13 Jan 2013

Improvisation is an ideal way to practice the art of Crisis Management

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Transformation: The Value of Emergency in Play or Creating Healthy Crisis

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~Albert Einstein

How do you begin to effect transformation? What sparks change?  Answer – crisis. What happens during a crisis is critical for change.

…reform is usually possible only once a sense of crisis takes hold. Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits.  A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moment of crisis–or create the perception of crisis–and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with every day.  — From The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Transformation is the heart of Improvisation – Viola Spolin

When we play a game, especially a team game, though other games produce the same condition, we create for ourselves a problem to solve and the fact that we don’t know exactly how to solve it makes it fun. That unknowing state creates a dynamic feeling brought on by facing the problem in the moment. A moment of crisis: It’s actually an emergency. You must solve the problem!

That is the reality one faces when truly playing. The physiological and psychological state we put ourselves in when faced with an emergency gives us the ability to act spontaneously and intuitively, if we ignore the fear of a negative outcome.

Games can do that. They let us practice dealing with crisis and we call that Fun.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped playing so much and ‘got down to business’ as they say. We gave up the excitement of play as children for the more serious business of planning our lives as we grew up. Thus we laid the groundwork for maintaining a secure and comfortable life and seeking to maintain the status quo.

But without play, life is just routine, and that gets boring. And worse it makes us seek solutions in unhealthy ways. Transitory pleasure in drinking, sex, entertainment to distract ourselves from the ordinary patterns we established to be secure and comfortable – the status quo.

The dangers of the status quo

Creating a routine is great. It gives us a path to follow, an outcome that is predictable. The practice of routine creates habits. Good habits to be sure need to be cultivated. Bad habits emerge through the unconscious tedium routine can induce.

In business routines and procedures are necessary, to be sure and good habits lead to successful outcomes. But habits good and bad are, well, habit-forming.

Once they become what organizational experts call invisible norms, they disappear and no longer can be addressed as problems. Left too long they become the status quo and groups within organizations fight to keep them, even when they become toxic. A tipping point is reached and serious problems emerge, and are usually followed by a do or die crisis.

At this point experts are brought in to fix it and reestablish balance and positive change. They help businesses cope with change, therein giving rise to an industry of consultants of every stripe. Improvisation being one of the best in my opinion.

Improvisation: the Art of Coping with Crises

Improvisational training has gained a foothold in business in this arena for a very good reason. Improvisation plays with crisis in a fun and non-critical context that can prepare one for larger more momentous crises.

An improvisational actor puts him or herself in crises for pleasure. It is what makes Improv so fun.  The Who, What, and Where are provided by the audience, and a focus (or problem as in a game) selected to bring everyone together to solve that problem within the given context of Who, What and Where. The focus sets everyone in motion and the scene evolves.

What gives life to the scene and holds our interest is the fact that we do not know what will transpire. We, as players watch to see it unfold (detachment) and act within it (full mind/body involvement) as it unfolds creating the surprise for both audience and player. That is the essence of Improvisation. If you’ve read my blog or know anything about Improvisation this is not news.

The thrill for me as a player or audience player is the fact that I am directly participating in the resolution of a crisis. Once I get the Who, What and Where and a focus, I begin a process of going from what we know to what we don’t know. My adrenaline begins to flow, my senses heighten, I become alert, and the present moment is all there is. Me and my fellow players all agree that we are faced with an emergency of the first order. Solve the problem right in front of the audience! Off we go!

Solutions are sought and endlessly surprising things emerge through the playing and this is what we live for!  It is the essence of life, the spontaneous spark that moves us to discover new ways of coping with crisis. Once through the crisis, we are transformed by it. We’ve explored a new area if all went well.

If not that means we retreated from the problem and addressed it with old information and behaviors that may give the audience a laugh or two, but will eventually bore the player and reduce the scene down to the common and familiar. It may have some novelty, but it is usually uninspired and forgettable.

But in every Improv show there are usually enough surprises by the very nature of being playful and the best moments come from true emergency. I think that’s why Improv is so popular. The better troupes consistently put themselves in crises in order to surprise themselves and act spontaneously.  The gift of this spontaneity is manifold. It produces new ideas endlessly and that is what we seek. Why we continue to play.

This translates directly to most any situation in life. We should all practice this skill.

The word emergency comes from the idea of seizing emerging opportunities in a crisis and using them spontaneously.

It sounds pretty scary though – being shaken out of our comfortable routine and being faced with who-knows-what as an outcome. Who wants that, especially when the stakes are high? “What if” begins to fill your mind and bad outcomes are visualized. Enter fear and anxiety. It is best not to take that chance and remain safely within an established routine.

And thus we avoid crisis and remain unchanged. Whew!

“There are people who say `Yes’, and people who say `No’.Those who say `Yes’ are rewarded with the adventures they have and those who say `No’ are rewarded with the safety they attain.” – Keith Johnstone

If not prepared for it, it can cause fear and keep us stuck. But if having played enough, I know the joy of going out into the unknown and discovering something new.  Out of the flames of crises the Phoenix arises. A new beginning, a new insight, a new perspective emerges and we seek out the next time when we face a new crisis. Another game!

Getting accustomed to the unfolding of an unknown outcome and how to allowing it to energize you opens the door to transformation.

This is what Improvisation address on all levels; in business, with relationships, in education and even spiritually. The Buddha means ‘the awakened one’ – The one who has transcended the trance of living routinely.

Businesses hire consultants to address the problems unconscious routines cause and compound and there are myriad ways to confront the issues. Many businesses require a culture change, because organizational habits form that put employees to sleep and keep them blind to the growing problems of subtly adjusting to habits in order to remain comfortable.

“The problem of being comfortable my dear sir, is that it makes me – comfortable.” – attributed to poet Dylan Thomas when asked why he lived his life in such turmoil.

One needs to experience change willingly and the higher the stakes the more courage it takes. So take it slow and learn to improvise.

The fear is always there that change can damage what you know and that adjustment is unpleasant. The tension between routine and crisis is Yin and Yang. Both are required and must be balanced. This is a basic truth.

If you practice the art of Improvisation you prepare yourself for the inevitability of change and actually learn to welcome it, no… rather will seek it out because it is the sauce that is the Spice of Life.


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