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What museums can learn from improv: three principles to make museums more human-centered and empathetic

© Aude Vanlathem / www.audevan.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA
Aude Vanlathem / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.5-CA

In improvisational theater, there are some shared principles that the improvisers work from. These principles create a positive and supportive platform upon which the improvisers, or “players,” can do their best work. What if the principles that allow improvisers to thrive and excel could be applied to museums?

In this post, I consider three principles from improv theater and share thoughts on how incorporating these principles into museum practice could make museums more human-centered and empathetic institutions.

1. Take care of yourself and each other

One of the most important practices in improv is to take care of yourself and the other improvisers on stage. If your basic needs aren’t met (physical safety, emotional comfort, etc.), you can’t focus on the story and the audience.

Applying this principle to museum practice means taking care of staff. How can museums possibly serve their visitors well if they don’t take care of their own people?

In the majority of museums, the staff members always get the least amount of care and resources, far behind in priority after the objects in the collection and the visitors in the galleries. I’ve worked for numerous U.S. museums throughout my career, from major institutions to small university museums, and I’ve experienced first-hand how enormous the demands are on staff. I can’t even count the number of museums I’ve worked in that house employees in windowless offices or basements (or both), deprived of natural light and fresh air, while boasting beautiful, state-of-the-art public galleries. Budgets are constantly being cut, work is always increasing, and the staff is always asked to do more and more with less—while putting the objects and visitors first.

How can museums create visitor-centered institutions that serve and engage their audiences if their own staff members are unsupported? What if we took better care of ourselves first, so that we could better empathize with and design for our visitors?

2. Make your partner look good

Another key tenet of improv is to make your partner look good. Instead of thinking of a witty, clever, or scene-stealing line or move you can make, you focus on what you can do in the moment to make your partner look good. Because making your partner look good helps everyone: it establishes a supportive environment, moves the story forward, and, ultimately, makes you look good, too.

What if museums adopted this as a core value around both visitors and staff? Can you imagine interpretative materials and public programs that were designed specifically to make visitors look good? Or staff meetings in which colleagues made a conscious effort to make their co-workers look good in front of each other?

For visitors, this might mean initiatives and programs that allow visitors to scaffold their current knowledge of a subject, or even show off that expertise to their peers. For example, I recently worked with the Indianapolis Museum of Art on using design thinking strategies to develop visitor activities in conjunction with an upcoming exhibition of concept cars. One of the ideas that emerged from interviews we conducted with visitors was the notion of developing activities that allow visitors who are very knowledgeable about cars to share (and even show off) that knowledge to peers. This is not meant as a way to appeal to vanity; it is a means of engaging these visitors through their pre-existing knowledge of and passion for cars.

The notion of making your partner look good builds confidence, trust, and collaboration—values that can enhance experiences for both museum visitors and staff.

3. Build on each other’s ideas

This is also known as the “Yes, and” principle. It’s the holy grail of improv, and at the heart of the design thinking process as taught at the Stanford d.school. The concept is that you accept all of your partner’s ideas, rather than dismissing, negating, changing, or denying them. You follow your partner’s lead, and build on what your partner gives you. It’s additive, and moves everything forward, getting you to a place you can’t possibly go by saying “no, but” to each other.

When I introduce museums to the design thinking process, we consciously adopt this principle during brainstorming, and warm up by playing games that contrast what it feels like to say “no, but” with “yes, and.” Quite simply, when we say “no, but,” we don’t get anywhere. We stall, discuss, re-think, re-hash and over-analyze the status quo.

“Yes, and” also fosters inquiry, a core value for almost every museum. Jen Oleniczak (@TheEngagingEd) has written about how the “yes, and” principle is akin to the open-ended questioning of inquiry-based learning. Just as negation ends an improv scene, in teaching, it shuts down the learning process. Oleniczak writes that this is “about saying, ‘Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better’ instead of ‘no, I have a better idea.'”

“Yes, and” is about co-creation and the scaffolding of knowledge; it moves you away from ingrained patterns of thoughts and behaviors and towards new, innovative ideas.

Conclusion

National Public Radio has been doing a series on play this month, with some fantastic pieces about the importance of play for adults. Play builds empathy, strengthens teams, keeps one’s mind sharp, and develops problem-solving skills. To an outsider watching a group do improv, it looks like a bunch of adults playing around like kids. And that’s exactly what it is; it’s play in a safe space with clear guidelines and shared principles.

I’d like to propose that these clear guidelines and shared principles practiced by improv players can inform museum professional practices and institutional cultures, enhancing our ability to connect and collaborate and making our institutions better places for staff and visitors alike.

 

For details on specific games you can play in your museum to foster creativity and collaboration, see my three-part post on improv games.

 

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Using improv games to warm up for user testing and prototyping: part 3 of 3

improv-games4
Image © 2012 Stanford d.school. That’s me in the purple sweater, right before I became the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournament champion of the d.school 2012 Design Thinking Bootcamp!

This is the third of three posts in which I share some of my favorite improv games to use with teams who are learning and using the design thinking process.

The first post covered improv games to kick-off a meeting or workshop, the second covered improv games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure, and this post considers improv games for warming up for user testing and prototyping.

Games to Warm-Up for User Testing

These two games help get team members into the mindset of user testing, which is about a user’s ideas and needs, not the ideas and needs of the person running the test. These games are great practice for resisting the natural urge to talk, overexplain, and apologize—something that happens even to the best of us when we hand over a rough, unfinished prototype to a user.

1) The Two-Minute Invention

This is based on a version of the game I learned from one of my favorite design thinkers, Molly Wilson. Pass out Post-it notes to everyone in the room and have them find a partner. Tell them they have one minute to make their partner an amazing invention with Post-its. The only material that can be used to make the invention is Post-its (no pen, tape, etc.). Explain to the group that after they make their invention, they will hand them to their partner without talking.

The partner receives the “invention” and respond enthusiastically, stating what he/she thinks it is and gushing about how it’s exactly what he/she needed. The maker has to refrain from “correcting” the recipient and explaining what it “really” is.

This game can be played seated around tables, or standing. I like to demo this game with a volunteer before asking people to play it. It’s fast and easy to demo, and serves as a jolt to get everyone’s attention.

2) I Got You a Gift

Have everyone stand up in a large circle. Tell everyone that there is an imaginary table in the center of the room piled high with gifts.

Pick someone to start off. He/she walks to the “table” and picks out a “gift” for the person on his or her left. The gift giver imagines the weight, texture, and shape of the gift and “endows” it with those qualities. The person receiving the gift has to “accept” the gift’s properties; that is, if someone is grunting and “carrying” something huge and heavy, the recipient has to accept the huge, heavy item.

The recipient then “opens” the gift and describes something consistent with the properties that the gift giver endowed onto the gift (heavy, light, hot, cold, etc.), followed by a hearty thank you. For example, if someone handed me a huge, heavy, imaginary box, I might open it and exclaim, “Wow, thank you, a Buddha statue for my garden! Just what I wanted!” The gift giver can’t correct the recipient and say what it “really” was.

Games to Get Energized for Prototyping

These are games I like to use when I need to get a team energized for a prototyping session. Prototyping takes a lot of stamina and energy, and these exercise help get people warmed up and in sync with each other.

1) Secret Handshake, Secret Code, Secret Dance Move

Ask everyone to stand up and start walking around the room. Yell “Stop” and tell people to turn to the person nearest them and partner up. Then give them 30 seconds to make up a secret handshake. Have them practice their secret handshake and tell them to remember it.

Then tell everyone to start walking around again, yell “Stop,” and have them find a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds make up a code word. Again, tell them to remember it.

Again, everyone walks around the room until you yell “Stop” and finds a new partner. This time they have 30 seconds to come up with a dance move.

Now have people walk around the room and mingle, and then tell them to run and find their handshake partner and do their handshake. Next have everyone find their code word partner. And lastly, have everyone find their dance move partner and do their dance move.

My favorite part about this game is that many hours or days later, people will still do their secret handshake, code word, or dance move when they see their partner.

2) Rock, Paper, Scissors Tournament

Starting in pairs, people play rock, paper, scissors. Make sure you demonstrate how you like to play (after three counts or “on three”). The winner moves on and the loser follows the winner, becoming his or her “biggest fan.” Just as with the failure bow, when someone loses, they react with enthusiasm. All the losers following their latest winner/champion, and in a couple of minutes, there should be only two people left playing against each other, with huge “crowds” of fans cheering them on.

Conclusion

The key to using any kind of game or warm-up in a meeting or workshop is to read the mood, energy, and vibe of the group, and be willing to change it up on-the-fly. If you try one of these and it’s not working, do the “failure bow” and move on.

 

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Using improv games to foster creativity and collaboration: part 1 of 3

Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr

I’ve been taking improvisational theater classes for years, mostly because I find them energizing and extremely fun, but also because I started noticing that the skills I was practicing in improv were helping me navigate challenging meetings and difficult team dynamics at work. More recently, I’ve begun incorporating improvisational theater games into my design thinking workshops.

Whether I’m trying to get a skeptical curator to unfold her arms and participate, or an indifferent designer to look up from his iPhone and share his ideas, I’ve become increasingly mindful about which games can be used to foster creativity, model collaboration, support shared inquiry, boost energy, and support the design thinking process.

This is the first of three posts in which I’ll share some of my favorite improv games; this post covers games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. The second post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

A general note about all the games I cover here and in subsequent posts is that it’s helpful to have a timer (one on your mobile phone is fine).

Games to Kick-Off a Meeting or Workshop

Everyone knows the feeling: you look out at the faces in the conference room, and you know that no one wants to be there. When this happens to me (and it does, even when I’m coming in as an outside consultant and the people in the room are there voluntarily!), I have the group play one of these games when we first come together. Even if I’m with a group of colleagues who know each other well, these are fun ways to get everyone out of their chairs, break the ice, get people talking—and, most importantly, signal that this gathering is going to be different from all the other endless meetings.

1) Three Things in Common in Three Minutes
In addition to being a great ice breaker that gets everyone looking up from their phones and engaged with each other, this game is also helpful to use before you do empathy interviews with users or visitors. It’s a nice way to warm up for a one-on-one conversation, and it helps people understand what it feels like to establish rapport quickly, which is critical when conducting user interviews.

Ask everyone to get a partner (preferably someone they don’t know well). Each pair has three minutes to discover three things they have in common. They can’t be obvious things one could discover without having a conversation (e.g. “We’re both in this conference room” or “We’re both wearing glasses”). The conversation has to go deeper.

After three minutes, call time and ask people to volunteer to share out something they learned. I’ve had colleagues who have worked together for years discover amazing connections, ranging from “We both have an adopted 11-year-old daughter from Guatemala” to “Our moms went to high school together in Detroit”! (Both are real examples!)

This game is usually done standing, but if it’s a particularly shy or reserved group, you can lower the stakes by letting people remain seated.

2) Come Over Here If…
This one is also a great ice breaker and it gets people out of their chairs and engaged with each other. Ask everyone to start walking around the room, and then, one-by-one, share something that is true for them and invite others who agree to join them. For example, I might shout out, “Come over here if your dream vacation is hiking in Patagonia” and a self-selected group of people will rush over to stand near me. As soon as they get into place, someone else will share out something new, and the group might rush away.

The idea is to get people sharing things out quickly so that everyone is moving around, but you don’t want the pace to be so frantic that no one can be heard. It’s meant to be fun and energizing, and also allows people to learn more about their colleagues. I always model examples that are not too personal, however, as this is meant to be appropriate for work!

3) You’re Awesome
This is a quick warm-up (that is not recommended for serious types in suits). Everyone finds a partner and stands facing him/her. They then high-five each other with both hands and say, “You’re Awesome!” as enthusiastically as possible. They keep high-fiving each other and saying “You’re Awesome” until you call time (10-20 seconds) and ask people to find another partner and do the same thing.

Yes, it’s silly, but seeing a museum director high-five a front-line employee and tell her she’s awesome (and vice versa) can make even the must determined curmudgeon smile.

Note: most of these are games I’ve learned from the talented improviser and teacher Rebecca Stockley, while others are courtesy of other fantastic teachers I’ve had at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Berkeley Rep School of Theater over the years.

Next:

Games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

 

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Getting out there: a bias towards action

Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr
Photo by Benjamin Ragheb on Flickr

“Your idea does not have to be perfect. If you censor your ideas and wait for perfection, you’ll never get out there.”

This sounds like something you might hear from a design thinker, but it’s something my improv teacher at Berkeley Rep said in class last night. We were playing a variation of the improv game “freeze tag” and people were holding back and waiting for the perfect, clever, funny, polished, inspired idea to strike. This meant that no one did anything. We all just stood there looking uncomfortable while the poor folks who had volunteered to start off  the game were on stage far too long.

Holding back and striving for perfection is how many museums and cultural institutions approach new digital projects. Months, or years, go by before we “get out there.” When I worked at SFMOMA, it took us three years, from first meeting to launch, to redesign our website. In those three years, web 2.0 exploded and the iPhone came out. A lot happened while we talked, had meetings, wrote lots of emails, and noodled away.

This is not to say that one should not aim for producing high-quality work. What I am advocating for is the design thinking mindset of a bias towards action. Design thinking, like improv, is about trying, experimenting, failing, and iterating. In design thinking, you develop an imperfect, unfinished prototype and put it in front of users. Like improv, design thinking encourages an impulse away from perfection and towards action. (Read more about design thinking in a museum.)

At the 2013 Museums and the Web conference in Portland, OR, the Cooper-Hewitt won a much-deserved Best of the Web award for the alpha release of their online collection database. In a blog post announcing the award, Seb Chan, the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, noted that the site’s experimental nature and early alpha release are the site’s defining qualities. Seb noted that these very qualities offer “something that shiny, polished, and ‘finished’ projects often don’t.”

Seb and his team dedicated their award to the memory of the Cooper-Hewitt’s fourth director Bill Moggridge, who, not coincidentally, was one of the founders of the innovation and design firm IDEO—a place that lives and breathes design thinking.

What if we could adopt this bias toward action and away from perfection in the digital work we do in museums? Instead of toiling for months or years on shiny, polished, and finished projects, we could develop imperfect prototypes, “get out there,” test and tweak them, and launch experimental and “early alpha” versions.

How could you adopt a bias towards action in your projects?