• Improv and Design Thinking

Hoopla facilitator and teacher Liam Brennan interviews Luca Ponticelli about the relationship between design thinking and improvisational theory.

Luca is a multi-disciplinary communication designer with a focus on graphic systems and storytelling.

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.

Going through the website and looking at the workshops offered for corporate training, I decided to go with a different tact. ‘Team-building’ is very much imbued in Ideo and we wanted to find out where the theatrical realm could take us.  I wanted all the bells and whistles, the kind of session that would be taught as a public workshop without holding back from the performative side of improvisation. 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 improv techniques for business?

We believe that business improv and theatre can be a valuable and important tool in companies. 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.

Another way of thinking about this is pushing your own edge of ability first and then introducing that to your company at large. 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 companies 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 companies 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.

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. It’s part of our jargon at Ideo to ‘build on that, build on you’. Together we want to make your idea the best it can be.

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 onboard the constant feedback that is being delivered to us by an audience. When done well, this creates a results lead 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 lead and taking feedback from both our clients/users and our team to create the strongest ideas.

However I see many challenges here, as there’s a real science in making choices. It requires a valuable and rare mindset. It requires lateral thinking and the capability of accepting those shared truths. If this is not done well, it can end up wobbly and messy, just like when an improv performance is not sticky, because nobody believes or follows your story.

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!

What tools from the improvisers belt helps us to be better at empathy?

One improv for business 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.

Thinking off of the top of my head… An exercise that I think would work well might be to get two people to roleplay a scenario where there is an inherent conflict. For example, one improviser playing a cat stuck in a tree and another playing a firefighter trying to get them down. While this is a mostly comedic scenario, we are really testing the performers’ ability to empathise and get on the same page.

I believe there will be a time when our current measures for empathy won’t be competitive anymore and we’ll need to turn to theatre to deepen this skillset.

Going forward, how can improv impact Design Thinkings’ future?

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.

Want to know more?

Get in touch with us for more information about our innovation consultancy and corporate training and details on how to book your session.