just talk about it. So we improvised together for one hour. Begining with simple warm-ups and an invitation to take risks and be real, we progressed to performing a 15 minute “Whose Line is it Anyway?” style show on stage. Mistakes and blank minds were wildly celebrated and the VP himself modelled the values by stepped boldly into the unknown in front of everyone.

The energy in the room was electric and the feedback overwhelmingly positive “Euphoria” was one description of the experience. We had lit the blue touch paper and unleashed a storm of courage and creativity.

Here’s why it worked; when improvisation is practiced and delivered well it speaks to fundamental needs that humans have had hard wired in them for tens of millennia, these include:

+ Knowing they are appreciated and valued

+ Being heard

+ Making an effective contribution

+ Feeling supported and encouraged

+ Working together for a common aim

By involving the head, heart and body and bringing attention into the present moment we celebrate being alive and creative; we begin to undo the deadening and isolating effects of unbalanced education systems and soulless working environments.

It takes courage and commitment from business leaders to transform their culture – they face discomfort, embarrassment and they risk making mistakes. When they can rely on outstanding support from teams who are willing to embody new skills and collaborate with generosity then they are unstoppable.

Improvisation and Presence

As an experienced performer and trainer I condense the underlying value of practicing improvisation to one word – presence. In order to improvise well one acquires and develops a specific set of skills. This skill set greatly enhances personal effectiveness through an ever deepening level of presence in the here and now.

When people first encounter improvisation either through watching a performance or being trained in the basic skills there is an electric excitement in the room. The mystery unfolds moment to moment and one’s attention is fully engaged. New possibilities open up and different levels of creativity become available, some of these are brand new, others may have been buried since childhood. Confidence levels raise and there is often a burning desire to learn more. This is because we come into contact with some more alive and immediate parts of our inner self than we normally experience in day to day life.

For the duration of an improvisation session the auto pilot is switched off, we feel invigorated, focused and courageous.

This level and flavour of engagement has been sorely absent from workplaces for decades. Progressive companies are recognising that they always get mediocre results from employees who show up physically at work without actually “being there” mentally and emotionally. One of the lasting benefits of bringing improvisation skills into the workplace is that they evoke the part of us that wants to “be here” By improvising, laughing, engaging and collaborating together a team begins to excel. It only takes a few moments to revisit a basic improvisation exercise or roll out a new one and the enthusiasm is back in the room. Repeated practice of improvisation skills will quickly reveal the team members who are active saboteurs or energy drains. In any organisation it is the people are the greatest resource and 5 fully engaged people deliver far greater value than 10 semi engaged people (they also cost less in wages and take fewer sick leaves!) Increased presence in team members adds value exponentially as improvisation has at its core the practice of collaboration. When a team is made up of members who are adding positive energy, are really listening and contributing enthusiastically the results quickly follow.

John Cremer

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" I was amazed at what my people got out of the session. It was great fun, very stimulating and gave people fresh insights into what they were capable of as well as helping to recognize diverse approaches and styles in the group "
David Parry-Jones ,
General Manager
Enterprise Partner Group

"Our practice event was a great success. John created a safe environment that allowed people to feel comfortable with putting themselves forwards. Delegates were surprised at how funny they could be and the more we got it wrong the funnier it became. Throughout the session we related the skills that were being learnt back to our workplace. Overall this was an extremely successful event."
James Yearsley
Partner - Deloitte

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The Academy For Chief Executives