Improvisation – Finding Flow

Learning and reflection from my first weekend on an Improvisation Skills course.

‘The thing about improvisation is that it’s not about what you say. It’s listening to what other people say. It’s about what you hear.’ Paul Merton

‘If you’re in your head, then you’re not here with me.’ Susan Messing

‘If you stumble, make it part of the dance’ Unknown

I have just spent an engrossing weekend listening, learning, experimenting and playing with The Improvisation Academy at The Poor School near King’s Cross, London. Before I go any further, I want to write a huge thank you to Carole and Keira for so generously giving me the time to fit this experience into the diary.

Most of what we do in life plays out without a script, yet we often believe we should somehow exercise more control over this unscripted life. I was keen to attend this course for many reasons, including to practice being in the moment, and responding more freely to what happens around me. In my work, I prefer to facilitate with as light a structure or agenda as possible – leaving room for things to emerge and grow. On this course, I thought I would experience and learn things that would help me enhance my professional practice, and I was right, but there was much more than that to be experienced.

The two days were packed with activities, reflection and conversation. Time passed a bit like pages in a book being turned – there was a flowing cadence to how we worked and we moved through things without hurrying unduly. Everything was explained clearly as we went along, and as a group we quickly became supportive of one another. A sufficient level of support is essential when uncertainty is close by. I want to respect the confidentiality established in the room over the two days, so I shan’t be going into specific details about the work we did together, and I will share some key points I observed and practiced, and a little of how I felt as the time passed. I will frame these notes with the help of the acrostic we were introduced to as we worked.


Let Go – Having, finding and borrowing the confidence to try something new. At all times we had the option to pass on an activity without anyone questioning why. The pass was used only very occasionally over the weekend. I noticed that activities which came back to me very quickly depleted my ability to improvise, which then bunged up my brain and interrupted flow between me and others – so once or twice, I took a pass midway through an activity.

Inhabit the Moment – The idea of being present, of finding flow. Acknowledging this state is important, and moving into it felt essential in order to do our best work. We talked about, and practised being aware of the challenge you face and the support available, and adjusting the dials to try and gain and sustain flow, while you can.

Flow Diagram

Freedom within Structure – There is a sense that improvisation is somehow chaos, and while it might be from time to time, it is not founded on, nor does it rely on chaos to succeed. There are principles and signposts you can choose to help you navigate your way through dialogue. A well known principle is the idea of ‘Yes…and’ where you accept someone’s offer and build on it, rather than reject it and start again.

Embrace Uncertainty – The degree to which the group together, and you individually, can alleviate the pressure caused by the uncertainty which inhabits us all, is really important. Over the weekend, I observed three things in particular that helped me.

  • There is something so powerful about a smile, an exchange of kindness between people which can represent trust. Looking out for each other.
  • The art of listening is crucial. I noticed that when I was listening most carefully, I became more able to engage with the process. The art of listening distracts you from trying to think about what you think you should be saying next. And given that none of us can predict what other people are going to say next, this is a helpful distraction!
  • There is something important when improvising about being able to place yourself in the space that exists between you and others, not inside your head. The action is in the interaction. For me this part of the process is very much a work in progress.

Play to Play – Play at work gets a bad rap, probably because when we think of play in a work context, we think of playing to win, which is often a zero sum game. I win, you lose. People think that work and play are opposites, when according to the play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, the opposite of play is not work, but depression. If we accept what Sutton-Smith puts forward, then I think we need to have play at work. So how about playing to play, and playing to learn as well as, and at times instead of, playing to win.

Accept and Build – I take something you offer me, and I add to it.

Short Turn Taking – Helps to keep the flow going.

Spot Successes – Call them out, and help others to look good.

This was an intensive, and enjoyable two days, focussing primarily on improv skills for life. I was exhausted when I got home on Saturday evening and went to bed at nine thirty for some well earned rest. The second day was energetic and intensive too and though I was awake and alert, I got stuck a few times; I already mentioned I took a pass on a few occasions. There was a lot more to be learned and practiced than I first imagined and I go back again in April for another full weekend – this time to focus on improv for work. I am really looking forward to extending and practicing what I am learning, and based on my experience, I would encourage others interested in bringing more fluidity, flow and freedom to their work, to take a deeper dive into what improvisation has to offer. Great learning, great fun.

My Week Sucks – Who Am I Kidding?

Bad things in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.

Monday, what a drag. You know how sometimes nothing goes wrong enough to make a fuss but somehow everything sucks just bad enough to leave you hollow by the day’s end? Yeah – that.

Monday evening – read Laurie Ruettimann’s blog post – felt better, more purposeful again.

Tuesday, quick out of the blocks. I always get excited when orders for Stop Doing Dumb Things come in, and I’m due a delivery from the printer with new stock too. While I wait for the DHL van to show I kick down my to do list.

Tick, tick, tick – I’m on the case, take that Tuesday! Delivery arrives – world turns upside down.

IMG_2789The top row is how the cards are supposed to look, the bottom row is what has arrived from the printers. Ouch! I reminded myself – ‘keep calm, there’s a solution in here somewhere’, and rang the printer. It turns out that three orders, including this restock, are all wrong. And to rub salt into the wound – some are going direct to clients, and the correct card template has been overwritten. The problem only affects a few cards in each deck but long story short, I am going to have to rebuild the complete set again from scratch.


Time to take my medicine and get on with it. I start on Tuesday afternoon and finish on…

Wednesday. After several hours of retyping, setting and colouring I’m done. Proof it – approve it – get on with it. Wednesday afternoon is all about prepping my management accounts and playing catch up, and so too is…

Thursday. I’m getting on with stuff, and yet drifting a bit, suffering some kind of sorry for myself post panic hangover. Then I check an email that arrived during all the hoohah from Joan, who I met two months ago in Illinois. It said:

‘You definitely made an impact in my world and the story you shared about your father’s pocket watch is still with me. I’ve started to follow your blog & professional posts as I so enjoy your writing. Wishing you a great day. Thanks again for all you do & share to help everyone else be better & do good things!’

Two things. 1 – Thanks Joan, what a lovely note. 2 – I think my week sucks – who am I kidding? Something went wrong, it got fixed, nobody died. I got a whole bunch of stuff done and best of all, Joan appreciates me. What’s not to like, dumbass! (Note: I’m talking to me right there, not you).

For the most part I have an optimistic outlook, and yet this week is a great reminder for me: negative stuff is a fact of life, it creeps in – and boy does it grow quickly when you let it. I think Meatloaf said it best when he sang: Bad things in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are. Or something.

I’m off to read Laurie’s post again, then I’m going to take Friday off and make a long weekend of it. May your week also close out in spectacular fashion.

Slowly Waking

For all you lovely busy people suffering from TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read), this post is mostly about resisting the temptation to rush everything. You may now get your head back down and charge off to your next meeting. The rest of us might choose to read on…

The past couple of weeks have been a wonderfully paced return to work, after a thoroughly relaxing three week family adventure around France. I didn’t plan to have such a rhythm in my return to work, but I think it’s been hugely helpful. A couple of days into this reawakening I scribbled this note on Facebook:

‘My body is back from holiday. I fully expect my brain, heart and soul to join it sometime in the next few days…’

My friend Heather Bussing responded with this:

‘It happens that way to protect you from the shock. And because there really isn’t a rush, despite the insistence otherwise. If everything came back with your body, the cognitive dissonance could cause instantaneous human combustion. Relax. Your life depends on it.’

Heather knows her stuff, so I’ve tried as best I can to follow her advice. In the time between then and now, I’ve reflected a couple of times on the importance of the stories behind numbers and data, and it seems to me that we tend to jump towards, and cling to the figures because they’re immediate. Instantly convincing. We are 46% more in a rush than this time last year, and therefore 82.9% more likely to believe this, or something.

I took the opportunity to attend the first day of Learning Live this week. It’s rare for me to simply attend an event. I’m often running workshops, speaking and/or writing, and in this period of reawakening it was absolutely lovely to be among people enthusiastic about learning and development, and only be expected to soak up as little or as much as I wanted.

I chose to listen to Owen Ferguson speak about the importance of agile methodology in L&D. Owen spoke from the perspective of the product development part of his business. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about agile, and here’s The Agile Manifesto (copied from the Wikipedia page and used in Owen’s talk:

‘We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.’

I found the talk interesting and I think there’s more to be done in exploring how to use agile methodology in the more behavioural side of L&D, as well as in the development of product.

I chose to listen to Sukh Pabial talk and facilitate conversations about being your best self at work. I enjoyed the cocreative aspects of the session and I’ve asked Sukh if I can incorporate a couple of his ideas into my own session on collaboration over in Ohio next week.

I chose to converse with many smart people at the event – too many to mention. I chose to go to the dinner in the evening, and enjoyed wonderful conversations through many chance meetings. I even chose to help write a song before we sat down to dinner, thankfully – it was beautifully sung, by Alex Watson, not me!

I’m now ready to switch up a gear and change my cadence again, which is a good job as there’s much work that needs doing! Times like this are great fun and for most of us, they aren’t sustainable. Much like Neil Morrison wrote about recently, times like this are often at the expense of something else. You could, with sufficient justification I’m sure, say I’ve missed out on things by coming back more slowly than usual. My body came back from holiday a while back, and my brain, heart and should have finally joined it. I’m delighted they chose to take their time.