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What are you Doing? (Innovation In Business)

December 31, 2013 Clemens Rettich Improv, Innovation

Patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time…

Carrying on a conversation with a customer while preparing their complicated order at the counter…

Calling in sick when you are actually on your way to the beach for the day…

Coming up with a new idea when all around you people are trotting out clichés…

Throughout life we are asked to do more than one thing at the same time and be creative about it to boot. To do any of those things sometimes requires that we get past the normal ‘grooves’ of behaviour that are our first instincts.

There are times when the comforting rituals of our lives are the only thing that keep us energized and grounded. That is why both European and Asian monastic traditions often have rules that govern every aspect of daily behaviour. Knowing exactly what is going to happen next on the mundane level frees the mind to focus on higher matters.

At other times however, habits, rituals, and patterns become traps. Mind and body go through moments in life with repetitive behaviours and responses that are not much more than tics. In any environment where creativity and fresh, awake responses matter, that kind of autopilot is crippling. Innovation in business can be critical for success.

There are a group of games in improv theatre called dissociation games. These are used to help us break the habitual associations between words, images, and actions. Why are these valuable? Because if all we are able to do on stage, or in any creative environment, is go for the ‘automatic’ responses, the situation becomes literally predictable. If for every time you said ‘shovel’ in a mime exercise, my only creative response was to mime digging actions, I don't see any acting awards in my future. If every time your team at work asked you “How are we going to solve this problem?”, and your only response ever is “Lets form a committee”, I don't see any growth in your future.

Dissociation games help us practice breaking those habits. One of the simplest games is to ask a group to form a string of words, one person, one word at a time. The catch is each word may have no obvious connection with the previous one. Each time two ‘associated’ words are uttered, the audience shouts “Die!” and the group restarts. For example, if a one after another, members said “Orange, salt, engine, piston” the audience shouts “Die!” at piston.

A more complex dissociation game is “What are You Doing?”

What Are You Doing?

Have everyone in a group pair off. One player in each pair mimes a simple activity. The other player asks “What are you doing?” The first player responds by stating an activity that is anything but what they are actually doing but continues to mime the original activity. The second player then mimes whatever activity the first player verbally named, and is in turn asked by the first player “What are you doing?” and also responds with an unrelated activity, which the first player now starts to mime. There may be no break in the miming, regardless of what is being said.

Player 1: (Mimes eating an apple)

Player 2: What are you doing?

Player 1: (Continues to mime eating the apple) I'm tying my shoelaces.

Player 2: (Gets down to mime tying shoelaces)

Player 1: (Still eating the apple) What are you doing?

Player 2: (still tying laces) reading a book.

Player 1: (switches from eating to reading) What are you doing?

When you play this game for the first time, you will be surprised at how challenging it can be to mime doing one thing, while forcing your brain to name a different activity.

The genesis of this game is the need to avoid ruts on the improv stage. It is an exercise in staying off autopilot because it forces you to say anything but the obvious.

The game also supports the development of miming skills. Great improvisational mimes can continue to walk through a door, drive a car, or eat a meal while responding to all kinds of verbal cues but not changing what their bodies are doing. This is one situation where multi-tasking really is a good thing.

You can tell a pair of players has truly gotten to the place when their bodies are automatically responding to their partners’ offers while their minds continue to interact on a separate verbal track. The evidence of this is a complete absence of hesitation. Both the mimed actions and the verbal responses are committed to in regular, rapid-but-relaxed rhythm that is similar to the one in the ball tossing game.

As a basic (but energetic) warm-up game, there are not a lot of deep take-aways here. When I do this with groups, there are a few points I do make:

  • We think too much. This game is effective when the players keep it simple. Don’t try to out-think the process and come up with clever connections. Mime the activities simply and economically. State the second activity that comes to your head (for a long time the first activity that comes to your mind will be the one you are doing!). Self-censoring is one of the primary impediments to true brainstorming and creative development. Stop filtering and start talking.
  • Jump out of the rut. With practice you will be able to come up with activities beyond the obvious. Like the ‘Hundred Uses for a Chicken’ exercise, allowing this exercise to go on just a little bit past the point of being easy forces your ‘reach’ to go deeper. After the first few iterations you will have gone through eating, reading, walking, sweeping… then what?  Then you start to reach for those places that will result in something other than the habitual. Innovation in business depends on that ability.

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