The Rules of Improv

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By amplifying everyday interactions, the core principles of improvisation highlight how what might initially seem trivial components of communication actually has a big impact on the direction and results of conversations and discussions.

Make Each Other Look Good;

The easiest way to look good is to make others look good. Throwing other people under the bus might give you momentary glory but it is a sure way to break the fabric of a team.

Accept All Offers;

Without the first offer, nothing will get started. Shut offers down often enough and no offers will come anymore, stifling any opportunities for progress.

Don’t Hog the Stage;

Know when to shine, and when to shut it. Make sure you listen actively and try to make others look good to avoid being a stage hog.

Yes, and...Yes, but.... > No, but....

Be careful with your buts. Often this little word will have a big impact, it will shut down any further exploration.

And some fun activities to bring some improve into your teams:

21

Stand in a circle. The goal is to count to 21 as a group. The moment that two people say the same number or if two people standing next to each other follow each other, you'll have to start over.

Clap

Stand in a circle. without instructions or any signals try to clap at the same time. Feel the moment and try to get as close as possible.

Tools for Action

Understanding yourself and others is only the start.

You will not go anywhere without understanding how to mobilise yourself and others into taking action. Yehudi Menuhin said about music that “Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.”.

A quote that describes innovation as well as it does music. For us taking action is like playing the symphony of business.

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Chaos to Order

Balancing the tightrope between chaos and order is what makes innovation work. Swaying too far one way or the other might inhibit or disrupt innovation.

The two polar opposites are equally important to the innovation process. At the start of the innovation process, involving ideation and exploration, chaos needs to be embraced. As solutions become real, mature and need to be implemented in BAU structures and processes, chaos needs to make place for order.

This shift in focus and ways of working requires the right people to be involved at specific moments in the process, at the chaotic start you want flexible, open-minded people that handle change well, while further down the process you want structure-driven individuals to take over implementation.

Use this tool when...

You need to come up with and implement a new solution. Make sure to provide the freedom for disorder at the beginning of the process, and create order as the solution proves its value and gets integrated into BAU.

The Innovation Portfolio

Hop-Step-Jump, innovation is like child’s play once you get it. This helpful lens helps you analyse what you currently do, and plan the portfolio you need to survive and thrive. It all starts with BAU (business as usual), the processes and structures you need to keep the wheels turning.

A hop describes the smallest movement towards doing things in new and better ways; basic process improvement. The step takes things one step further.

A step will look at what is on the horizon and starting to show potential and explore what this might mean to the business. For instance, an experiment to test how core processes will function on blockchain.

The jump is the most daring. What does our industry look like when technology has turned us into cyborgs and we live on Mars?

A healthy and balanced portfolio looks different for each organisation and is shaped by internal and external pressure, and how flexible and open to change the people are.

Remember....

This tool is as relevant to your organisation as it is to your teams and you as an individual. Use it to analyse and plan a healthy portfolio of activities.

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Breaking it Down

It all starts with thinking big. What is the biggest, most positive outcome of a challenge you face? Thinking this through should inspire you but at the same time it is scary, how would you achieve such a lofty goal and where to even start!?

This overwhelming phase generates avoidance behaviours. You break out of this by Thinking Down, reducing complexity and scale. You know you have simplified things enough when you know what you can do this afternoon to make the first step towards achieving your lofty goal. And then it’s time for Acting Up! By learning through action you add complexity and scale through execution. You might not end up where you thought you would, but you will end up where you should.

Remember....

Move from too much, too big and later to less, smaller and now. If you can't get started this afternoon, it is too big.

The Fabric of High-Performance Teams

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To perform on a high level with your team, the team needs a robust fabric.

The psychological safety this fabric creates will fuel an even higher performance, which in turn will strengthen the fabric. This positive feedback loop will make everyone more engaged, fulfilled and effective.

Care.

Or give a sh*t. To be able to work effectively with others, you need to care. You need to care about the others, the work that you’re doing, and how and where you do this work.

Tips & Tricks: Delight your fellow team members by bringing in some coffees or treats to your next meeting. Ask that extra question and show genuine interest.

Trust.
We believe that the language around trust is broken. People talk about trust being something that is built slowly over time, in today’s fast-paced world being able to assume trust is critical.

Tips & Tricks: Assuming trust rather than building trust is not easy. Separating intent from behaviour is often a good first step, the second one involves assuming a positive intent behind the behaviour.

Respect.

Hard to describe, but easy to recognise. We constantly send implicit messages with our behaviour, that might not align with the explicit messages we want to send...

Tips & Tricks: Make the implicit explicit the moment you feel respect is breaking down. Without respect admiration will never be built.

Admiration.

Admiration is a true indicator of high-performance. Once people start admiring each other, things start humming along. And everyone has something admirable about them!

Tips & Tricks: If you can't find anything to admire about someone, you don't know enough about them. Use the life map exercise to build admiration and don't be afraid to share what you admire about others.

Common goal.

The one thing that ties it all together. For high-performance you want to pursue a stretch-goal where the odds are stacked against you, why perform on a high level otherwise?

Tips & Tricks: Frequently discuss, adapt and agree upon the common goal. Goals change when plans meet reality and they are critical for establishing and maintaining a shared reality.

Thought from the Road #006: Key Performance Indicators

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Join Gus for another thought from the road, this series comes to you straight from the airport lounges, hotels and AirBnB’s around the world.

KPIs kill common sense. KPIs are like an antidote, the perfect way to disarm the sense we struggle with the most.

I was asked recently how to KPI innovation and this is what I said:

Innovation is action, action applied to unsolved problems to resolve them.

ANY KPI that helps any team (from legal to reception to product) measure the process of solving problems is a way of measuring innovation...BUT...as I said I am not a massive fan of KPIs as they tend to stand in the way of common sense. KPIs are also generally too static for the pace of change we are experiencing, the only way to make any KPI relevant is to review them daily!

That’s a massive tax...so if you have them, few and regularly updated please ;-)

Thought from the Road #004: Coach, Manage, Lead...

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Join Gus for another thought from the road, this series comes to you straight from the airport lounges, hotels and AirBnB’s around the world.

A good developer friend reminded me on Twitter a few days ago something I used to say to my team:

“ I loved the framing I learned from @gusbalbontin years ago - you need someone to coach you (improve skill), someone to manage you (remove blockers), and someone to lead you (give direction + purpose) “

Let me add, irrespective of those roles being formally part of your job description or title, if you belong to a team (literally always) they are informally your responsibility. You have to always, coach, manage and/or lead, you cannot shake the responsibility if you want to achieve things with others ;-). ...

Three Parts of the Brain

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Broadly speaking, our brains evolved in three distinct stages.

This view might not hold up completely under scrutiny of a neuroscientist but even they agree there are three distinct areas with distinct functions.

Having insight into what these stages are, what functions they fulfil and how they influence your behaviour gives you some powerful tools. So, let’s have a look at them.

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Reptilian.

The Instincts

Survival.

We all have a little dinosaur in our heads. There is no creature running around in our heads of course, but the most ancient part of the brain basically has the same wiring as any reptile or other ancient creature. Its focus is to maintain balance and survive and it directly influences bodily functions to do just that.

When presented with threats to survival, like a zebra spotting a lion or someone facing redundancy at work, it will trigger the fight-or-flight response.

All of this takes place unconsciously, and the physical reactions associated with this response might lead you to behave in ways your conscious self does not agree with.


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Mammalian.

The Emotions

The Limbic System.

Sitting on top of our little dinosaur is the emotional part of the brain. This system is very much a mammalian specialty; reptiles are not well known for their emotional lives.

In addition to being responsible for the pleasant feelings and behaviours associated with reproduction, bonding and parental care, this part of the brain is also critical to memory and learning processes. Emotions, memory and learning are drivers of cooperation and competition, processes us mammals engage in constantly.

Just think of the cooperation required to hunt and the competition for food, or building a team to achieve a common goal and competing with your peers for that new role that has become available and with competitors for customers.

Human.

The Reason.


Logic & Reason.

The brand-spanking new, or most recently evolved, part of the brain. The cortex is associated with logic, reason and conscious processing. We like to think that this is our control centre, where we control urges and impulses like the fight-or-flight response.

And although the cortex at times does influence and mitigate
triggers from the little dinosaur and the emotional part of the brain, more often than not it’s actually being influenced and limited by the older parts of the brain, fabricating justifications to explain behaviour along the way.

When you are under a lot of pressure and feeling on edge, for example, your cortex might make impulsive, and even stupid, decisions that seem brilliant at the time.

Culture

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How we behave will determine the culture that we build. At the same time the culture that we build will shape the behaviour we display. So to change our culture, we'll need to change our behaviour.

And this is of course easier said than done.

Because of our social nature, we just can’t help ourselves. The moment a group of individuals comes together; a culture gets formed. People will start determining how they like to interact with each other, what artifacts they like and the meaning of those artefacts. The group will amplify the values and and beliefs they can agree on. As the group starts interacting with other groups the culture gets shaped further and amplified, creating a powerful feedback loop.

This distinction between us and them is one of the most powerful forces driving interaction. The us and them distinction will build cohesion and strengthen the group, however at the same time as these positive emotions towards ‘us’ develop, negative feelings towards ‘them’ are created. Who belongs to ‘us’ and who belongs to ‘them’ is determined by setting and context.

At times when these forces are preventing collaboration, a simple reframe or explicit discussion about the common goal might be all that is needed.

Cultures get formed almost immediately but, like behaviour, might be hard to change. Like any change, this is a two-step process, insight followed by actual change.

Tapping Into Our Brain

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“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe”

- Michio Kaku

As the above quote shows, our brains are the most complicated objects in the known universe. No wonder they often trip up even themselves :-)

Below you find instructions of two tricks that help you better manage that complicated object between your ears. One to practice yourself, and one to practice with your teams.

The 'Brain Drain'.

As the famous psychologist William James pointed out, our conscioussnes is like a river or a stream.

At times unfortunately this stream can not flow freely, leading us to overthink and feel bogged down. The 'Brain Drain' exercise gives our minds permission to run wild and think about whatever. You’re not fighting thoughts – you’re accepting them, embracing them, and releasing them.

Neurological studies show individuals who spend 8 minutes off-loading their brain from thoughts and freeing up the mind are more calm, focused and in-the-moment.

How to.

People: 1+

Materials: Two pieces of paper and a pen per person.
Time: 10 minutes.

Steps.

Find a quite spot and set yourself up with your papers and pen. Take a couple of deep breaths and get ready.

Write down your thoughts in real-time as they are unfolding. Don’t wait. Don’t edit. Don’t second guess. Just write down whatever pops into your mind, even if it’s something as simple as “I don’t know what to write about right now.”

Continue until two pages are completely filled, and reflect.

Folding and tearing.

Each of our brains are unique, in the 7.5 billion brains roaming the earth none is the same as another. 'Folding & Tearing' illustrates how these differences influence how individuals perform even the simplest of tasks.

How to.

People: 3+

Materials: A piece of A4 paper per person.
Time: 10 minutes.

Steps.


Ask everyone to close their eyes.

Explain they must keep their eyes closed until asked to open them.

Read out the following instructions exactly as they are stated below:

1. Fold your piece of paper in half.
2. Tear off the upper right corner.
3. Fold your piece of paper in half again.
4. Tear off the bottom right corner.
5. Fold your piece of paper in half again.
6. Tear off the upper left corner.
7. Fold your piece of paper in half again.
8. Tear off the bottom left corner.
9. Unfold your paper and hold it up.

Afterwards compare and discuss.

Thought from the Road #001: A Team of One

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Join Gus for another thought from the road, this series comes to you straight from the airport lounges, hotels and AirBnB’s around the world.

Don’t think for a second that Team principles don’t apply to you because you work alone in your business or you have no team in your company.

Team principles apply always in every scenario in which people come together to deliver an outcome. Even a business of one has to work with clients, suppliers, agents.... that’s your team.

For example, we are building a home at the moment and Team still applies for the architect, engineer, landscape architect, my wife, myself and the builder, even if we don’t technically have a business hierarchy with reporting lines and job descriptions...we have to apply the same fundamentals of Team if we hope to succeed at building our home!

What are those principles? We must CARE, TRUST, ADMIRE, RESPECT and have a COMMON GOAL. Start applying team principles to everything you do with all the people you do it with, at work and outside of work, trust me, it works!