Improv and Community Building: The Secret Ingredients for Organizational Transformation

Organizations today want transformation. They know that if they don’t constantly reinvent themselves, they die. This is a very different vision of the successful organization, than say, the commonly held idea of a strong company from the 1960s. Picture IBM. A strong company in the 1960s was a company like IBM, who had all of its accounting processes clearly defined. Everything in order and under control.

Today, nothing is under control. (And probably never has been. Control was likely an illusory story we were telling ourselves.) Allowing control to be the dominant paradigm only makes companies fail and leads to stagnation. Things are changing so fast with such great volumes of information in the business environment of 2015 that it’s not possible to keep ahead of your competitors, or even keep up. Instead of mere linear change, for organizations to flourish today, they need transformation. And not just any kind of transformation. It has to be exponential transformation. Transformation at the speed of imagination.

That’s where improv together with community building become a powerful catalyst and guide for change. As a leader of organizational transformation and a professional systems coach, I have found that using improv and community building approaches together brings transformation often in the blink of an eye. There is this exquisite moment that emerges in transformational work where something in the field shifts. When it happens it’s magic. We are all part of it. It’s like stepping into a flowing river and allowing what emerges to take shape.

Instant shifts are not news to people in the improv community. Well-loved artists such as Gilda Radnor, Joyce Piven, Tina Fey and many more know this well. But what’s been new for me has been not only bringing improv into corporate work, but the astounding results it produces when combined with powerful approaches available in community building and organizational coaching work, such as Arnold Mindell’s Process Work. The results have been shockingly delightful, explosive, sometimes slow and sometimes instantaneous.

There’s only one problem. Change is hard. It’s hard for individuals, and it’s hard for organizations. If you look at it in a certain way, even the human brain is wired against it. The brain initially processes new information as a potential threat to survival. We screen it as a possible threat to see if we need to respond to it in survival mode, as either fight, flight or freeze. And that’s how a lot of organizations act when confronted with change – they fight, they flee or they freeze. None of it is good for business. And none of it is good for people.

But change is constant. Change is a natural thing. Think about babies being born or trees dropping their leaves in the fall. We see change in the rhythms of nature, even the cycles of families, relationships and communities.

And there’s something else about change that nature teaches us (as well as Buddhism and Taoism). And that is that the nature of reality is that it is fundamentally interconnected. That applies to physical matter as well as human relationships and everything in between.

Think about what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Imagine a photon that is split, resulting in two photons which are now entangled. Let’s call them “Photon A” and “Photon B. Put “Photon A” into a high speed plane, and fly it to the other side of the planet. Then observe “Photon A.” What sometimes happens, is that ”Photon A,” in being observed, moves up. And strangely enough, it turns out that “Photon B” on the other side of the planet, moves down, at what appears to be the exact same instant. At the very least at a rate faster than the speed of light. What it means to exist, is to exist in relationship, whether you are a photon, a rock, or a human being.

My central idea is that improv and community building are a powerful dynamic duo for organizational transformation, or transformation of any system. Improv frees up fear. It sidesteps the amygdala. It shoves Fear out of the driver’s seat and replaces it with Curiosity and Exploration. And in doing so, improv frees us up to do what we are also neurologically wired to do – connect with each other. This is a hot topic right now in neurological research. We are not individual automatons or endlessly competing machines. The nature of what it is to be human is to seek and thrive on connection.

That’s where community building and the tools of organizational transformation come in. Community building connects people. And connected people pioneer change. It’s the Edge Walker’s, the Dreamers and the Risk-Takers coming together to take action around things they care about that lead to something new in organizational systems. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Think of the Berlin wall coming down, or the Egyptian revolution. These are human transformational events that arose naturally out of local community efforts coming together synergistically. It reminds me of the definition of a leader I heard recently which says that a leader is someone who sees something they care about and decides to do something about it. Communities and transformation are just that – groups of people who see something they care about, who come together to do something about it.

But I’m less interested in explaining this, and more interested in actually doing it with people. With communities, to be exact. When I coach, I intentionally create a space that is both safe and courageous to provide a container to hold whatever decides to arise and unfold. As Viola Spolin once said, “That which is not yet known comes out of that which is not yet here.” I tell groups, “I believe you already have what you need. And I believe that you are already naturally creative, resourceful and whole. My job is just to be the guide on the side, to help you unfold and expand your highest potential, which is 20 times more than that flimsy story you’re telling me.”

Those are pretty sounding words, and can fall into the trap of being just theoretical, unless something happens to make them real. That something is improv married to the techniques of organizational psychology and transformational work as a kind of presencing and facilitating what is trying to happen.  Improv provides a key ingredient in that success because it allows for action over stasis, creative arising over fear and an opening up into the wide open space of possibility.

So let’s play!

“Focus is a fresh start. The past is made to loosen its grip . . . Change is not enough. This body of work asks more: transformation.”

Viola Spolin

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