Applied improvisation

Applied improvisation

Impact Americas Senior Consultant Caitlin McClure has been researching, teaching, studying, practicing, directing and performing improvised theater, applied improvisation, emotional intelligence and play since 1995. This not only fuels her passion for designing and facilitating experiential learning programs but has also inspired Caitlin to share a collection of Applied Improvisation stories and strategies in her new book - Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating & Creating Beyond the Theater.

We interviewed Caitlin to find out about how her fascination with Applied Improvisation came about and the role it can play in the workplace.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

As a kid, I had ample opportunities for unstructured play and believe that that is one of the most fertile ways that humans learn.

Tell us about your journey with Applied Improvisation.

In 1995 I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area working as a freelance Desktop Publisher when I took my first improv class. For the next five years, I worked just enough to pay my rent and satisfy this nascent improv habit: taking classes, performing, studying, reading about improv, and eventually teaching classes, directing, creating ensembles and coaching ensembles. Occasionally during that time, friends would ask me to do some improv games with their colleagues—they had heard me talk about how well improv helps people connect and communicate and they wanted some of that in their workplace.

In 2000, I moved to NYC and spent the next six years doing a combination of desktop publishing, commercial acting, voice-over work, teaching commercial acting, and what I called “corporate improv.” This took the form of helping leaders handle difficult conversations well, develop their executive presence, learn to listen, coach and innovate. I was lucky enough to work with big and small companies like American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the US Olympic Committee and the Girl Scouts. In 2006, I woke up one morning and realized that of all these different income streams, one was my true passion, so I enrolled at Columbia University and got a Master’s degree in Adult Learning and Leadership. I ran my own consulting firm for three years, then worked internally at Tiffany & Co., redesigning their core leadership development programs. In 2017, I joined Impact. I’m doing my best to incorporate as much Applied Improvisation into my program design at Impact as I can.

Can you give us a brief overview of the book?

Since the 80’s, thousands of practitioners around the world have been using the tools and techniques of improvised theater for applications other than performing. This book shares 12 such case studies that show the breadth and depth of this field. Stories include helping oncology nurses become more resilient, child refugees to build communities, scientists communicate better with non-scientists, as well as provide leaders with the tools to listen more effectively and ultimately respond with more agility. Each case study is followed by a Workbook explaining how to lead some of the games that were used in that case study. An appendix lists a number of Improv tenets and terms. I wrote a chapter on my five-plus years at Tiffany & Co. My co-editor wrote a chapter on the nature of emergence, which grew out of a conversation she had with Keith Sawyer, the incredibly prolific writer about creativity and group processes, and Neil Mullarkey, comedian-improviser-performer based in the UK.

How do you use Applied Improvisation in your day to day life as a Senior Consultant?

In general, I try to live by the principles of improv, some of which are to treat mistakes as gifts, be obvious, Yes-And, and fail with good nature. When one practices improv, these principles become habits. (At the moment, I have not taken an improv class in a long time, so my habits are rusty! I beat myself up when I make a mistake rather than learning from it, and it’s easy for me to feel cramped by obstacles rather than see them as opportunities.)

Specifically, with my work at Impact, I am incorporating improv games wherever I can in program designs or on the fly in workshops. For instance,  on a recent program, the program director asked me to lead a 15-minute energizer. Because this energizer would kickoff a full-day Immersive Leadership Challenge, I chose to lead something called What Are You Doing which functions as a “brain fry” in which participants are asked to do one thing (such as pretend to play ping pong) but must do something else instead (such as pretend to brush their teeth). While “frying” one’s brain may sound maddening, when a game like this is set up well, the participants find themselves laughing, connecting with each other, moving around the space in an unguarded and un-self-conscious fashion. One of the fabulous things about being in a state of play is that play is its own reward and these games self-perpetuate.

Improv games can be used as energizers, but to function as experiential learning (Applied Improv) participants must have the chance to reflect on the activity.

The next week I received an email from our client asking me for instructions on how to lead What Are you Doing as she was keen to evoke the same kinds of take-aways with others in the organization.

What are the most important principles of Applied Improvisation?

See pages 281 to 284 in the book!

What are some of your favorite techniques in Applied Improvisation, and how do they foster leadership behaviors and mindsets?

I’ve seen colleagues, both past and present, lead Snap-Clap-Stomp-Cheer (see page 133) as an energizer without debriefing it. In other words, they set up a rich experience for their participants without mining the possible learning from the activity. The missed opportunity breaks my Leadership Development heart! An activity like Snap-Clap-Stomp-Cheer is a perfect example of a simple game that fosters leadership mindsets and behaviors, if followed by a full debrief. For instance, Snap-Clap-Stomp-Cheer can help leaders deepen their self-awareness of how they respond to failure. In other words, helping leaders Notice, Decide, Act.

Caitlin’s book is available to buy on Amazon here