Lessons from theatrical improvisation have clear parallels with group dynamics in other social systems, including aid agencies…

Outside of work, theatre is one of my main passions. In my tentative attempts to learn more about different aspects of stagecraft, I have stumbled across some fascinating thinking which is of real relevance for Aid on the Edge readers.
In a previous post, I touched upon jazz improvisation as an analogy for a new wave of economic thinking, and here I am interested in looking in some detail at theatrical improvisation (or improv for short, hence the Cleese-defying* title for this post) as a source of valuable insights in its own right.
One of the most interesting thinkers in this area is Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence,who has a theatrical background but has also run improv-based programs at major organisations like Microsoft, Kaiser Permanente and the World Bank (yes, I did a double-take at that last one too!). James is clear about the minimalist starting points of effective improv:
No structure. No outline. No character or plot development. Nothing, except for 2 locations we get from the audience at the beginning of the play. The play is then titled, “The Space Station and the Bathroom” or whatever locations we get from the audience. Two of us then run on stage and start interacting, and thus the play begins…

However, sometimes the ensuing play worked, and seemed easy. And other times, it was clunky, and seemed hard. This led James to ask some searching questions:

What creates peak level creativity in our group? What allows a complex, coherent, sense-making structure to emerge from nothing but a simple location? What is the “magic formula” that allows a fully formed, organized play – with believable characters and plot – to emerge before the audience’s (and our own) eyes? And what gets in the way? Why does it work seamlessly sometimes and not so well other times?

James’ explorations found direct correlations between the principles of improv in a performance and being able to adapt, create and perform effectively in any social system. Specifically, “the same principles that allow a performing group to improvise a 90-minute play out of nothing but a location are the same principles that allow groups, teams, and organizations to solve problems in new ways and reach peak levels of creativity and innovative thinking. The principles form the “container” that allows the group to self-organize to emerge what’s next.”

James went on to do work with the Plexus Institute (one of Aid on the Edge’s favourite think-tanks) which helped her see clearly the connection between complex adaptive systems and improvisational theatre groups:

Both are open, inclusive, non-linear, dynamic systems that use interactive agents, feedback loops and multiple variables. Both require resilience, collaboration, structure and flow, spontaneity, and engaging the unknown. Both result in a surprising emergence. In our troupe, we don’t go on stage with a pre-formed notion of our characters, plot, conflict, challenge or situation. We just let them emerge based on our interactions, actions and reactions. The “magic formula” is the adherence to the basic improv principles. When we adhere to the principles of improvisation, something emerges that is more intelligent and creative – and intelligently organized – than any one of us could have planned…

Through this work, James has managed to identify  seven basic principles of improvisation, each of which is relevant to, and challenging for, international aid agencies’ work:

1. ‘Yes and’ (not ‘no but’)… Fully accepting the reality that is being presented, and then adding a new piece of information, allows a group to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each ‘actor’ interacts with what is offered and should be seen as offering a unique contribution.

Compare this with the international NGO manager who said, of a national partner organisation: ‘they have to be really special to turn to us and say, they want to do things another way’.

2. Make everyone else look good That means actors do not have to be defending or justifying themselves or their position – instead they should trust that others will do that for them and they will reciprocate. Minimising the burden of defensiveness or competition means all actors are free to create.

As highlighted in a recent piece I wrote with Michael Barnett entitled the Humanitarian’s Dilemma, we need to find ways of making aid agencies care more about each others success…

3. Be open to changed by what is said and what happens At each moment, the changing context and new information it generates is an invitation for actors to have a new reaction or experience. “Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next.”

But aid agencies, in the damning assessment by Richard Dowden, pay less attention to context than their colonial forerunners. And they are  also often described as maladaptive in the face of change, most recently by the Humanitarian Futures Programme.

4. Co-create a shared “agenda” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and that it is important to serve the reality of what is right there in front of a given actor. The reality is that any agenda is being co-created in real-time.

My observation in this context is that aid agencies are all too often stymied by the need for consensus, and for delivering against pre-established goals. This radically reduces the space of possibilities, as opposed to co-creation which expands them.

5. Mistakes are invitations to change the pattern In improv, mistakes are embraced – they are the stimuli that invite actors to shift to new levels of creativity. Techniques such as ‘acknowledging any mistake’ can be transformed into surprising plot point or dialogue that never would have happened in following a conventional pattern. In improv, this creates order out of chaos. Mistakes that are acknowledged can help break existing patterns and allow new ones to emerge.

It hardly needs to be said that learning from mistakes is not an area where aid agencies excel. As the old proverb puts it: the person who fails to learn from their mistakes is condemned to repeat them.

6. Keep the energy going through uncertainty No matter what is given, or what happens, there is a fundamental need accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv there is a need to keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Trust the process and just keep moving – after all, human systems are never static – they are alive and dynamic.

By contrast, aid works through big pendulum swings, cycling repetitively through trends, fashions and reforms in a way that is tremendously disheartening for the long-term observer. Few sectors can turn a romantic into a cynic quicker than international aid….

7. Serve the good of the whole By always carrying the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” actors will have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support their fellow actors and how to best support the situation. By focusing away from how they will individually appear to serving the larger good there is scope for following more creative impulses and identifying new resources in unexpected places.

Again, the Humanitarian’s Dilemma piece highlights this as a vital but neglected issue on the humanitarian side of the aid sector. All too often, and often for very pragmatic reasons, individual mandates overwhelm the collective good.

The principles that allow effective improvisation seem simple and easy. However, in practice, they would appear to be almost the exactly opposite of the ways in which aid agencies navigate their strategic and tactical challenges.

James is clear about what makes improv hard, and this too is sobering stuff:

Simple: any violation of the principles. If one of us tries to orchestrate, or worse impose, our own agenda or plot on the piece. If one of us tries to be the “star” and take too much focus. If even one of us is not present to what is unfolding, moment-by-moment. If one of us worries about the plot, and starts to figure out how to “save” it. If we expect that someone should respond in a certain way. In short, anything that gets us out of the moment and what is emerging – and into our ‘controlling’ heads.

The key would seem be to find clear and convincing ways of arguing that such alternative improv-based approaches are in fact the most appropriate way of dealing with some of the longstanding problems faced in the aid sector. Take urbanisation, climate change,  institutional change, global crises… the list goes on and on. The body of knowledge is growing, as are the voices calling for radical changes in aid policy and practice. Bill Easterly’s call for scrapping Aid Planners in favour of Aid Searchers is perhaps the most high-profile and vociferous example.

Increasing numbers of aid practitioners, academics, analysts, bloggers, tweeters and external observers are now arguing that a more anticipatory, adaptive and innovative approach to development and humanitarian work is essential if aid agencies are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world. Time will no doubt tell if they are right.

There is one parting lesson from James to bear in mind – just because you are being creative, doesn’t mean you can’t also be rigorous and tireless in your pursuit of what works and why. I find myself as inspired by her approach and the processes she has employed, as by her results and findings. Maybe that’s the secret to all successful improv.

*FOOTNOTE: John Cleese’s 3 rules – No puns, no puns and no puns.

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. I’ve only put a toe in the water with improvisation (through the Applied Improvisation Network – http://appliedimprov.ning.com) but really see it as having a role in transforming aidland. The message that stuck in my head from the AIN event I attended in London was that improv was about freedom within structure. This was a point made by @BelinaRaffy helping those new to improvisation to see that it wasn’t anything goes, but co-creation through affinity with a shared set of structuring behavioural princples. The capability this gives is perhaps most significant in situations where people encounter complexity. The social distance and inexperience of internationals in other countries means they encounter complexity more than nationals in the same contexts. This raises the interesting possibillity that improvisation may be more or less powerfull relative to other approaches depending on your familiarity with the context within which innovation and creativity in development is being called for. The subject dependency of complexity is something we’ve discussed here before Ben. I guess I’m simply trying to reflect on how subjective my enthusiams for improv in development is. Could it be becuase of being embedded in aidland?

    • Interesting point, Carl. I think I agree in general. But I am not sure the subjective value of improv hinges on where you are from…

      Look at some of the most interesting social innovators and entrepreneurs – locally grounded, creative, innovative, finding new ways of navigating complexity…

      Could it be argued that development and social change demands creativity and innovation, whether you are an international or national, and that it is a complex process, regardless of where you stand?

      Maybe it’s just that ‘nationals’ are more likely to be fluent improvisers, in their local contexts, than internationals?

      Definitely worth a longer discussion!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the idea of applying improvisation techniques to real-life challenges can provide huge benefits. I deeply believe that just by truly applying concept #1, “Yes, and” and concept #2, “Make everyone else look good,” can lead to huge shifts in the ways that people work together. It can work on any level, from two people up to between organizations.
    There may be a better way than to “find clear and convincing ways of arguing that such alternative improv-based approaches are in fact the most appropriate way of dealing with some of the longstanding problems faced in the aid sector.” Try to attract them to new ways of working together through practical, applied use of the techniques.
    Best regards,
    RJ Johnson

    • Thanks for the qualification of “attract[ing] them to new ways of working together through practical, applied use of the techniques”- I like it a lot!

      Is it necesssarily better than ‘clear and convincing ways of arguing’ for such approaches, or do we need a bit of both – i.e. some push, some pull?

      • Let me turn the question back to you. Would you rather be pushed toward something or attracted to it? To echo my previous comment, the important part is to keep any introduction to improvisation in the context of solving real challenges, rather than playing games for the sake of “team building.” I recently wrote a two-part article on this. The first part is at http://21stcenturyappreciativeinquiry.com/innovations/team-building-get-real-part-1/ .
        Please keep us informed as you move into a more improvisational way of working. It would be great to hear how you are attracting others to work this way.
        Best regards,
        RJ Johnson

      • Thanks for the reply RJ! I think many in the aid sector are attracted to a more improvisational way of working, but too many are held back by rigid bureaucracies, reporting requirements, and an obsession with pre-defined outcomes and processes. So how do we change the structures, if not through trying to convince those who design and sustain them?

        You seem to be implying that if enough people are attracted to a way of doing things, the structures will inevitably have to change around them? It does appeal to me, but [art of me thinks that we have to take the technocrats head-on too… Any reflections warmly welcomed!

  3. “If enough people are attracted to a way of doing things, the structures will inevitably have to change around them.” Well put! But, in the mean time, I have learned to focus strongly on my sphere of influence. It is often larger than we first imagine. And I am very patient when it comes to change. It took Gandhi 21 years to help over throw the work permit system in South Africa. Helping people learn to work improvisationally may be just as big a challenge 🙂 Thomas Kuhn once said that people don’t change paradigms, but rather those that cling to the old paradigm die off, or more gently, retire. With the up and coming net generation and their desire to collaborate, I believe they are more open to improvisation. I often show the Pixar clip with Randy Nelson at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhXJe8ANws8 that talks about concepts 1 and 2 from my first comment (Accept every offer and make everyone else look good.)
    Thanks for your interest,
    RJ Johnson

  4. As a follow up to my earlier comments on working in your sphere of influence, you might want to check out the article that I just finished on working more from your values. Here’s the link: http://21stcenturyappreciativeinquiry.com/innovations/ignite-your-values-and-spread-the-fire/. Although it doesn’t address improv specifically, it talks about experimenting more with your values daily and working more closely with your network through social media to leverage these efforts.

    Please let me know what you think,


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Chaos, Facilitation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Resilience, Self organisation