Every few months Flow dedicates a day to internal reflection. The idea is to learn about what our colleagues have been up to and how they have solved complex problems in projects they have been busy with. On Monday we tried something a little different. We dedicated two hours of the day to an improv workshop with Marcel Oudejans. I figured that at least it would energise the after lunch eyelid battle with gravity, but we what we got was surprisingly relevant with what we do.  Who knew that improv and design had so much in common?

The first obvious connections are thinking on your feet and building ones confidence when in a room full of people, but there were also some other interesting similarities as well. In design we dedicate a period of time for coming up with ideas, known as ideation. And within this ideation period we have two phases, divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent is the hardest, it’s where the crazy creativity lives, and requires many many ideas, not matter how ridiculous. This phase is more about quantity of ideas than quality. Being realistic and logical is dealt with a bit later in the convergent phase, when you take all the ideas and start to look for things that will actually work.  As you can imagine, the more ideas that you come up with in the divergent phase make this convergent phase easier. There are a few rules in design to make the divergent phase work and these collate with improv almost exactly.

Externalise thinking
The thought “it’s impossible to design in a vacuum” comes to mind. For someone understand a new concept they need to discuss it with an external party. Just the act of explaining it removes it from the abstract of the mind and makes it more real, but allowing another person to understand it from their perspective and explain it back to you allows it to grow in a direction you may not have thought about.

There is no wrong
Its hard to explain this without sounding like a preprimary school teacher, but there really are no wrong answers. Thinking you or someone else in the group is wrong stops the conversation, stops the thinking and breaks the flow.

No judging
Silliness is a good thing and to allow this to happen we need to remove judgment. You need to give yourself permission to be weird, but you also need to allow everyone else in the room this freedom too. As the group starts to realise there will be no funny looks to their ideas, they will be more willing to externalise their thoughts. These thoughts may not be that great in the beginning, but it may lead to something great later on, you never know.

Being positive by always seeing value
All ideas are right, so when someone says something that may seem totally irrelevant, we need to try our best to see only value in what they are saying. This way they keep coming up with more ideas and you might be surprised with what you come up with.

Build don’t block 
One technique to see the value is to add to the idea they have just said. Using the phase “.. yes and… “ after they have explained their idea will force you to agree and build onto the idea. This will allow the idea to grow but also give you inspiration to come up with other ideas.

Fast and emotionally driven 
To stop logic from kicking in, try and be speedy with your ideas. The longer you take to think the longer judgement has to rear its head. Just let it go. (sorry, Im sure that song is now stuck in your head). One method we use is set a goal of 8 ideas in 2 minutes. Because you are rushed and don’t have time to think, the ideas are more emotionally driven and less constrained by logic.

An improv game we played called 5 things had the same concept. A category of things was set. This could be as easy as ’types of fruit’ or a little more interesting like ‘board games inmates play as punishment’. The participant had to come up with 5 random things within that category while the rest of the group huddled around them quietly clapping at a fast tempo waiting in anticipation for all 5 things. This starts off being rather difficult  because your brain flusters at the pressure, but just like design thinking the more you practise it, the easier it becomes.

There is no owner
Something that is really hard to get away from during ideation is owning an idea. As social beings we want to own and get credit for good ideas. We want to hold onto our ideas and revel them in a confetti raining, jaw dropping, extravaganza. But we know that this is pretty much impossible. Very few really good ideas ever arise from just one person thinking by themselves and never mentioning it to anyone else. Great ideas come from conversations and refinement through  different perspectives. Improv demonstrate just how powerful this is. The person starting the scene may have an idea of how it should unravel, but as it plays out each participant adds their magic and it goes in a totally and usually much better direction. The magic of the scene is made by the participants as a whole and it cannot ever be totally credited to one.

After the session with Marcel I was exhausted and energised at the same time. It was refreshing to see a thinking that I hold so highly in design being used in other areas of life and being able to experience it from a different perspective. It felt like exercising the same muscles with different exercises. We have another session coming up next year and Im ready for my workout.