• Improv and Design Thinking

Hoopla Business recently did a workshop with world-leading design thinking agency IDEO. We were so inspired by it that we asked if we could chat to them about how improv skills and mindsets fit into their day-to-day work life. It turns out that design thinking and improv are happy bedfellows, as we discovered in our interview with IDEO Communication Designer Luca Ponticelli.

What initially drew you to taking an improv class with Hoopla?

My colleagues had told me about an improv workshop they’d taken a year or so ago and they let me know how much they had benefited from it. I was interested to get the team at IDEO involved so I asked some of my friends from the theatre world about anywhere they would recommend. This is what lead us to getting into contact with Hoopla Impro.

I have a background in theatre and my mother was an actress, so it’s been a real passion of mine to marry the worlds of performance and business.

How will your team be using the tools of improv going forwards?

At IDEO, we believe that improv and theatre can be a valuable and important tool in business. For example, role playing scenarios to simulate real conversations can give us new insights and get us to challenge our own pre-established values and mindsets. It can allow us to get into the mindsets of our users. This is of exceptional value in Design Thinking as we always have our users at the centre when making any decision.

Furthermore, improv allows us to be vulnerable around each other as a team. We get to know each other more and be more open and comfortable around our colleagues. The members of our team can expose their weirdness and uniqueness, meaning they can bring their own individuality and their own ideas. If we’re in a place where individuals are doing that, we can make that become a company wide culture.

It was great to get comfortable being uncomfortable and learning how to sit in uncertainty for a while. At work this can be a real challenge, when dealing with matters that have high levels of rigidity and restriction. An example of this would be when we’re thinking in terms of the security of a company’s customers. In scenarios like this, it’s very difficult to get people to make bold decisions at work and generate new ideas to improve your company’s modus operandi.

However, I believe that getting your employees to understand what it’s like to feel uncertain is of vital importance. It is a common feeling in the business world, particularly when setting up a new company or embarking on new projects.

In our improv workshops for business we talk a lot about ‘yes and’ thinking. From your point of view, what is the value of ‘yes and’ when coming up with ideas?

‘Yes and’ is something that we practice every day at IDEO in our Design Thinking mentality. When you’re in the process of ideation, you can see how fragile ideas are. You need to protect them. Even something simple like writing them down on a post it note makes them feel more real and tangible.

Yes and is a further method of protecting our fragile ideas. It makes sure that we hear others and then build on what is presented to us. Together we want to make your idea the best it can be. That’s a big part of the IDEO culture.

Read more about how improv fits into the creative process of a workplace.

What is the value of improv in ideation and divergent thinking?

When we’re in a place of ideation, best practice involves a person being more accepting of others and their ideas in a group setting. We want a lack of enforced hierarchy so that everyone feels like they have an equal say in generating new ideas.

When we’re improvising, we’re all playing different roles at different times. Everyone is levelled down to the same status and there is no hierarchy. I mean, when we’re all in a room making a noise like an elephant or creating a letter ‘A’ with two people’s bodies, this really enforces this as a culture! I’m happy to say that when people left the Hoopla workshop, it felt like an exaggerated version of where we want their mindset on a day to day basis.

Read more about using improv in your innovation strategy.

Although convergent thinking requires making hard choices, what values can you use from improv?

When we’re in a convergent mindset and we’re making hard choices, we need to be able to see the whole picture. We’re creating sectors and ways of working that will deliver results. The link between improv and convergent thinking isn’t particularly obvious.

However, when you’re improvising, you need to settle with the version of the story that you’ve created and make it the best it can be. It takes a level of confidence to do this that isn’t common without practice and application.

Let’s think about this using the context of improvisers performing on stage. Convergent thinking comes into play from taking on board the constant feedback that is being delivered to us by an audience. When done well, this creates a results led process.

We can take this further by looking at the rest of your onstage team for feedback, how are they responding to your offers? I suppose this is similar to Design Thinking in terms of being results led and taking feedback from both our clients/users and our team to create the strongest ideas.

Why is empathy so valuable in Design Thinking?

There’s two ways of thinking about empathy with Design Thinking. Firstly, internally in your organisation. It’s connecting with different people in your team, amplifying someone’s voice and coming to the best possible results.

Secondly, is thinking in terms of outwardly of your organisation. In Design Thinking, you’re always ensuring that the user is at the centre and always making sure that their voice is heard. If you don’t end up doing that you’re designing in a vacuum and if you’re doing that… frankly this will lead to the end of your company!

We talk about attentive listening a lot in our improv training for business. What other tools from the improvisers belt can help us to be better at empathy?

One improv exercise that helped our empathy was gibberish scenes. In these scenes we were not allowed to use any language or recognisable words and instead speak with nonsensical sounds to communicate with each other. The challenge then was to get these two improvisers to agree and find a connection without the tool of language. Mainly by picking up on emotional and not just verbal clues.

Going forward, how can improv impact the future of Design Thinking?

While improv is great fun, I want to get a more tangible value than that. I often think of how to use theatre as a tool and make it something measurable and tenable in the business world. I think that comes from using improv as a methodology.

How can we use it in experiential project shares? How can we use it to build? How can we use actors to roleplay as users to gain precious insights? This is where I see improv and Design Thinking coming together in the future. It was great to explore it as part of the improv for business workshop.

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