Posts categorized “Improv”.

Creating a mindset to work with failure

Innovation does not come without discarding ideas, trying and failing.  In complex systems with complex challenges, failure is inevitable and desired.  If we need to prototype to sense our way forward we have to have a mindset that can handle failure.

On Saturday at the Art of Participatory Leadership in Petaluma my new friend Shawn Berry convened a session on failure and through listening to stories ranging from small prototoyping failures to business breakdowns and even deaths, I noted a few patterns that are helpful for groups and people to address failure positively nd resourcefully

Frame it up. In North America and Europe we have a cultural aversion to failure.  Failure is equated with inadequacy.  Our self-esteem is tied to our success.  Our compensation and status is affected by failure.  Fear of failure is prevalent in the culture.  In order to combat this tendency, it is helpful to work with a group to get them acquainted to failing.  For more playful groups improv exercises can be an excellent way to drop inhibitions to try something and fail.  More rational groups might benefit from a little appreciative inquiry where participants recall positive failing experiences.  Reflecting and sharing on times of failure and survival reminds us that it is part of the process.

Support the experience. While groups are experimenting and learning, succeeding and failing it helps to have support and coaching present in the process.  Depending on the kind of work being done you can offer support to keep a group resilient and unattached. I have used several different kinds of processes here including the following:

  • Simply pausing for reflection periodically in the process to notice what is going on.  Slowing the process down helps to gain valuable perspective on what is happening and helps a group move on quickly from failure.
  • allowing failure to occur and then taking the subsequent stressful thoughts to an inquiry process using The Work of Byron Katie.  We do this often when working with groups in the non-profit sector for example, where the pressure to succeed is accompanied by feelings of fear of the results of failing.
  • In indigenous and other colonized cultural settings I have often had Elders and healers present who can care for the more invisible dynamics in the field, especially when our work is going to carry us into some of the sources of trauma.  When you are working in a place where people are operating out of deep historical trauma, the fear of failure can be laden with many many deep seated implications.  Having people in the process who understand these dynamics is essential.
  • Peer-coaching is a common way to build resilience in groups where trying and failing is important.  When a team is trying to learn something new it helps to also build the capacity for them to be able to rely on each other.  This is why so many teams value “cross-training.”  When athletes train, they often work out in ways that are not related to their sport _ a skier training by rowing for example.  Doing this helps them to learn to use their body differently and builds strength that supports their core work.  Similarly, work teams can learn a lot about themselves by creating situations of safe failure such as through improvisational exercises, outdoor experiences, games and other non-work focuses.  The skills learned there can help support the team when they knuckle down to focus on key tasks and can support constructive failure within the work domain.  Ultimately these skills will build capacity if they increase the ability of the group to support itself through stressful times.
  • Developing a practice of greeting failure with joy.  My friend Khelsilem Rivers taught me this one.  He is – among other things – an indigenous language teacher and using the tool kit “Where Are Your Keys” Khelsilem helps people become fluent in their indigenous languages.  One of the barriers to rapid fluency is a fear of “not doing it right.”  Khelsilem completely transforms the experience of failure by introducing the technique called “How Fascinating!” When a person (including the facilitator) makes a mistake, the whole group celebrates by throwing their hands in the air, leaning back and declaring “How Fascinating!”  While it might seem contrived at first, the technique opens up the body, and greets the failure with a collective celebration.  Blame and judgement is avoided, collective support is activated and learning is grounded.

Practices like these are essential to build into the architecture of processes where failure is inevitable if innovation is to occur.

Process the grief. When catastrophic failure occurs it can leave people grieving, frightened and cynical.  If there is no way to process the grief then individuals often build their next prototype out of fear.  If you feel you have been burned before, you might develop your next idea by building in protection against failing again.  While that can seem prudent and safe, in reality, building structures out of fear is a much riskier proposition than building structures out of possibility.  Without processing grief, a group or a person can be susceptible to being “defended.”  I learned much about this state from Dr. Gordon Neufeld who is a child psychologist who has described this phenomenon in children.  Taking a group or a person through the grief cycle using empathy, story telling and compassion can help free the emotions that are triggered in future learning experiences.

Building a mindset to embrace failure and support the transformation of the energy of failure is critical to groups developing the capacity to lead in complexity.

I’ve also written about failure here:

A dialogue poem

Some of my friends and I with in the Art of Hosting community create poems from our work as a kind of harvest, a way of listening to the voices shared in a circle and reflecting back to the group, it’s wholeness using the words of those in the room.  The poems are written on the spot and read into the room, slam style. Such poems evoke energy, and honour the whole.  We call these  “dialogue poems.”  Here is the one from yesterday’s check in in Montreal with our core hosting team…

Hosting team Check in poem

Where did you practice?
Where did you act as if you could do this?
What does the silence have to show us?
What is inside this seed?

A potential to feed what is needed everywhere
Hosting is caring so we’re daring to share
what is in our jardin communitaire:
101 ways in a single day
to face the case of urban space
fall into a call of enfolded breath
and die 101 little deaths, for co-creation to be the method
that we use to create and let go.  Whoa.  Peace flows

Caroline is on the scene
and clear love flows in between us
a clean passing of a piece to serve
the swerve and curve of jangly nerves
that the emergent life turns up.
This is a romance and a dance of hosted circumstance.

The space of the public dream seems
to be called to scream from the megaphone
deep in our bones in the intention for an intervention
ot suspension to the conventional ways of doing things.
We meet despair with care for beauty and do our duty.

Economics in the commons needs us to anchor danger
as the social order rearranges strangers into the angels of
the commons…but…but…
Words were never spoken for the broken structures I have seen
for the painful way we remain unclean in the unconscious hosting
that leaves us unseen and suffering the wasted talents of human beings
so I offer a new chance to call us all into the hall and
share the commoning of Montreal.

When there is no room at the inn we move outside and work from the rim.
And all we need to take
is one minute, innit?
Because a crack is a small thing to make.

Small is beautiful, but tiny is fuller
What is the smallest container that can hold the future?
A negotiation with a child, a wild realization that we only flower
when the smallest things claim their power
and we take an hour to be in peace with other generations.

The appearance of the aperitif
Helps us arrive and be here

This work can be hard
when we haven’t got a clue
and the parameters make us do things we don’t want to do
we host grief and hate and create the state
for the gates to open and action to gain traction
for a fraction of the cost of the money we’ve already lost.

And then, abundance appears because we stayed with the fears
and the tears and we finally see everyone as peers.

It was a ride to get a guide that would help us get inside
the Art of Hosting and glide us to understanding, landing whatever we can
as a resource to help us plan for this.

Two thousand thirteen seems like a series of scenes
of moments that mean my life has seen
the real application of peace between human beings.
In cote d’ivoire, ravaged by war, a mayor named need
to plant a seed for people to lead the conversations
that stop the bleeding and meet the need for
the chief of chiefs to hold the belief that these ways of talking
can bring relief.

Two hundred thousand years of leadership
called into relationship, mateship and friendship
in a moment of reconciliation for a nation
where you do not have to be sorry
for the story, but you must offer a forum
for the experience of peace and a shift to dignified decorum.

We are not here to be small.
We all just want peace.
That is all.

I am touched to be here.
Daring to appear
Á table citoyen…where the rabble fits in
to chatter and natter about things that matter and
do it in public where the interests clatter
and find a place to practice together
co-create a project that’s better and better…
and shift my life to something unfettered.
by the separation that I’m deluded with.
Tend to the people that are coming,
feel the field and yield to the real.

Since January for me
It’s been a race from place to place
tracing a line from space to space
and stopping a moment to face the grace
That I have to receive for living as me authentically
I hope to inspire near and far
people to be just who they are.

En formations nous avons les informations
pour le realization de collaboration
we carried the living spark
of what was lit in Lafontaine Parc
embodied a some light that shone in the dark
flowing from our humanity, a practice of embodied calamity!

I feel that I am a dwarf among giants
and ready to offer my heart and defiance
of what my own ego wants us to do
so we can be free.  How about you?

Time and creativity

Nice little video which demonstrates factors which enable creativity and those which impede it.

Anthony Braxton on marginalized self expression

I used to be a huge fan of Anthony Braxton back in the day.  Braxton is an unapologetic free music practitioner, a brilliant composer and improviser and a disruptive influence in the world of American music, and jazz in particular.

Here is a a lovely piece from him talking about the difference in perception between white men and black men striving to express an individual voice in contemporary America.  Beyond race, this also speaks to the marginalization of creative work in a world dominated by a mercantile world view:

FJ: Why is it that a white man striving for individuality is perceived as being liberal, but a Black man is termed radical or revolutionary?

ANTHONY BRAXTON: You put your finger right on it, Fred. I turn on the television set sometimes and they are talking about Silicon Valley. The guys are saying that they have these sessions where they just kind of get together and push ideas around and we’re changing these models, we’re doing this and we’re doing that. Suddenly they switch to Bill Gates or any of the visionaries who’ve become very successful. They talk about whatever they’ve come up with. Yes, it is always received on the level that it is intended in the sense that this is something that can be considered, accepted or rejected, but it is something that can be considered. For instance, when Lee Konitz in Wire magazine went to put me down, he didn’t say, “I don’t like what Braxton’s doing.” No, the first thing he made sure to do was undermine my credentials. “Oh, he isn’t qualified.” “Oh, he made a technical mistake.” So the question then is not what Braxton is doing, but suddenly I am operating from this deficit. This has been the game that has been played against guys like me from every sector. The Lincoln Center sector says, “Oh, well, he doesn’t play the blues.” What they are really saying is the he doesn’t have the kind of idiomatic psychology that we can see as playing ball in a way where this guy doesn’t have to be challenged, not to mention, what we have here is a profound myth understanding in my opinion of the whole blues tradition. I trace these understandings to Mr. Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch.

via | Interviews.

Social life as practice

In this article, stringing together some obersvations about Louis CK and Mary Halvorson, Seth Colter Walls touches on the wellspring of collaboration.

He writes a little of the play that replaces rehearsal for true improvisers, of finding outlets of artistic practice where

“no one person is responsible for all the tunes—if tunes are even the order of the day. Such groups aren’t the ones that players use as reputational tent-poles; they’re the ones that successful artists keep going in order to keep the channel for new sounds open. It’s the jazz-world equivalent of Zach Galifianakis’s avant-chat Web-show “Between Two Ferns,” the sort of thing that happens in the background of an otherwise thriving career.”

Facilitation or Hosting practice is improvisation too. Every time I work with a group I go in as a jazz musician, with a set list of “tunes” to play, which in group work as in music is simply a way to divide time into portions that carry and enable a narrative to unfold. Sometimes the unfolding narrative necessitates that we completely change the tunes we were planning on playing. Just last week for example, the group we were working with had come through some hard work rather earlier than we imagined, causing us to jettison our entire design for something that could take them onward from this new place.

So where do you learn how to do this? When I wrote recently on disruption, I talked about how learning how to deal with that is a capacity that serves marvelously in the world. In some ways for those of us who work with groups for a living, we are lucky to have a world that goes according to its own plan. You don’t need to work hard to seek out places where things change faster than you can account for them. It may be driving in traffic, walking in a busy street, participating in sports or music or dancing, socializing and playing in groups. All of these are training grounds where you can practice sensing and changing the plan, where you can try new ways of unleashing groups intelligence as a leaders, as a follower, as a bystander, as a participant. You can try and fail without any dire consequences affecting your bottom line.

In short, see your social life as practice, and your capacity to work with groups will be richer.

Dealing with disruption

I was listening to a brilliant interview with the theologian and scholar Walter Bruggeman this morning.  He was talking about “the prophetic imagination” and using the poetry of the Old Testament prophets to make a point about a key capacity that is missing in the world right now: the ability to deal with disruption.


SImply, disruption is what happens when the plans we thought we had have suddenly changed.  It could be a major economic collapse – a black swan event – or something so small as your bus left early.  How we respond to disruption is a key capacity for individual resourcefulness, and how we collectively deal with disruption is a key capacity for resilience.
It is interesting, as Bruggeman notes, that our frame for understanding the future is basically consumerist.  We purchase certainty.  It’s as if we invest in the present because it guarantees a given performance of the future.  When we buy something, we expect to receive quality and a guarantee that if it doesn’t work according to plan, we can hold someone else responsible.
That understanding about the way the future is supposed to roll out infects everything we do.  When events overtake our assumptions about the future, we look for someone to blame, someone to be accountable, someone to make it right.  I can find all kinds of ways in which I expect people to OWE me something.  It’s as if our participation in the social contract guarantees that our expectations will be met.
But they never are.  We cannot all live in our ideal worlds.  Diversity and complexity means disruption.
The greatest challenge of our time I think, both individually and collectively, is how to equip ourselves for disruption.  There are many patterns that scale across dimensions of practice, and a few key ones may be:
  • Self-awareness. Knowing your own response to disruption is helpful.  Do you get stressed by unexpected change?  Do you take it in stride?  Does your community shake and shudder with fits and paroxysms or do you just give up?  All of these reactions are common and they are interesting.  And they are not anyone’s fault or anyone else’s responsibility but your own.  Learning to be resourceful with disruption begins by knowing how you deal with it.
  • Stop. When events overtake you it is wise to stop.  The worst thing to do is to continue to pursue the course of action you initiated before the disruption occurred.  As an individual, stopping is easier than doing it as a collective.  It often takes a loud voice to get a group intent on achievement to stop what it is doing, so being prepared to stop means paying attention to the small voices – the ones inside yourself and the ones inside your team.
  • Look for surprise. One of the basic operating principles of Open Space Technology is “Be Prepared to Be Surprised.”  My friend Brian Bainbridge lived this principle, even from within the relative security and certainty of his life as a Catholic priest.  As a result he welcomed surprise with delight.  Looking for and preparing for surprises isn’t just a good self-help trick though.  It’s excellent planning.  And because by definition, you can never know what will surprise you, the best way to prepare for surprise is to train your outlook to work with it rather than against it.  Lots of energy is spent beating back the results of surprise.  We would do better to be able to see it’s utility and work with it.
  • Welcome and engage the stranger. There is a Rumi poem called “The Guest House” I love that has these lines in it: “This being human is a guest house.  Every morning a new arrival…Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably.  He may be clearing you out for some new delight.”  the stranger contains the answer.  When disruption occurs, it is like a door opening through which floods unfamiliarity.  That all comes with strangers and many of those strangers hold the answers to what to do next, but you have to take the time to engage with them.  And never discount the stranger among you, the person you thought you knew that suddenly becomes a different in the midst of a crises.
  • Choose wisely. Meeting the chaos of disruption with the order of stillness helps to create the space for wisdom.  Not having stillness means one gets caught up in the rush and tumble of chaotic disruption and one reacts instead of acting wisely.  Becoming still and then stopping has similar results.  Balancing chaos and order gives us the time and space to make a wise decision.  The opinions of others help here.  If you are alone when your life is disrupted, you might not have the breadth of understanding to make a wise decision.  You may end up travelling in a direction that takes you away from where you need to go.  When you make a choice, choose wisely.
  • Commit. Finally commit fully to your next move.  This is principle that is alive in the field of improvisational theatre.  The scene takes a surprising twist and as an actor you have two choices: hang on to the story you were previously developing or let the new story line change you.  You can tell an improviser that only half commits to the new story.  They become immediately stuck in a space that is too constrained to move.  They are wanting to work with the new but unwilling to abandon the old.  When disruption occurs it is already too late not to be changed by it.  So commit fully to the new world so that you can be a full participant in it.


Rain is the perfect offer

Watch what happens when a rain delay forces two US college baseball teams to get creative.  They improvise.

So much to love in this, including the fact that they created set pieces, scenes and then when they ran out of ideas staged a dance contest together.  It would have been interesting to see how the game went after all this play they did together!

Here is another even better video of (almost) grown men having a great time together – moose hunting, curling, pro wrestling, playing football.

From the feed

Frosty mornings

A review of things that caught my eye this week:

Visioning as the estuary of action

This is an estuary.  It is the place where a river goes to die.  Everything the river has ever been and everything it has carried within it, is deposited at it’s mouth where the flow slows down and the water merges with the ocean.  These are places of incredible calm and richness, but they lack the exciting flow of the torrents and waterfalls and cascades of the upper river system.

Yesterday I was speaking with a client who worried that an initiative we had begun together was heading towards the estuary of action – a long term visioning processes where lots of things are said and very little is done.  “We’ve done that before,” she said.  Nobody likes that.  I wracked my brain to see where it was that I had led this group to believe that this is what we were doing.  We had done a World Cafe to check into some possibilities for the organization and we had done a short Open Space to initiatie some experimental actions.  We had learned a little about the organization from these two gatherings, and we were, at least in my mind, fully entered into a participatory action learning cycle, working with emergent ideas, within several well established constraints.  I was surprised to hear the fear spoken that what we were doing was “visioning.”

Then I realized that what we were dealing with was an entrained pattern.  People within this organization associated dialogue with visioning, and the results of dialogue with a mass of post-it notes and flip charts that never get typed up, and action that never comes of it.  Likewise, it turns out that the associated planning with a process that begins with a vision, and then costs out a plan and takes that plan to a decision making body which then rules on whether the project can proceed, by allocating resources.  Both of these views are old thinking, rigid patterns that lock participants in a linear view of action that looks like this:



The truth is that I had been viewing the process as an action learning cycle:

So now that we are a little clearer on this, there was a distinct relaxation among the group.  We are heading into some uncharted territory and it is too early to nail down concrete plans about what to do and likewise simply visioning doesn’t take us anywhere either.  Instead, we are harvesting some of the rich sense of community that exists, opening some space for a little leadership, inviting passion and responsibility and making small starts,  The small starts are confirming some of what we suspected about how the organization works, which is good news, because we are developing a pattern of action together that will help us all as we move forward to do bigger things with more extensive resource implications.  This is the proper role of vision and planning in emergent and participatory processes – gentle, developmental, reflective and active.


Field work, football and Tiki Taka

A brilliant post from Field work, football and Tiki Taka @ Dance of Unity:

Their style of play is known as Tiki Taka, commonly spelled tiqui-taca in Spanish. In Wikipedia is it shortly described as “A style of play characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession.” With Tiki Taka the ball is continuously passed between team members in a way that the whole team operates as one intelligent field, rather than sum total of talented individuals.