In the 1980s, The Walt Disney Company rebranded its Disney Parks engineers as “imagineers,” and I think “instructional imagineering” would be a great rebranding of instructional design (if not for the copyright issue) because I often feel that the work I do is closer to engineering than design. Instructional designers are problem-solvers, but the work we do is not just problem-solving. It’s creative problem-solving, with each new project having new and specific challenges that often need a little imagination to solve–and a little improvisation.
The history of the pedagogy of improvisation is traced back to the work of two women, Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin, working in Chicago in the 20s and 30s. Boyd was a sociologist doing social work with poor immigrant communities at Hull House. She published a theory of play based on her work, which highlighted the positive socialization skills learned by children during games, and theatre or storytelling games in particular. Spolin was a student of Boyd’s, and developed a full drama pedagogy inspired by Boyd’s theories for her own teaching practice. Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, grew up in this environment and was one of the founders of The Second City in 1959.
In 2015, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton from The Second City published Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, which was when I first learned about the workplace applications of improvisational comedy. There are a lot of videos and articles out there that also demonstrate improvisational comedy gamers as teambuilding exercises, but what I liked about The Second City’s approach is that it’s not just about the games. In 2018, Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera gave a presentation at Recode’s Code Conference on how the principles of improv can help foster better communication in the workplace. The presentation is just under twenty minutes, but it’s filled with insights from the very start, one of my favorites being, “Improvisation is practice in being unpracticed, which is how we all walk through the world.”
Innovative business leaders desiring to tap into creativity have adopted the phrase “yes, and” mindset approach to teamwork and collaboration, but still face the challenge of how to implement and leverage improvisational thinking into everyday practice. Carrie Freeman, Co-CEO of SecondMuse, Forbes Councils Member, and the author of The Power Of A ‘Yes, And’ Mindset To Solve Complex Problems, puts it in these terms: “The ‘yes, and’ approach lets us tap into potential far beyond meeting the immediate needs of a problem.” She concludes that, “It is likely that in broadening our search for ‘yes, and’ solutions, we will discover synergies heretofore undiscovered.”
The course design process is a problem-solving process, and it is a process dependent upon conversations and dialogue between multiple parties. These conversations all offer opportunities to practice the improvisational mindset. The first conversation, between the instructional designer and course developer, is an opportunity to set the tone of the development process. It’s when I ask the most “yes, and” questions. Each successive response from either myself or the course developer offers an opportunity to either follow up or change direction. That conversation can also lead to conversations with the media teams, which are also opportunities to set the tone using “yes, and” mentality to further creativity and collaboration. Kelly Leonard, in the 2018 Recode presentation, states that “Improvisation is yoga for your social skills,” and like any yoga practice, it must be practiced. It’s a kind of mindfulness; a way of being in the moment, listening to the ideas of others, and creating a space for imagination and collaboration.
One final note is that, like improv, you never know who you will be working with on a given project. Some improv games are more fun than others. But leveraging the “yes, and” mindset depends upon not going into a situation with expectations, assumptions, or predictions, even when it might involve people you’ve worked with before. I’ve been watching Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” for twenty years, and while they are consistently funny, there are some scenes that are more memorable than others (see: 15 Times Ryan AND Colin Owned “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”). But what keeps me watching is that you never know what scene will end up as part of the next greatest clips compilation, because they never know what’s going to happen next either.