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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 for brainstorming and embracing failure: part 2 of 3

improv-games2
Photo by Uniondocs / Flickr


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

The first post covered games to kick-off a meeting or workshop. This post covers games for warming up for brainstorming and embracing failure.

Games for Warming-up for Brainstorming

One of the key tenets of improvisational theater—saying “Yes, and!” to the ideas or “offers” your partner gives you —has a profound impact on the creative process. I use these games to demonstrate the power of building on the ideas of your colleagues, which is essential to the collaborative nature of design thinking. By consciously saying “Yes, and” to each other, players experience how much farther a group gets when the members support each other and build on each other’s ideas.

1) Remember Mexico (also called Shared Memory)
Ask everyone to walk around the room, then call stop and tell people to find a partner. Now ask the group to pick a location for a fictional trip. Working with a partner, everyone has to “reminisce” about the trip they took together to that fictional location by responding to everything their partner says with, “Yes, and, remember when …”

Here’s an example of how it might go:

Me: “Hey, remember that time we took that trip to Mexico?”
Partner: “Yes, and, remember how we ended up on that deserted beach?”
Me: “Yes, and, remember how we found a treasure chest buried in the sand?”
Partner: “Yes, and remember that is was full of gold coins?”
etc.

Let the pairs reminisce about their shared memory for two minutes, and then call time. Ask for volunteers to share out the last line they spoke. Often the last lines are hilarious, and no two last lines are alike.

Debrief with the group how it felt to say “Yes, and” to everything. Point out to the group that everyone started with the same fictional locale, but the groups ended up with wildly different stories.

2) Let’s plan a party

This is similar to Remember Mexico, but it can be played in larger groups (teams of three to six). Have people get into teams. Tell them they are going to plan a work party, and ask them for suggestions for the kind of party they want to plan (e.g., holiday party, exhibition opening, product launch party, etc.). Agree on what type of party they will be planning.

Tell the teams that the only rule is that every time someone throws out an idea, the others in the group should respond with “Yes, but.” After throwing out a “Yes, but,” the team member should come up with reasons the idea will never work. Let the groups go on for three minutes, shooting down each other’s ideas.

Call time and then ask the groups to repeat their party planning, but now they must respond to every idea with “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but.” Let them go on for three minutes again.

After the second round, be sure to do a debrief and ask how the first round was different from the second round. How was the energy? What was the difference? How did the parties from round 1 compare with those from round 2? (Hint: most groups never get very far with their party planning in round 1.)

Games for Embracing Failure

1) The Failure Bow (or Circus Bow)
I use this game to establish and demonstrate that in the design thinking process, we will have a new relationship to the notion of “failure.” When we are taking risks and pushing ourselves to build new skills, we often fail. But these “failures” often take us places we never might have reached if we hadn’t spoken up, asked a question, or tried something new. And this is worthy of celebration!

The most basic way to teach the Failure Bow is to ask people to practice throwing their arms in the air and yelling “Woo hoo! I failed!” We then spend a minute walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, and booming with great enthusiasm, “Woo hoo! I failed!”

Another variation is to ask for volunteers to come up in front of the group, one at a time. The volunteer in front of the group says “I failed!” and shares a light-hearted failure, and the group gives them an over-the-top, rousing reception of cheers and woo-hoos, celebrating the “failure.”

Examples of a failure might be, “I drove to work with my coffee cup on the roof of my car today!” or “I let my kid eat ice cream for dinner!” The person on stage takes an exaggerated bow and basks in the glow of the celebration of his/her “failure.”

The point of this is to experience what it feels like to celebrate failure. The game finishes when all the volunteers willing to share their “failures” have gone.

2) Group Counting
Have everyone stand in a circle. The goal is to count as high as you can get, starting at the number one, one person at a time. Anyone in the circle can shout out the next number. The trick is that if more than one person says a number at the same time, you have to start over again.

Instead of groaning when someone “messes up” and the group has to start over, everyone yells “Woo hoo! We failed!” and happily starts over.

Next:

Games for user testing and prototyping.

 

 

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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?