Graham Allcott with Max Dickins

Beyond Busy #93 with Max Dickins, a transcript of an interview with our founder, Max Dickins. 

Graham Allcott 0:04

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Beyond Busy, the show where we talk productivity, work life balance, defining happiness and success, all the big questions for work and life. My name is Graham Allcott. I’m your host for the show. And on this episode, I’m talking to Max Dickins.

Max is the author of a book called ‘Improvise, Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work’. And we talk improvisation, of course, we also talk about his love affair with Groupon, including how it led him to change his name. And some of the other jobs that he has done, which include being a stand up and a radio presenter and an author and a playwright amongst other things as well. So really interesting episode with lots of practical stuff, which will help you to be able to say yes, and to more of the difficulties or challenges that you face in the working world. So let’s get straight into this episode. I’ve got a few bits and bobs I want to tell you about at the end, but let’s get straight into it. Here’s my conversation with Max Dickins.

Right, let’s get started. I’m here with Max Dickins. How are you?

Max Dickins 1:16

Yes, I’m great. Yeah, they’re excited to be on the podcast

Graham Allcott 1:18

Cool. And we kind of midweek recording this just at the very start of September. And we’re going to talk a fair bit about your book, which is called ‘Improvise’. So let’s just kick off with some questions just around improvisation and what that is and what that means. So you’re founder of Hoopla Business?

Max Dickins 1:41

Yeah, I’m co founder of Hoopla with a guy called Steve Roe. Yeah, that’s right.

Graham Allcott 1:47

And you’ve done workshops on improvisation with everybody from Google to Facebook and Unilever and many others. Yeah. So there’s a brilliant story in the start of the book, where you talk about your first experience of improv. And I really related to it because some of the little references, there was actually a character called Graham in there who definitely wasn’t me because he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt, but he’s shouting bunny Bunny, and someone else said you’re like, are who are these interminably? Nice, cheerful? Yeah, I totally related to that as my first experience of improv as well. But do you want to just give everybody just a flavor of how it started for you? How did you get into improv? Why did you start thinking about it? Why was it interesting to you to investigate? Absolutely, well, um,

Max Dickins 2:39

I came into it into for two reasons. So at the time, I was on the stand up comedy circus, I was a professional stand up comedian. And a big part of that job is you have to often do a role in in clubs, which is emceeing or hosting, so you normally in that you deliver some material, but you have to do a lot of crowd work and be very in the moment and spontaneous and I just wanted to learn some skills around that. But that, for me was almost the kind of rational intellectual cover story for what I realized in hindsight, as I wrote, my book was much deeper, emotional needs, which was around give, being confident, but bit confident without having control, which I think is such a lovely thing to have in life. And I think confidence might even be the wrong word. I think it’s freedom to freedom from your internal monologue freedom from the need to please others, freedom from fear. And so those were the two things I wanted to get out of improv. So I just attended a workshop, some dropping class that I found online. That was run by Steve Rowe, who since became my business partner in a very improvisational act. And yeah, and as I did it, I just fell in love with them. I thought this is absolutely transformational. And, you know, you mentioned in your intro there, Graham about how it’s easy to be cynical about it. And to be honest, I’m not I’m intuitively that guy. I mean, curatively taking the Mickey little bit suspicious of arty, farty, Flim Flam II things not in a necessary closed minded way. I just, maybe I come at it in a too rational perspective, but I was just blown away, I came expecting to hate it. And by the end, I was absolutely in love with it. And it really has changed my life. And as I’ve worked with other people, I’ve really seen it, how they’ve changed how it’s how they’ve used the concepts, the idea is to change theirs. And so that’s what the books about really is sharing these concepts and applying them to the stuff we do every day

Graham Allcott 4:56

And in terms of how we can use improvisation in everyday life. I mean, obviously, we’re in this, you know, really unique and interesting time, a challenging time around COVID, and economic recovery and all this sort of stuff. And I suppose a lot of people will be thinking about improvisation as simply a thing that might provide some helpful exercises for team building, right. But I mean, the mindset of improvisation is much more than that. So just give us a sense of how you think improvisation can really help with establishing a new normal, dealing with a new normal, changing business models, you know, adapting your team, all that sort of thing, like, how can you really help people as managers and professionals and just in their work?

Max Dickins 5:48

Yeah. So I think it’s useful maybe to start with, with what what I define improvisation. And so on a very simple level improvisation is acting without a script. Now, obviously, the words in that sentence there we normally associate improvisation with being on stage. So comedy theater, some people think of the think of jazz. But we act without a script in life all the time. So it seems sensible to get good at that. And you mentioned COVID. In the new normal, what the scripts have gone, they’ve they’ve burned in our hands, the roles we used to play may not exist, the lines that we learned maybe not as relevant to really stretch. This analogy. And what improv does, for me, is it’s about your relationship with change. And it really is a way of thinking about how we deal with change every day. So why the very simple way I express it is, when a change happens, we go through a loop, first, we have to notice it. And that seems quite easy. But actually, it’s really hard because we bring, firstly, often a not a very well developed skill set of listening, we bring perhaps a load of cognitive biases that is looking for things that already confirm what we believe or are the status quo. So the first thing is noticing the change, then we have to respond to it, we have to let go of our existing plan and surrender control over that. And that’s pretty difficult, because we often have, you know, a lot of some cost in that whether that be energy, our own ego, literally money and resources, and part of the letting go process is also reframing it. So in improv, we go right, well, what’s the offer here? What can I accept and build off to make this work? And that’s a central part of what we’re what everyone’s doing. At the moment, I think in every business is versus the a noticing part going right, I’m really clear on the situation as is completely honestly, I’ve let go of the plan. I’ve reframed the situation to find the positives, and then making decisions. So improv is a lot about making choices on the limited amounts of information. And when we’re very anti-that we like to know exactly what’s going to happen. But improvisers really try and make decisions so that they can learn about their environment. And making lots of decisions quickly is a way to learn about it, rather than having to plan it intimately. So notice, let go decide it, and the final part is, is obviously acting on that decision or communicating it to other people, and then you’re right back to start off that loop. So it’s every change that comes up notice, let go decide, communicate. And when you think of it in those terms, improvisation is actually something we do in almost every moment of the day, and not just in dealing with COVID. But also in communication. Communication is inherently improvisation on all those things apply in this conversation, for example.

Graham Allcott 8:57

So I think most people would look at those different stages know, noticing, responding and letting go making decisions acting upon it, and they’ll say, Yeah, I do that in my life all the time. And those are inherently useful skills and useful things. But how can people get better at that? Do you think it’s a muscle that you can learn and develop to become better at making those decisions and better at responding and so on? Yeah,

Max Dickins 9:27

I mean, that there is exposure therapy that helps you get better at it. But what I would say is, I think there’s a big difference in theory and practice with people. On the surface level, that kind of that simple loop. It is simple. It says it seems almost common sense. And people might say I do it often. They’re unaware of patterns that are blocking them in doing that really effectively and fundamentally, it comes down to to self awareness, and that’s one of the beauties of an improvisational workshop is that these little exercises improv tend to be taught in exercises. And I include a lot of them in the book. But these exercises, what they do is they bring you face to face in the gap between the theory that you think you do, and the practice of what you actually do and your arm actually not doing these things, as well as I think I mean, the most fundamental one that comes up again and again, is listening. People think oh, yeah, I listen well, and oh, yeah, I get it. I meant to listen. But then when you put them through a series of exercises, or you dissect what good listening is, they realize, oh, wow, I really don’t listen well at all.

Graham Allcott 10:42

I think I probably found that from doing some improv classes myself, is just how, yeah, just there’s such a difference isn’t there between thinking that you’re listening, and you know, just on that surface level of reality, you think I’m probably fine in the way that I’m listening. And that sense when you do improv of being really deeply present and in the moment, and just absolutely kind of holding everything that’s going on. And I definitely have found that when I’ve been doing improv regularly, which I have to say I’m out of the habit of for a little while. But when I’ve been doing it regularly, you do notice, feeling that same sensation around listening just in business meetings, or like with your partner or with your family or whatever, you know, you can really, you can really feel the difference there in terms of that kind of deep level of listening.

Max Dickins 11:36

Yeah, and that real connection and level of intimacy that you get established with another person when you do that. So just for everyone in the way improvisers talk about listening is a little bit different to how we tend to talk about it in business and in life. So lots of people have gone on active listening causes at work. And often active listening is about how you behave when the other person is speaking, it’s a lot about nodding and making the right faces, and going and saying, yes, maybe bit of paraphrasing thrown in there. But really, how do you know someone has genuinely listened to you, it’s what they do with what you’ve said. So we define listening is the willingness to be changed. So when you speak to me, your words should land on me and change my response. Not only does that hopefully create stronger rapport between me and you, but it allows us to co-create ideas together and actually get to a level of connection that we wouldn’t have got to otherwise. And and I think it’s to go back to your question just before this, this is for me why improv is simple, but complex at the same time is that listening is not just about the skill of listening, it’s also about the emotional blockers we bring to that stop us doing it. So this is, for me, another central benefit of improvisation. And the practice of it is the awareness of when we get are in our own way with our own patterns. So for example, with listening, we often don’t listen, because we’re bringing ego to it. So we want to make sure the other person knows that we know what we’re talking about, or we bring fear. So we’re worried we’re not going to get through what we want to say or, or we’re losing control of the conversation. So really, it’s these emotional blockers, that when we’re aware of them in our interactions with other people with the world with ourselves, it frees us up to behave and act with more spontaneity.

Graham Allcott 13:43

And that’s what you’re saying before when you select this loop. And you were talking about the self awareness, part of it and how you know, actually there’s a very simple things but becoming aware of, like, you know, how you’re thinking, how you’re responding, how you’re listening, all those kind of things that you do notice that kind of inner monologue gets in the way of everybody. Yeah, you know, and it gets it gets in the way of us more than we realize, I guess.

Max Dickins 14:09

Yeah, absolutely. I might throw something else in here. Just, I haven’t haven’t spoken about this on an interview before, but I’ve started doing psychotherapy. So I’ve started having therapy. And I initially started doing it as part of another project I’m involved in at the moment, and in quite a archetypically blokey way I did it. You know, for a project not because I need it. And I thought I’d be doing it round for about six weeks, once a week. I’ve done it for, I think, four or five months every week now. Yeah. And psychotherapists are amazing improvisers because they’re so present to you, and they’re so responsive. But the reason why I bring it up is they what I realized is the number of patterns they helped you what they what therapists do is they help identify people And your behavior in your life and especially in your responses to other people. And I thought, Wow, this is so connected to what I’ve just written about in this book. Because when these patterns are below our level of awareness, situations just happen to us. And we respond. And we’re not even aware that they’ve been ineffective, or that we’ve got the same old result that we always get. And we often blame the other person. But we don’t realize the kind of the patterns we’re running, I suppose that the analogy would be, we like computers who are unaware of the software that we’ve got installed. And the therapist helped me realize these patterns and in the same way improv in a slightly more, everyday level helps you be aware of how you’re responding to others, and the patterns that come up as you do.

Graham Allcott 15:53

I’m gonna ask you a question that you can totally refuse to answer if you please do it. Is there a particular pattern that you identified through doing therapy that you’ve been really, that has been really helpful to find and really helpful to work on?

Max Dickins 16:10

Yeah, absolutely. So Oh, how long’s this podcast? Oh, what to choose from this. This we do, entirely every suite is bitter and disgusting. Yeah, I suppose here’s a simple one. The other night, I came back, and me and my girlfriend partner had been away for the weekend, and I left the lights on in the flat. And we came in, and she just raised her eyes at me and sort of pointed at the lights Oh you’ve left the light on again. And I responded, really, I got very irritated by that. And I really, really overreacted. And when I said this to the therapist, we explored other times, I’ve reacted in similar ways. So like, fairly recently, I left a beer bottle in the freezer, and exploded. And then obviously, my girlfriend was irritated at this. And I got really defensive and really annoyed again. And I’m not proud of any of this behavior. But then the pattern was, well, I really don’t like being made to feel like a child. And I also don’t like people knowing, exposing secrets and mistakes. And that, you know, might go back to childhood, and this isn’t like a massive big deal. We get on really well. And being my partner, I suddenly went, Oh, yeah, I don’t, every time that happens, I react in the same way. And in my head, I’m not aware of that pattern until now. And in an in the same way, my partner maybe is not aware that sometimes she may respond to me in the parental role to use a phrase from transaction analysis, your child’s parent or adult, ideally, we’re both adults in the interaction, right? Yeah. and becoming aware of that when Oh, so. So that’s an example of going to people often say, Oh, I really lost my rag, I’m sorry. But they won’t go to the next level of analysis, which is right, well, what are your buttons, though? Why did you lose your rag? And how could you have responded differently? And I think it’s that awareness that exists below the level of consciousness, that pattern, which really helps you just have better communication with every single person you come across.

Graham Allcott 18:38

Yeah, I did a fair amount of therapy a few years ago. And I think it’s one of those things that if you’re listening to this, and you’ve not done it, it will be beneficial, because I was probably similar to you, I didn’t necessarily think it was going to have a huge, you know, transformational effect. But and also, the other interesting thing is, Do you find that I used to find that the weeks when I would show up with really nothing to say or talk about and not think about, you know, just I just had no idea how it was going to start and what was going to be the point of being there. They were always the most transformative weeks and the weeks that I turned up, saying, I want to fix this one thing. I’m going to bring that to my therapist, you kind of not get so far. Did you find that?

Max Dickins 19:24

Yeah, I did. I think I had a very similar experience to yours in that there would be some weeks where I’d have nothing to say or like, nothing went wrong this week, or, you know, there’s been no disasters. And I’d be I’d say to the therapist, I mean, I’m not sure. I mean, should we just knock it on the head? I mean, do we need to? And she was like, No, no, this is a process. And then like you say, I mean, lo and behold, something you think is nothing turns out to be? Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. There is a slight danger, I think in therapy as well. I’m a big believer in it and 100% would recommend anyone does it in any in any field for any reason. There is a danger I find with therapy that sometimes almost every moment of life becomes then even though this is a verb “therapized”. I think it’s very useful to analyze your behavior and your life and have a level of self awareness as we’ve spoken about. And as my therapist put it with awareness becomes choice. If you’re not aware of the patterns, you have no choice and you can’t change your behavior. That’s a really inspiring, empowering idea. And I think it’s so useful. There’s also a danger that if you overanalyze every moment, every conversation and go towards the direction of anxiety or neuroticism that you can be taken out of the moment, and almost worried that your whole life is pathologically flawed in some way. I don’t know if I’ve communicated that idea clearly.

Graham Allcott 21:06

I suppose the other end of that spectrum from saying with awareness comes choice is something where you get, you know, can you get to such a sense of over analysis or over awareness that the choices kind of fall away? Yeah, cause you end up just being stuck in your own head, analyzing everything. Yeah, so maybe that’s, yeah, maybe that’s the cautionary tale. But I think most people are so far down the spectrum towards the other end, me included. That, you know, always a bit more self awareness. And a bit more, having someone hold up a mirror to you and show you those patterns is, for most people, it’s really helpful to kind of send you along a little bit more towards greater self awareness, I’d imagine.

Max Dickins 21:53

Yeah. And to psychoanalyze myself, just then my therapist would say, Oh, there you are, Max, over intellectualizing everything.

Graham Allcott 22:02

Well, there you go. So let’s get into some practical stuff. Yeah. Around the book then. So having studied a lot of improv comedy, and I’ve actually had a couple of improvisers on the show before so great. Have you had people who you I’m sure you would know. So Heather Urquhart has been on or Liz Peters has been on before our lives. Yeah. And and Rachel Parris, who at that point was very little known comedian. I’m sure being on busy as what you know, propelled her career into superstardom. And the mass report. And yes, and everything else.

Max Dickins 22:38

I’m looking forward to be on that week then Graham. That’s great. Yeah.

Graham Allcott 22:43

So having done a fair bit of improv myself, and I’m sure we’ll put the links to those episodes in the show notes as well, if you want to check that out at But yeah, the one of the the sort of key tenants of improv is the idea of Yes, and… yeah. Do you want to talk for someone who’s unfamiliar with that just talked about how ‘yes, and…’ works and how does it work in business?

Max Dickins 23:05

Yeah, sure. So, yes, and is sort of the big, big underlying idea of most of improvisation. And it’s a simple concepts that allows improvisers on stage to build scene sketches ideas very quickly. And it’s based on this premise that if I say something, say a line. So if I say, for example, ah you’ve delivered me the milk, say, if you’re my scene partner, you would go, yes, I delivered you the milk and I throw in a little treat for you there on the side, just for free winky face, okay, something like that. So I’ve accepted the milk idea. And I’ve added something to it. And now we’ve got a situation which we can build on. And this helps us to be very effective in building scenes when we haven’t got anything planned at all. Offstage, this is really useful, I would say in probably two main ways. The first thing is in a creative situation where you’re trying to create an abundance of ideas so you can find an innovative solution. And that if you look at most of the research into creativity, and I cover a lot of it in the book, creating volumes of ideas and come up with lots of solutions, is a key aspect of finding an original solution. So ‘yes, and…’ is a great mindset to bring into a brainstorm situation and meeting, if you want to come up with lots of ideas. So accepting and building of other ideas in the business world can often be anathema to a lot of people, too, because people bring status into the room. They bring expertise, and what we tend to do in creative situations is criticize and shoot down ideas. As soon as they emerge. Not only does this mean that new fresh ideas get killed before we’ve developed them. It also means we create an emotional culture in the room where people don’t want to pitch their ideas and the some outcome of this Is that we’re leaving a lot of ideas on the table and being less creative. So that’s one application.

Graham Allcott 25:05

Yeah. And you took me in the in the book there, there’s a story where you talk about someone who suggests presenting the project in the form of video. And that will be the first time that that’s been done. And then their boss says, oh, who do you think you are? Steven Spielberg? And then it’s like, you know, if that’s happened to you, once or twice or three times, that’s probably enough for you to stop contributing more risky ideas. Right. That culture of innovation has to be fostered by, you know, by everybody being open to ideas that feel outside of the normal realm of possibility, I guess.

Max Dickins 25:43

Yeah, absolutely. And it can seem a bit flimsy. Sure. How does that one interaction make a difference, but cultures are built through these minor interactions. When you add them all together? That’s the culture of the place. And again, we talked about self awareness. It’s about why are we saying no to ideas, often we’re saying no as an unconscious reaction to uncertainty, or because we’re bringing habits of thought of what we’ve done before, or we’re afraid of risk, and we’re not bringing mindfulness to our disagreement. So clearly, in life, we have to say no, sometimes and criticism is, is very useful to to any creative process, I’m sure you found with your books. The first draft is written in a very ‘Yes, and…’ mode. And the second draft is, is written with a much more critical eye, and you’re really beating up ideas and editing them down where people go wrong in life. And again, it’s a fairly simple principle is that they mix up these two modes of how we might describe as divergent thinking so ‘yes, and…’ mode. And then convergently thinking, well, we’re being much more critical. If you mix them up in a group setting, or even with your own individual creative work, you end up making progress slower and getting to less original solutions.

Graham Allcott 27:02

I love the quote in the book as well. From Keith Johnston, he says there are people who prefer to say yes. And there are people who prefer to say no, those who say yes, are rewarded by the adventures, they have those that say no, are rewarded by the safety they attain. Yeah, I really love that.

Max Dickins 27:21

Yeah, it’s great. I mean, Keith Johnson is a real people who don’t know is one of the absolute pioneers of improvisation in the UK, if not the world, and he’s got a book about stage improvisation, which is wonderful for anyone to read. And I do refer to a lot of his ideas, and he’s great. But I think it’s a wonderful way to live. So not just a technique. So a good example of that quote, in action Graham, I think was, when you asked me that question about therapy, I mean, something I hadn’t been asked before. And I could easily have said, Actually, I’m a little bit uncomfortable answering that or said no, yeah, then I wouldn’t have got the chance to explore that idea with you. So really, I think it’s adventures, as he says, I can’t put it any better than Keith Johnson adventures lie on the other side of Yes.

Graham Allcott 28:07

So think about Yes. And from a practical point of view, then, so how can people like do you know other exercises and things that you can recommend for people, if you’re about to do, let’s say, a brainstorming process or a kind of ideation process for something in the business? Or in your team or whatever? Are there exercises that you’d recommend that would just get people into that headspace that you know, people can do with their team?

Max Dickins 28:33

Yeah. So in a moment, I might, we might do an exercise together Grammy in new on this, which will be which will illustrate the concept in more detail for people in terms of applying it in your teams. I think that the simplest thing to do is to separate I call it in the book, separate out the phases. And it’s a very simple thing where you say to people, what you expect of them in that meeting, so you’re going to say to them, right, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve for 20 minutes, we’re just going to be in a ‘yes, and…’ mode, we’re going to try and come up with as many ideas as possible, we’re going to go for volume. And then at the end of that 20 minutes, we’re going to be much more critical. And we’re going to pick the top three answers. And really look at how we develop these. And when you communicate that to your team, the more analytical, critical minded people who are very useful in teams, we don’t want everyone to be the same. But they relax and go right I’m going to get my chance to be more analytical data driven, how do you want to express that approach in a moment, and I can go all in on this ‘Yes, and…’ approach first. So it’s just a communication job of separating out the phases and letting people know that all these often some of them will be a bit mad ideas, we will have a chance to get rid of them before we kind of narrow down our selection. A simple way of doing that. And then in the spontaneity chapter I come up, there’s loads of exercises in there that you can do alone. With teams, I mean, one of them is just making it a bit of a game. So you set a tight deadline. And what a deadline does is it, it shuts your inner critic up, because you know, you’ve got to get a certain job done in a certain amount of time, you haven’t got time to overthink it or criticize yourself. And you put a target number of ideas. So an exercise we often do in corporate workshops, for example, would be set a brief and go, you need 50 solutions in five minutes. And then after that, we go right, bring back the critic and pick your top three. And what’s interesting is, you know, their top three ideas and never in the first 25, and then I asked them, Well, you know, how often are you getting more than 20 solutions for a problem? And they they say, well, never because we spent so long on the first three and beat them to death as they come out. So I mean, that’s a simple way you could apply it literally in a meeting in terms of an exercise to get people in the mindset of it. Maybe make them do quick exercise now. Sure. And then people can borrow this. And you can just do it as a as an icebreaker in a meeting as well. It works really well. It’s pretty simple. So here we go. Good fun doing this remotely, isn’t it?

Graham Allcott 31:15

we can’t see each other as relying totally on the audio. Yeah.

Max Dickins 31:20

So we’re gonna plan a party menu, Graham. And first, we’re going to do it in a way that is not very productive. And we’ll just hopefully see that the result we get is not massively useful. So we’re going to take it in turns to pitch ideas for a party. And we’ll respond to each other’s ideas with Yes, but and then fill in the gap. So for example, it might be Hey, we should have cocktails, yes, but a lot of people don’t drink. And we’ll do that for 20 seconds or so. And then we’ll see the result we’ve got and then we’re going to do the ‘yes and…’ version. And hopefully everyone will see the difference. Does that make sense? Cool.

Graham Allcott 31:57

Let’s do it. All right.

Max Dickins 31:58

Do you want to pitch an idea first Graham, or I’m up to go first?

Graham Allcott 32:02

Let’s plan a jungle themed party.

Max Dickins 32:06

Yes, but jungle themed parties. I mean, it just sounds they’re expensive. I mean, we’re going to have to get all sorts of plants in our way to dress up the room. Okay, I mean, so yeah, but I don’t I think this is just going to be too expensive. So instead, why don’t we just rent out a barn and we can have a band on in there. And it’s pretty straightforward.

Graham Allcott 32:26

Yes. But barns are really difficult to rent out. Because of all the COVID restrictions and everything. It’s not too easy to to get those kind of spaces at the moment.

Max Dickins 32:38

Yes, but do you want people who are that worried about that at the party anyway?

Graham Allcott 32:42

Yes. But a lot of the people who are most concerned about COVID are actually my really good friends.

Max Dickins 32:53

I hated myself. And I said, that COVID thing. So anyway, you get the point. Now, even when we know this is a game, and it’s kind of already a bit like bloody hell, this is hard work. And we’re not getting anywhere.

Graham Allcott 33:03

It’s not the joy out of the party pretty excited out.

Max Dickins 33:05

And I don’t want to be going to I don’t want to plan this party. It’s not an interesting party. And again, some of the criticisms about things like budget and stuff, you know, maybe those are going to be actually useful questions to ask. But if we ask them straight away, we don’t get any any lateral movement in our thinking. We don’t come up with any really interesting solutions at all. So instead, we’re going to plan a party again, this time, we’re going to say ‘Yes, and…’ so I’m going to accept your idea and add something to explore a high in it. So we’re not trying to just come up with a shopping list we’re trying to see right, what can I use here? And what I’ve been given by the other person, I’m going to delay judgment, which is the big idea and improvisation. I’m going to suspend judgment for a moment and play and explore this idea with you. You’ll do the same to me. And we’ll see where where we end up. Okay, so let’s start. So all right, well, I’ll pitch an idea. And thenYes, and it and I’ll do the same to you. And we’ll go to and fro. So I think cocktails are essential at this party.

Graham Allcott 34:12

Yes. And there are a whole bunch of new cocktails that people are starting to talk about. We can eat, we can have a party that’s all about fashionable, new cocktails.

Max Dickins 34:23

Yes, people are very excited about new cocktails. And what’s great about cocktails is that they’re such a good icebreaker. I always think on dates, cocktails is a good one because you can talk about the ingredients and what you’re going to choose. So it’s a good way of maybe breaking the ice at the start of the party.

Graham Allcott 34:41

Yes. And we can have part of our theme or we can have a room which is called the icebreaker room where we have like Mr. frosty crushed up ice as part of cocktails.

Max Dickins 34:52

Yes. And in the icebreaker room. We’ve got to have a vodka luge, surely because it’s a it would be made of ice and maybe we can even Do it in the image of the guest of honor.

Graham Allcott 35:04

Yes. And we’ll have some people serving the vodka with Russian hats on.

Max Dickins 35:10

Yes. And surely a Russian sort of Oompa Loompa band, is there even a word for it? Okay, so you kind of get the point. Now that

Graham Allcott 35:18

sounds like a much better party doesn’t it much better.

Max Dickins 35:21

And look, some of those ideas were a bit wacky, that’s probably you might be thinking going, like, there’s a lot of that stuff we wouldn’t do. And you’d be right. But what we’re doing here is we’re giving ourselves a chance to create a breadth of ideas and get to places we wouldn’t have got to with linear thought. And we certainly would have got to if we had a situation where we didn’t want to pitch ideas. So there’s all sorts of interesting stuff we might pick out of that and then develop it so that it was more functional. So I really like the the Russian hats ideas, only things that are well, what could we do to make this a lot more themed and a lot more sort of fancy dressy? Or a way of? How do we dress the rooms? Like you can abstract from that and make it much more applicable? So the and that and a great thing about ‘Yes, and..’ is how it slows down your thinking. So I don’t know, we’d really love to know your perspective on on how you found using the methodology. But what it does for me is the Yes, slows my brain down to go rather than jumping into critical mode, which I think is a lot of our instincts is go right, what actually is interesting here, and what can I add from my own perspective, so what we’re not doing is dropping our point of view, we’re just dropping our agenda so we can co create on the same page. So how would you find your experience of that technique?

Graham Allcott 36:45

Yeah, I think what you said there about the slowing down thinking and kind of withholding the criticism, I think, is is definitely something I found really, really helpful with just the just the mentality of Yes, and and kind of practicing. Yes, and I think generally, my style can sometimes come across as a bit abrasive, sort of like in the office and, you know, just with teams and stuff, because I am instinctively quite a critical thinker. So someone can send me, you know, 10 pages of work that they’ve done. And I’ll be like, that’s great. But you’ve missed a bit here, or there’s, we need this more, you know, so I focus very much on what’s wrong with it. And often really gloss over the Yes, which is the most of what you’ve done here is totally along the right lines, this is great. And I think also as someone who is more introverted and extroverted, and with various other traits that I have, I often sort of underrate or under, under appreciate the sort of human need for that little bit of You’re doing a great job, because I don’t kind of need that much of it myself, that some people really thrive off that, you know, you’re doing a great job. Let’s have more of this. Yeah, just those really small. And, you know, that little little encouragement. So I think just Yes, and helps you to start there, rather than start with what’s, you know, what’s the criticism that you have that will actually make the thing better? Like there’s, you know, there’s a place for criticism, but it’s more just the ordering of these things? And absolutely, how you bring them in.

Max Dickins 38:21

So I think that’s a really interesting analysis. So like, I think critical thinkers I am we can maybe talk about book editors, because I think they’re quite good. A good analogy here. So yes, and so that I talked about the creative applications, I think it’s a nice bridge into the second application, which I didn’t mention earlier, but just to close circle of anyone’s thought, Oh, he hasn’t said the second one. But it’s linked to what you just said. She’s Yes, and a really good way of overcoming conflict or having more mindful and constructive conflict. So we get into conflict, because of emotions, not because of logic, often, but we often communicate in a way that doesn’t accept that. So what Yes, and does is says, Yes, I accept you feel like this. I’m not saying your right to feel this way. And here’s my perspectives. And here’s my bread here. And being the bridge into my perspectives as someone Graham, as you say, gives you 10 pages of work. Yes. Look, there’s some really good stuff here. I especially love that bit. And also, wouldn’t it be even better if you could rewrite that last page? Because I think you’re losing the flow of the argument there. For example? Yeah. And I know from experience, I don’t know we may even have had the same editor. We probably should name them. Editors are often quite good at this because they’ll say the first few paragraphs will be nice stuff. And then men make them be eight paragraphs of hard stuff. Yeah, invariably, there are, but you have been emotionally prepared for that and it feels much more and more constructive. Way of landing that feedback. So again, I’m not saying we become inane nodding yes, men. And yes, women, we still have our point of view is just how do we get that across in a way that understands that the emotional triggers for people are going to stop them listening and get us into conflict?

Graham Allcott 40:20

Yeah, I did it. It just reminded me of I did a an improv course in London A few years ago, with Jules months, shoot, who I know, you know. And I think it was Jules and as part of that course, had this phrase, which I’m not sure if it was his, or whether he was kind of quoting from someone else. Because the phrase is improv is 1000, tiny funerals. And the idea was that, so you know, you’re in the middle of a scene and someone does a thing, and you’ve got all these amazing things in your head. And then something that the other person says just means that you can’t bring that idea in now, and it just isn’t gonna make any sense. And you just have to drop those ideas really quickly. And I think book editing is really similar, where you might have little, little kind of corners of the book, or little ideas in the book that you’re really proud of, and you just think are really lovely phrases are really nice pieces of original thinking. And then your book editor goes, Yeah, that’s nice. But it just doesn’t fit with the chapter. It’s just there is no place for it. And so you, I suggest we cut this, you know, yeah, and I think book editors, because they don’t have, again, back to the patterns thing. And the way we block ourselves and our own our own narratives, influence our decisions, you know, it’s much harder for us to see what’s going to make a really good well flowing book than it is for someone who has never read the book doesn’t know you. And they’re just they’re actually experiencing it as the reader of the book rather than the storyteller, the author of the book or whatever. So yeah, like, I think that’s one of those things that improv really helped me with, you know, the particularly, I’d say, the writing process, generally, but particularly the the editing process of books, because you can kind of get much more okay with the fact that, yeah, that idea was lovely, and I really liked it, but I’ll say bye to it or let go of it. And I might use it some other time. But it’s not part of what’s going to make this really good. You know, like, there’s something nice there about just Yeah, like how, how you can honor the idea without needing, without your ego needing it to actually be in the book.

Max Dickins 42:30

Yeah, absolutely. And I am, I had a special file on my laptop called off cuts, which was all the bits I had to chop out and it felt like hadn’t quite deleted them because I put them in another file. But by the end that file was as long as the finished books, I actually had to write two books to get this. And and genuinely, I spent forever on one section of the book, I thought it was there’s a night there was an idea in it, I was like this is genius. ship, this must be out there. And then the editor when this is no, this is really boring. We got to lose that. But then you know, you let go of it, you reframe it. And, and I think I applied a lot of the improv stuff in the rewriting of the book. But the there’s also an idea in improv about your attitude to your mistakes, and when things go wrong. Now understanding that any creative process or any, any communication process, to an extent is a bit messy. You have to say yes to the mess and go what often the mistakes, the curveballs move your thinking away. Again, in a linear in a nonlinear fashion, ISIS should should say, the get you into interesting places you never would have got to without that constraint. Without that surprise, without that mistake. Yeah. And improvisers are great in that moment, as you said yourself, letting go surrendering having a funeral of what the plan was to address the reality and the opportunity in the moment. So it’s sort of resilience Plus, it’s it’s about overcoming your emotional reaction to the era, but then immediately having the optimism to reframe it, and then make a decision to move forward.

Graham Allcott 44:10

In the moment, for sure, though, I just feel like there are so many parallels with productivity and some of the stuff that’s in productivity ninja with what you’re saying. And like, just even all that stuff around, letting go a lot of it is lizard brain management, right? And yes, you know, how how you deal with procrastination often is, is very kind of similar processes as well. Let’s talk a little bit about productivity, then Shall we sing as we say going in. And so you’re someone who you teach improvisation. You do stand up comedy, you’ve done a lot of other jobs that are extensively quite creative, you know, being a radio presenter, being an author and a playwright and so on. And what does what does good productivity mean to you? What are your rules for for good productivity.

Max Dickins 44:55

And, for me, productivity is about Doing the very simple things with a boring level of consistency and letting yourself do that. So for me, I’ve you know, I’m, I absolutely love writing. So this is my second book, published playwright, I’ve done loads of other the national tour of another play I wrote, I’ve probably, I write things all the time. And my journey through that over the last decade is really about doing the very simple thing of getting my bum onto the seat. And again, this is not an interesting new idea. It’s about it’s for me, it’s about that simple discipline blocks of time, in a realistic amount of time that you’re not going to be knocked off course with that. So as early as possible in the morning, until for three or four hours disciplined, no phone, phone, often I’ll leave it at home and go somewhere else. Try and get your your email application off your internet often does dedicate that time. And if you do, if I do that for three hours every day, five or six days a week for 40 weeks a year, I can write a book a year. Yeah, but it’s, it’s not for me, the writing the being productive writing. And any sort of creative job is really not about talent. I mean, that’s maybe a fraction of it. It’s about that very basic discipline of turning up every day for a small amount of time. And it’s linked to this Yes. And idea as well, maybe slightly. so creative. People come up with lots and lots of ideas, and lots and lots of work, and they lose most of it, call it kill your darlings call it having an off cut file, like I put it however you want to say it, you come up with all double treble of what you use. And that is just grunt work. But the grunt work can be done in small amounts of focus time. And that’s all it is, is where can you fit that chunk of time in? How can you do it? You sit down very regularly to do it. And then you’ll be a successful creative, I think,

Graham Allcott 47:11

Yeah, and I think that same off cuts thing, is a really good productivity tip in its own right. So I one of the things I talk to people about in workshops is the idea of renegotiating your commitments, right? So you might have something that’s been on your to do list for a little while, you’ve never quite got around to it. But it’s one of those things that stares at you every morning, or every time you look at your to do list. And actually, you know, what’s really helpful to a lot of people is to just go through that to do list and go through more importantly, that your project list and say, am I still really committed to each of these projects, and I think we’re, for whatever reason, very reticent to, to renegotiate and delete things that we committed to before even if the commitments just to ourselves. But I think you know, the process of that just it creates more space, it kind of creates more clarity around where you are committed. Yeah. And it kind of reduces the choices that you’re making all the time. So it’s one of the things I just I think people find really helpful once they get into the habit of doing that.

Max Dickins 48:13

Yeah, so I’ve got a section in the book called Sweet the scene, which is very similar to that idea. So in improv, if you if you haven’t seen improv before, it’s a load of made up scenes sort of mini sketches linked together normally by what’s happened in the scene before. And some of them are really brilliant. And then occasionally, some of them aren’t very good. And even the good ones eventually get a bit boring, and you have to end them to sweep the scene. And the way that works in an improvised show with someone just jogs across the front of the stage is sort of it’s like drawing a line under it and go right that’s finished, what’s next. And what that does is it allows you to move on to something fresh, and having the mentality of sweeping the scene is a great thing to do in life. I think I spoke to somebody there’s lots of case studies in the book and I spoke to these are all people have done a lot of improv but have real jobs and are applying it at work. And I had someone who had serious, serious anxiety issues and had suffered from depression. And this person said, one of the biggest things they took away from improv in this society is sweeping the scene at some point you can start ruminating and thinking about it, sweep the scene and start something new. Yeah, people don’t like doing that. It creates a an empty stage a blank page space. And we may be afraid of the uncertainty. But I mean, I think this may be similar to what you just said about renegotiating your projects and going What do I want to do this anymore? Is this productive? If I end it, I can have space for something that I’m actually going to enjoy or is going to be more more useful?

Graham Allcott 49:48

For sure. And just to sort of tie up that analogy. My experience as an amateur improviser is that 90% of scenes are ended a little bit too late.

Max Dickins 50:00

Oh, yes, yes,

Graham Allcott 50:01

that you know, and then 9% on time, and there’s really only very rarely a time where you’re either in improv or watching improv where you think I’d love to see a little bit more of that, you know? And, and if you do think that, and you’re on stage thinking that you can just bring it back later and just, you know, do it as a call back and bring it back. But I think having that instinct to be slightly more ruthless with your editing of your own projects and tasks. Yeah. Yeah, I think is really handy. And I’m going to change gears a little bit. Okay. ask you about a thing that you did a few years ago, which I think was was maybe part work part hobby, you can tell me more but your Groupon adventures. So if people are listening to this, who are maybe a little bit younger, you might even know what Groupon is. But there was a time probably 10 years ago, where Groupon was the most high growth company in the world. Yeah, right. I think it’s really easy to forget how crazy that whole group on phenomenon was. But you got really into Groupon for a little while and went on a whole bunch of adventures. So how did it come about?

Max Dickins 51:06

Well, it started off with heartbreak. And I got dumped basically, by somebody I’ve been going out with for ages and sort of assumed i’d, I don’t know end up getting married or something. And I realized I was sort of stuck in a rut, I was doing the same things with the same people in the same places all the time. And I just felt really like my life is flat. And I wasn’t, I wasn’t living an interesting life or one that excited me. And there’s also an idea that I was maybe being trapped in an identity that I hadn’t chosen. Because if you don’t have a choice, then the choices is not meaningful. So I felt like I had very narrow horizons and until I widen them, I couldn’t be happy with the path i’d chosen. But also I just wanted to do lots of stupid things to cheer myself up. And so I use Groupon is to respond to an ad for beginners, like a ladder out of this rut, and Groupon at the time is still still around and they still advertise on the tube and stuff and there was like you say yourself, Graham is massive 10 years ago, yeah, you go on the website, there’s all this mad stuff. All discounted. And so what you can do is just take a gamble and go Yeah, I’ll spend 15 quid to have my back waxed, Why not? I’ll have it I’ll have a baby scan. I’ll go uh, genuinely I did that. I’ll go out packet tracking in Kent. I’ll become a lord. Why not? So Simon Lord, by the way should have really just a load title. I bought a load table so I’m I’m I’m Lord of downhome castle in Scotland. I own about you know what? I’ve never been I’ve never visited it mainly because it’s so far away. But I tried to get a Nando’s black card with it basically similar. I’m Lord Max Dickins. I think I’m, you know, I deserve some discounts. I’m not like, you know, the hoi polloi. That normally, he and I did so many of these deals I did hundreds I went out what else I just said that wanted alligator wrestling out in the States. I did all that sort. And then I managed to convince Groupon to sell a date with me on their website. So I sold 1000 dates with myself. Wow. This is all absolutely real. And you, you go on 1000 dates. They’re not meaningful right there. If your date number three, you know, there’s another 997 to go. There’s no stakes there.

Graham Allcott 53:37

And did you go on?

Max Dickins 53:38

Did you do 1000? Wow. So I refunded 999 I put all my chips on red. And I went on that date with someone called Paula Seabright. Who is now my fiancee. Oh, wow. No, not really. She’s not my fiancee. Yeah, sorry. Sorry to spoil. I didn’t think I could lie on your podcast. But we know we had a great time. And we went out for a bit. And then in the end, we went our separate ways, having really had our lives, you know, expanded and enlarged by the experience of meeting.

Graham Allcott 54:12

So you sold you sold 1000 dates, and then you only went on one?

Max Dickins 54:15

Yes. Because I thought if I go on 1000 dates, I’ll be having dates literally till I’m about, you know, the next decade. But there’s a middle ground, you could have gone on 10 I could have gone on 10 I just felt was more romantic to go on to this one and just really put all my chips in there. And yeah, it was great. And then ended up I did it as a stand up show in Edinburgh, although it was a real project. It wasn’t just, you know, one of these bullshit things that people do. Yeah, to pretend. And I just started doing it as a blog thinking other people would relate to it. And then it kind of got a bit of a cult following. And I got quite a lot of press. And so I thought well, I’ll do as a stand up show. And then it became a book as well. So that book is out. So that’s it. have all sorts of funny stories about my my Groupon adventure. But yeah, it was oxygenating your life with new experience. That’s what it’s all about.

Graham Allcott 55:09

And I think that’s just a good mentality for anyone to follow. And I had a couple of other things I wanted to ask you about. And I suppose this one leads on quite nicely, because I wanted to ask you about work life balance, which is obviously a huge topic on this podcast. And I suppose when you think about a lot of what you were doing there, so that becomes a stand up show. It’s a blog, it’s a book, it becomes your work, but a lot of those things are obviously also your personal life. So yeah, do you feel like when you’re doing improvisation and things like that, and everything is very playful? Do you feel like it blurs the boundary between what’s work and what’s life or play? And how do you how do you just how do you delineate? How do you feel about that?

Max Dickins 55:53

Yeah, it’s a really interesting question, I think, because I do a mixture of this book improvised, which is aimed at a business reader, as well as doing all sorts of, you know, comedic and very artistic projects. And Nora Ephron says, you know, life is copy. And there is a real danger that the boundary between being creative and being alive is so mixed up, that there is no boundary. And I’m working on a project at the moment, which is a lot, much more like memoir. And I’m faced with these questions of who owns the experience, because after you share your life with somebody else, do you have rights on this story, but this is just another example of how, you know, if you’re not careful, there is no, there is no difference. But the way I’ve squared it to myself before is I love my work so much that I don’t mind work being my life. But as I’m getting older, I’m realizing that my work has taken all my best energy. And the people I love the most have been given my worst energy. And actually, again, I don’t mind talking about this, I’ve engaged to be married now. And I sat down to work out who would be on the wedding list from my point of view, and who would be in my best man’s party. And that list is not very long. And it’s because my career has dominated for the past decade, and I’ve not paid enough attention to, to friendships. And it’s something I’m it’s a really is a work in progress about correcting that and trying to find the balance. I mean, one of the hard things is in the arts, is some of the best work you do is paid the worst. So you’re almost doing it for free, often you are doing it for free. But is that work? Or is that not work? Because it’s unpaid. But it’s really would be in the category of work for most people. So it is a tough equation. But it’s certainly something I’m, I’m really I don’t know, I’m doing trying to get better at it myself, to be honest. Yeah, it’s

Graham Allcott 58:04

a really interesting one. And I suppose it’s slightly different. When you’re creating interesting stuff out of experiences in your life, like you would in stand up or indeed an improv, you know, just taking the things that you’ve that you’ve experienced and making that part of a story or something else. versus if you’re a YouTuber, and you’re having to document moments in your day, I suppose the difference because a lot of YouTubers end up very depressed and have breakdowns and all that sort of thing, particularly younger ones. And I think maybe that’s partly to do with the fact that for someone like you, you can you can enjoy a moment for the sake of it being that moment, and then document it later. Whereas if you’re a YouTuber, then it’s kind of, you know, it’s all it’s all in one space, isn’t it? And so there is, yeah, naturally, just less separation there. Again,

Max Dickins 58:56

I do I do often find I’m, I’m a protagonist and a spectator in my life simultaneously, were sort of 70% there. And 30% going, Oh, this might be a funny story, or, or I must remember what I’m thinking in this moment. I think it’s quite relatable. But that’s, I think that’s one reason why I love improv so much is that when I’m on stage, or when I’m working with people in a workshop, or when I’m trying to listen, like an improviser in like, I hopefully I’ve done on this podcast today. I feel so present and he is my version of meditation. And it is really about mindfulness and being present. And so that’s why I like it so much, I think is I in those moments, I’m away from that kind of mindset of permanent finding copy everywhere.

Graham Allcott 59:49

And I think that’s probably a really good note to finish up the conversation because I think most things are improved by being more present and being mindful and Certainly, certainly improv has helped me to discover that and practice that and be more aware of that. But yeah, absolutely. That’s a really good, nice way to end it. So the book is called I”mprovise, Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work”. So tell everyone where they can get the book and also just how they can connect with anything else that you want to tell us about.

Max Dickins 1:00:26

Yeah, sure. So improvise you six of improv to achieve extraordinary results at work. It’s available in bookshops believe or not. And it’s also available on Amazon. Improvise the book dot com ( is the website. So if you want to visit there, there’s some bonus content and say hi, on LinkedIn, so my name is spelled M A X D I C K I N S. If you want to add me on there and ask me anything at all about this stuff, I’d really love to hear from you. And yeah, it really it really changed my life. And I’m not just saying that in a way of trying to flog books. I’m a big believer in it. And so if you want me to tell you where your local improv places, then I’d be very happy to help you out.

Graham Allcott 1:01:08

Yeah, it’s a lovely community, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s all very well network. So sure, you’ll you’ll push people wherever they are in the right direction. And thanks so much for being on the podcast, Max. It’s been great.

Max Dickins 1:01:18

Thanks, Graham. Thanks for asking me some great probing questions.

Graham Allcott 1:01:29

Find more information about Graham Allcott on his website:

Max Dickins is author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work which is out now. He is co-director of improvisation training company Hoopla! Hoopla run improv classesshows and corporate training.

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