Last week I joined 30 other performers taking part in a thirty three hour long show that was completely improvised. It had comedy, high drama, songs and characters including a space pirate, a giant slug and a Cyberman (from Doctor Who) – that was me.
You’d be right to wonder how this is relevant to proper ‘work’, but when you strip away the theatrical of Liverpool’s 8th annual ‘improvathon‘ you’ll see a very impressive model of project management played out at speed.
Improvisation isn’t making things up. There are rules and constraints that help unlock the creativity for high levels of collaboration and achievement, for example a six person ‘safety song’ and dance that was ‘slip, trips and falls’. Impressive not only in line and verse, but also as it was a great metaphor for good improvisation. Safety culture in the workplace aims for interdependence over independence, and so does improvisation. If we have each others back, we do good work and we look great too.
I’ve recently become interested in agile development. An approach to project management that favours interaction over process, and responding to change over ‘end goals’ to achieve a more satisfying outcome (and a happy client). I’m not an agile developer but I have been a web developer for twenty years and an improviser for ten.
The improvathon is played out in two hour ‘episode’ chunks with performers creating and discovering stories through interaction. Over the course of the show new cast members join, some leave and some stay awake (and present) for the entire duration fuelled by adrenaline, coffee and the buzz of the show. A 15 minute break between these episodes is just time enough for the director, overseeing the scenes, to gently highlight the more compelling stories from the previous section and suggest new points of focus. Moving events forward towards a rewarding outcome.
During the show, I failed in my many evil attempts at ‘conversions’ turning other characters into cybermen – to create and army of robotic cybermen – that’s just what they do. I was reminded of a chat with a scrum master (Paul Goddard) who used the term ‘conversion’ to refer to the moment when a newcomer to improv clicks with the ‘yes and’ principle and comprehends the wider implications and values. Improv isn’t just for actors or extroverts, it’s for everyone in or out of the workplace.
It’s also much better than being turned into a cyberman.