Julie Huffaker and Karen Dawson are collaborators at Deeper Funner Change, a consulting collective dedicated to unleashing collaborative intelligence. As “pracademics,” both are wildly curious about what transpires when organizational and leadership theory meet the reality of complex day- to-day business challenges.
Jenelle is a dynamic, red-headed CEO of a fast-growing real estate agency. Her vision for the agency was to reinvent how they do real estate. We were surprised and delighted when she called to share how she had used what she had learned with us during a one-day workshop. “This is a total transformation of my ability,” she said, “an ‘Aha!’ of how to show my commitment and to share where I’m coming from and listen without getting so defensive.”1
The workshop Jenelle attended was about shifting team and organizational culture to enable co-creative change. We had donated the day as a fundraiser for Living Yoga, a Portland-based nonprofit that provides yoga to people in prison and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. The workshop was open enrollment at $500 per seat, all of which went to the organization. Other supporting businesses donated the venue, food, and champagne for a closing toast.
Unlike the heart of our work with clients, where we engage deeply over time, this workshop was for a single day. Not knowing the participants beforehand, we emailed them three weeks prior and invited them to arrive with a real change challenge, personal or professional, through which to explore a radically collaborative approach to change. Twenty people gathered from across a wide professional spectrum: senior leaders from large, global companies, nonprofit executive directors, a lawyer exploring how to shift his practice, and Jenelle.
For the previous year, Jenelle had been struggling to gain her company’s commitment to her vision for the future, but the harder she pushed her ideas on them, the more resistance she encountered. She hoped the workshop would help her use her upcoming annual State of the Union speech as an opportunity to get her company on board.
She shared with us that after the workshop, her State of the Union was more like a conversation than a presentation. She asked her company members powerful questions, allotted time for discussions, and distributed markers to collect their ideas on flip charts. Jenelle engaged them in the beginning to create a shared vision for the future. “Last year, when the presentation was all about me, it was, ‘This is the bus, and you can get on or off.’ This year, it was, ‘This is our bus.’”
We use the workshop Jenelle experienced in many different forms, all aimed at unleashing the collaborative intelligence of a team, department, or organization.
Our Big Shift in Applying Improvisation
For the past twenty-plus years, we have been using the tools of improvised theatre to help clients make behavioral changes. If participants could only learn how to listen deeply, make bold offers, let go of controlling, and expand their attention ... surely, we thought, this would support more collaborative interactions and generative relationships back at the office. It made sense: our clients often described their challenges in terms of the behaviors that weren’t working for them. They hired us to help interact and relate differently so they could get different results. Part of the magic of improv is that the methods are pretty darned accessible to non-improvisers. Yet even when participants left our sessions raving, the translation back to their real worlds rarely met their (or our) goal to enable groups to work in a profoundly different way over time. Our intention all along was to catalyze lasting change.
Our big shift came from considering that in improv, like in any emergent system (Lichtenstein 2014), the interaction of system elements may be what enables creating a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The behavioral practices we were teaching were just one element of the overall system。
What if we looked beyond behavioral practices and focused on the vital interplay among system elements? What if we included not just behaviors but the beliefs underneath them, and even the organizing structures of the games? By “behaviors,” we mean the practices of improv: accepting offers, noticing more, playing big, letting go, and supporting each other to look brilliant. By “beliefs,” we mean the mind-sets improvisers bring to the stage—like “we’ve got each other’s backs.” By organizing structures of the games, we mean the rules that both support and constrain participants’ activities—like each person adding just one word in a word-at-a-time story. In our use of applied improv, we had never before focused in a meaningful way on the interplay between these aspects. We are now making each of these elements visible and deliberately playing at their intersection.
If we think of team members as fish, the way they organize themselves is the fishbowl. Interestingly, as humans we are rarely aware of the structures we’re swimming in—let alone how we ourselves participate in creating them. The focus of our work now is to help participants see this fishbowl, and then intentionally make the most meaningful fishbowl possible.
What follows is an overview of the one-day workshop and how an applied improv experience can be translated to day-to-day organizational worlds. Then we share a bit of who we are and how we came to this work and explain our emerging point of view in relation to the wide world of organizational thinkers. After that we provide more detail about the key components of the workshop. We wrap up with a few burning questions currently on our minds, hoping you’ll join us in exploring them over time.
The Fish and the Fishbowl in One Day
We play with combining three primary components in a core experience. First, we start by helping people begin to see their own fishbowl. Second, we facilitate first-hand experience with a collaborative leadership culture that is a big step away from their organizational world (no surprise to anyone reading this book, we use improv theatre). Through rich debrief, we make visible the mind-sets, practices, and structures that enable this way of working. Third, with laser focus, we expose people to everyday tools that help translate these mind-sets, behaviors, and structures directly back to their world.
We think of the day in six distinct phases: creating a learning community; proposing our point of view; curating an experience of a new way of working; translating that experience to participants’ real worlds; practicing with sample tools that make a difference; and finally, supporting each other (using the new tools) to take the experience back to work. Participants describe the journey as exhilarating, challenging, and deeply personal (with a side helping of pure fun). In a nutshell, here’s what unfolds between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Creating a Learning Community: As participants arrive, funky music is playing, colorful charts are hung to frame the day’s activities, and chairs are arranged in a semicircle, a journal on each one. After a warm welcome, we plunge into a rapid-fire speed dating game, starting with, “Tell a story about your quirkiest relative” to “Share a one-minute story of your life that ends with the sentence ‘and that’s why I signed up for this workshop!’” We watch participants physically loosen up as they strive to learn each other’s names in a zippy name game, delighting in a few wild “failure WHOOPS!” as mistakes are acknowledged, not punished. And then, just as quickly as the play begins, we transition to silent reflection and journaling as participants dig deep to explore their burning questions about organizational change and describe their very real work challenges to each other.
Proposing Our Point of View: In a no-more-than-ten-minute lecturette, we share the axes and arrow diagram (Figure 9.1; described in detail on page 187) and George Box’s (1979) reminder that all models are wrong and some are useful and that we think our model is quite useful.
Participants are invited to lean into a neighbor and explore how the axes and arrow model connects to their worlds. This is when things really get cooking, the room buzzing with lively stories of the participants’ own organizations. We struggle to interrupt the conversations as participants begin to share questions about how to actually create a collaborative leadership culture described in our model’s upper right quadrant. We’ve got their full attention and it’s barely 9:40 a.m.
Curating an Experience of a New Way of Working: It is at this point in the day that we deliver what some participants call a bombshell. We explain that we are about to take a huge step away from the world of work, with a promise that we will build on the experience to help make direct connections to their very real change challenges. “There are groups of people who work together in an ‘upper right quadrant’ way passionately and consistently,” we say, “and one of those groups are theatre improvisers.” We tell them that in approximately two hours an audience will arrive to watch a thirty-minute improv show. We announce: “You are the actors who will be performing that show. We define a successful show as one that has your audience leaning forward in their seats, delighted by your performance.” Gasps of disbelief, furrowed brows, looks of dismay, and mutterings of “You’ve got to be kidding” erupt.
We introduce Jess Lee, our cherished collaborator and one of the world’s finest teachers of improvisation. In a clear, confident voice Jess promises the group that they will have everything they need to perform beautifully in two hours and that she is there to support them to do just that. With a blend of fierce “Let’s get ‘er done” and warm acceptance of whatever questions and concerns participants have, Jess introduces the practices of improvisation through exercises and skill drills that build improv muscles fast. Side-coaching like crazy, focused intently on the quickly approaching performance, Jess nimbly reinforces improv practices and affirms how the players will relate and support each other to co-create within a generous improv ensemble. The show lasts less than thirty minutes, is comprised of four performance games, and every workshop participant plays in at least two of the games.
In every workshop we’ve done, participants astound themselves (and each other) with their collective capacity to perform; our invited audiences (composed of friends and colleagues whom we thank with chocolate) applaud loudly, appreciating with delight the deep, courageous learning they are witnessing.
Translating the Experience to Their Real World: The “big turn” in our day happens after a delicious lunch as we invite participants to unpack the shared experience they have just had. Journals in hand, participants sink into silent reflection. What was your journey? How did you feel? How did you relate with each other to co-create the performance? What did you notice Jess doing that allowed you to perform so well together? How did the structures of the games (the rules) invite you to play big, let go, and notice more? After participants have shared their (often emotional) reflections, we invite them back to the axes and arrow model。
The time is finally ripe to make visible the interrelated dance among the mind-sets, structures, and practices of improvisation, and how all three elements are integral to the extraordinary improv performance they have just created together. The big idea, and the idea on which this workshop is based, is our suggestion that this way of relating—the magic they have just experienced together—is indeed possible in organizations. We promise them that we are going to spend the rest of the day looking at the integrated dance of behaviors, structures, and mind-sets that, when incorporated mindfully and deliberately, can help shift how people organize themselves to do real work, and that we will do this together by diving into their very real change challenges.
Practicing with Sample Tools That Make a Difference: We are so grateful to have discovered the beautiful work of inventive practitioners Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless (2013). Henri and Keith offer a toolkit of facilitation structures, which they call liberating structures. The liberating structures we introduce in this one-day workshop offer “rules of the game” just as improvisational activities have rules. One common rule in many of the structures, for example, is for participants to write for one minute in silence before turning to a partner to speak. A simple rule? Yes. Does the rule shift how a group behaves in response to a provocative question? Definitely. The most important aspect of this phase of the workshop is that we quickly hand over facilitation duties to our participants (these structures are easily facilitated and practicable). They dive in, wholeheartedly. Participants get to take these structures for a test drive on their very real questions about change in this newly co-created learning community (think fishbowl) crafted to practice new ways of being together. Our intention is twofold.
First, we aim to nourish the growing awareness of the similarities between liberating structures and the rules of the games in their improvisation experience (and the behaviors that are invited by those structures). Second, we aim to nurture their confidence in facilitating these liberating structures by demonstrating that they too can quickly and easily create a fishbowl that unleashes collaborative intelligence back in their workplaces. This is the sweet spot in which the likelihood of meaningful translation comes alive for participants.
Supporting Each Other to Take This Back to Where They Have Influence: The day ends with a liberating structure called Troika Consulting that allows each participant to create greater clarity regarding their own change challenge and how they might move forward more effectively. Participants depart with a clear, go-forward next step for finding a situation in which they will give one of their “new structures” a whirl, just as Jenelle did with her fresh approach to her State of the Union.
Who We Are and How We Came to This
Like everyone, our respective backgrounds influence what we can see and want to explore. Julie is a cultural anthropologist who fell into business by accident, working as a marketing strategist for Starbucks Coffee Company in the early 1990s. Later, taking a class with dynamic improviser Gary Hirsch (see Chapter 1) as part of an MBA program, she became fascinated by the links between improvisation and the high-performing teams she had seen and been a part of. For the next fifteen years, Julie worked with Gary and others to build On Your Feet, a global boutique business consultancy that applies improvisation as its key methodology. Karen had been a flying instructor in the Canadian Military Air Cadet program, a high school theatre teacher, university business school faculty, and had fifteen years of experience as an executive coach. When our paths crossed at an Applied Improvisation conference in 2003, our interest in collaborating began. Julie brought Karen in to help leaders in a fast-paced global organization get better at difficult conversations.
In partnership with talented theatre director Ian Prinsloo, Karen invited Julie to the Banff Centre to help incubate a week-long Creating Positive Change Program. We had a hunch then that exploring the creative processes of theatre and improvisation would help organizational leaders create change more effectively. We explored that hunch through five years of vigorous experimentation at the Banff Centre and with our own clients, alongside our respective doctoral journeys focusing on leadership development and organizational change.
Now, we are evolving this work as part of a fabulous (and fun) consulting collective, Deeper Funner Change. We facilitate game-changing collaboration initiatives to build culture, leadership, and teams (Figure 9.2).
What We’re Assuming
We know today’s organizations must meet the challenges of rapidly shifting environments. Across all sectors and in all shapes and sizes, organizations are encountering complex problems that no single thinker or decision-maker can solve on his or her own. Geography, the speed of changing markets, advancements in technology, and demands for increased transparency combine to demand shifts in the way we organize. Our newest generations joining the workforce are better educated than ever before. They seek meaning, purpose, and values-driven organizations in which to contribute, learn, and develop. In our minds, all this makes organizations ripe for new mind-sets, practices, and structures as they explore new ways of organizing themselves. We see unleashing collaborative intelligence to develop new, collaborative leadership cultures as a potent place to focus.
Leadership Is a Process That Happens between People
We define “leadership” not as what an individual in a position of power is or does. Instead, thanks to Bill Drath and his colleagues (2008) at the Center for Creative Leadership, we define it as a relational, social process that produces direction (where we are going), alignment (how our work fits together so we make progress), and commitment (how we stay inspired by a shared goal, above our individual interests).
Aligning with psychological anthropologist Barbara Rogoff (2003), we define “culture” as the common ways a group pursues a shared goal they care about. This definition assumes that while culture influences individuals, individuals also influence culture. An organization’s leadership culture can be defined as the common ways organization members work together to create direction, alignment, and commitment.
The Must-Have Is Relentless Learning
Individual and collective learning is essential to co-creating. Learning is not always comfortable. Working collaboratively demands rigor and discipline. A myth that deserves busting is that collaborative cultures are wishy-washy and loose-y goose-y. One of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s (2016: 35) clients, for example, describes their deliberately developmental organization committed to both continuous learning and business results: “Growth and development does not always equal ‘feeling good.’ Our culture is not about maximizing the minutes you feel good at work. We don’t define flourishing by sitting-around- campfire moments. We ask people to do seemingly impossible things ... and you won’t be given any time to sit on the sidelines and observe.”
Organizations all over the world are breaking new ground, living into the intersection of adaptive learning and collaborative co-creation. Few people are arguing against transforming the ways we organize. The challenge, it seems, is figuring out how to do it and where to start.
Seeing, Experiencing, and Creating a New Fishbowl
As mentioned before, this workshop combines three primary components in a core experience: (1) Helping people see their own fishbowl, (2) creating a first- hand experience with a truly collaborative leadership culture, and finally (3) exposing them to tools to help translate these mind-sets, behaviors, and structures directly back to their world. Below we describe each component in detail and how combining them unlocks their power.
1. Help People See Their Fishbowl: The Axes and the Arrow--1.帮助人们看到他们的鱼缸：斧头和箭头
We use two axes to characterize the four types of organizational fishbowls we typically see (see Figure 9.1). Imagine a line in front of you, stretching from your left to your right. This line represents a spectrum, the distribution of voices (how many and which voices) invited to weigh in and make significant decisions. At the left end of the line we have one voice, the boss. On the opposite end, to your right, we hear from all voices: frontline workers, administrative assistants, people from up, down, and across the entire organization. This left-to-right spectrum of one-to-many voices is the horizontal axis of our model.
Now, imagine another line that runs vertically, bisecting that first line, from ceiling to floor. This line also represents a spectrum, the way information is shared within this organization. At the bottom of the vertical axis is a traditional organizational chart in which information flow is controlled and typically moves down from the leader at the top, from layer to layer, toward the rest of the organization at the bottom. While information may also move up from the bottom, in our observation it rarely gets more than halfway up to the senior positions at the top. When it does, it’s often been misconstrued, censored, or watered down. Back to this axis, at the top of the vertical axis the traditional organizational chart has been replaced with a webbed network in which information flow is fluid. Information passes through the network in all directions and in many different ways, evenly distributed and interconnected. People have immediate, easy access to all data and information, whenever they need it.
Where do most organizations you know operate most of the time? Of course, these axes are not binary. They each represent a spectrum. Depending on the project, role, or context, input on decisions might be gathered from one or a handful of people (left) or a large group (right). Information may flow formally and hierarchically (floor) or in a networked way (ceiling). In our minds, no quadrant is inherently bad or good. Each is, however, well-suited to a specific set of circumstances.
Top-Down Command-and-Control Leadership Culture (Lower Left)
Like Jenelle, most of our clients self-identify as living somewhere in the bottom left quadrant. We refer to this quadrant as a traditional way of organizing: top- down, centralized command-and-control. One or a handful of people make key decisions, and most organizational information flows downward from the top. This approach was an improvement over the days of divine rights and getting your head chopped off if you didn’t do what you were told. The bottom left quadrant is not bad or wrong; there are contexts in which it serves quite well. Think of environments that are relatively stable and known, the “only game in town” without pressure to innovate, or that attract members who like the structure and predictability of a top-down approach.
This doesn’t describe what most of our clients want. Instead, they come to us with hopes of creating the conditions for ongoing change. They want to operate in a more collaborative, agile, and innovative culture.
Collaborative Leadership Culture (Upper Right) 协作领导文化（右上角）
As we’ve described, some fear that organizing in an upper right quadrant manner implies loose-y goose-y laissez faire workplaces in which few decisions get made and chaos is the norm. Early exploration of these forms (e.g. McCauley et al. 2008; Laloux 2014; Huffaker 2017) shows quite the opposite! Collaborative behaviors, expressive of certain mind-sets and invited and reinforced by specific structures, when systematically and rigorously practiced do allow groups to create and evolve in response to their rapidly changing environments. Many people have a say in the decisions that affect them, and authority for making decisions is distributed across the system to those close to the work. Information flows fluidly across networks of relationships; cross-functional groups regularly come together to cross-pollinate perspectives; and individuals proactively share and solicit information and insights with and from others for the sake of collective success (Laloux 2014; Huffaker 2017).
Open-Boundary (Upper Left) and Hub-and-Spoke (Lower Right) Organizations
We don’t spend too much time on these quadrants because—at least at this point —we see them as less critical to understanding the change in leadership culture most helpful for contemporary organizations. Understandably, a few investigative participants come up to us during a break to ask about them.
We think that the upper left quadrant can best be typified by open-boundary communities where information flows fluidly and proactively across a network, yet one or a few people control ultimate decisions. A venture like open-source software Linux is a good example. The lower right quadrant is typified by a franchise organization with a hub-and-spoke configuration. License-granting headquarters sit at the center, making key decisions and pushing them out to member franchisees. Most information flows outward from HQ to the franchisees.
2. To Understand a Different Leadership Culture, You Must First Experience It
Playing improv games and observing herself in real time enabled Jenelle to notice more about her drive to control a situation. She loved being able to jump in to a game, but it was hard for her to share control and wait her turn, or watch others stumble and not be able to fix it. Then hearing others reflect on how it felt to play with her opened her eyes to the impact her style might be having on those around her. She had always thought that her ability to get things done was a strength—now she was seeing that it often resulted in others not feeling heard. Jenelle described the improv as “totally getting out of myself and onto the other side, their side, the other peoples’ side.” Our improv coach extraordinaire, Jess, put it this way:
The performance gives them real feedback because it’s a test. Not a pass/fail test, but they can’t help but learn from this. They will have new information about themselves after this performance ... about how ensemble works, how they feel as part of it, what it’s like to play big and trust each other under pressure. “I think this will be easy” doesn’t wash; strengths and weaknesses are now laid out.2
To prepare participants, Jess side-coaches to focus everyone on the fast- approaching show. “What went well? What helped it go well? Let’s do more of that in your performance!” She encourages, teaches, and challenges all same time: “Every one of you will be out there performing together, soon, and we have a job to do. High stakes. We are doing these drills and honing these skills for something real, not abstract. We have one project to work on—your show. And, by the way, we are going to be wildly successful together.”
Participants are consistently far more successful than they thought they would be. As Jess reminds us, “It’s not possible to simply tell people that this improv way of relating is doable and that they can all be great—they must experience it. When they do, it’s a game changer.”
3. Translating Integral Elements of Improv to Day-to-Day Organizational Life
We are exploring how to translate one discipline that does collaborative leadership culture exceedingly well, theatrical improvisation, to one that does not yet, organizational life. Again, we believe we can best help organizations by focusing on the multiple parts of this complex dance: the behaviors, certainly, but also the beliefs and structures. We believe it is their interplay that results in an agile, responsive, continuously evolving organization.
For us, the linchpin of translation was illuminating the structural elements, or rules of the games, that invite and reinforce collaborative behaviors: liberating structures from Lipmanowicz and McCandless. What we recognized in liberating structures were the same rigorous structural design elements built into basic improv theatre games: articulation of a clearly shared purpose, every person encouraged to participate, turn-taking, working rapidly within a constrained timeframe, and no single person seen as more important than any other person. (For a step-by-step example of a liberating structure, see Workbook 9.2.) Of course, liberating structures from Lipmanowicz and McCandless. For example, many of Sivasailam Thiagarajan’s (TheThiagiGroup) energizing frame games include them. There are multiple, existing toolkits that use similar structural design elements to invite collaboration during real work tasks such as giving feedback, sharing responsibility, and strategizing.
The aim is to unleash the collective capacity of a group to co-create. When these structural elements are present, the interpersonal challenges of hierarchy, style, lack of skill or self-awareness so common in organizations (and wherever there are human beings) are less likely to get in the way of integrating diverse perspectives into shared solutions.
So, this third component of our core workshop is experience with toolkits that invite improv practices every day at work. By giving these a spin on their work challenges, participants see that improvisational ways of working help them get better results on their real stuff. With a little practice and courage, these toolkits also provide scaffolding for taking this way of working back to real projects and colleagues. This is making a bigger difference than our work ever has. A client put it like this: “Working this way is like having a whole new superpower.”
There’s no doubt that teaching improv practices with a fabulous debrief gives people a new sense of what’s possible. It stretches and frees them, and begins mind-set changes for some. What we are suggesting is that if sustained change in a group’s way of working is the goal, this is not enough. Organizational culture also includes structures and mind-sets. Structures can be particularly helpful— especially simple, fast-paced structures—for translating collaborative leadership culture from improvisation to the change challenges of day-to-day work.
In our core one-day workshop, we make visible three aspects of leadership culture: mind-sets, behaviors, and structures. We use improvisational theatre to give people a visceral experience of what it’s like to engage in a leadership culture where the mind-sets, behaviors, and structures support and enable radical collaboration. Finally, we help people translate collaborative leadership culture to their day-to-day work, at a scale appropriate to their circle of influence.
Is this approach a slam-dunk? Of course not. Does it still take courage on the part of participants? Yes! Is it for everyone? The mysterious algorithm of readiness for developing a collaborative leadership culture is a topic more suitable for a long conversation over a good glass of wine than for the end of this chapter.
Moving forward, we have three big questions on our minds. One question is connected to the open enrollment nature of the workshop in which Jenelle participated. How might we help participants see that the change they long for requires deliberate collaboration with the people actually creating change with them? We want them leaving feeling both hopeful and challenged. We know that their new learning has a high evaporation rate unless they can invite their colleagues back at work to engage with them in this new kind of fishbowl. Another question we’re excited to explore is how to help intact teams or cross- functional groups from within an organization use this kind of one-day experience to self-assess where they are as a group of collaborators. By identifying their strengths and weaknesses, we’d like to learn how to help them determine what needs to come next to develop their capacity to unleash collaborative intelligence in response to an organizational priority. Our third big question revolves around how much openness, readiness, and explicit support is needed from senior organizational leaders for this new kind of collaborative fishbowl to flourish in an existing organization.
We know that it makes a difference when big shots with money and mojo are on board. We also believe, and we’ve even got some proof, that profound organizational change can start anywhere—it does not need to begin at the top. So, we will leave you with this: how do we debunk the myth that the person who is large and in charge must lead co-creative change? We know that change can start anywhere. We believe that our world needs collaborative leadership cultures, now more than ever。
With this approach, we think we are onto something. Our story is still unfolding. We are learning our way forward with our clients—people like Jenelle—and we invite you to be wildly curious with us. Our hope is that you will connect these stories and our strategies with your own questions and observations. It will be at this junction we all learn the most.