Team SitePoint Learns To Improvise

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Kev and Michael in the middle of an action/word gameOne of the recurring requests in the reader survey we ran a few weeks ago was for more info about what goes on behind the scenes at SitePoint.

Well, last Friday a group of eight employees from across each of the different teams at SitePoint attended an improvisation workshop. It was something quite different from the usual daily grind, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about the day.

Artistic Director of Impro Melbourne, Patti Stiles, ran an afternoon workshop where we were introduced to the principles of improvisation — acceptance, being positive, being in the moment, making your partner look good, embracing and removing fear, enjoying failure, and storytelling. (No, we’re not thinking of moving away from the Web and into the theatre — we were about to learn how the skill of improvisation can enhance a workplace environment and the group dynamic.)

The workshop was held in a room at the Abbotsford Convent, a stunning historic sandstone building built in the early 1800s — quite a contrast from the shiny new SitePoint offices.

The Foundations Of Improvisation

As a warm-up, we formed pairs and played word association games. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that listening to your partner, while at the same time coming up with an associated word and mimicking their actions is enough to make anyone’s brain fry. And this was just the warm-up.

Patti introduced some terminology used by improvisers — specifically the concepts of offers and blocks. An offer is a gesture or statement made by a fellow improviser, and it’s put out there for you to accept or reject. The key goal is to accept offers whenever possible, because:

  1. they give you material to work with, and
  2. it makes your partner look good.

A block, on the other hand, is the rejection of an offer — something improvisers generally try to avoid, for the exact opposite reasons:

  1. the story stops evolving, and
  2. the creator of the offer looks stupid

With this foundation, we were each prompted to tell stories in a number of situations — in pairs, in front of the whole group, one word at a time, one sentence at a time, by different genre… With an interesting mix of extroverts and introverts in the group, the entire session turned out to be an enormous amount of fun (my muscles at the back of my neck were actually sore from laughing so hard).

Yes, And I Disagree Completely

One other point that stuck with me was how much of a difference to a conversation a simple choice in language can make. The phrase “Yes, but…” is very effective at preventing a conversation from progressing, because it acts as a roadblock to idea generation and forces people to become defensive. By using the phrase “Yes, and…” it’s still possible to make your views known and communicate any issues you might have. It’s a small thing, but it really does make a difference.

Improvisation In The Workplace

The fundamental concept that Patti was trying to instill in us was that the fear of failure is a massive inhibitor. By creating a supportive group environment, people are going to be less afraid to fail, and therefore they’ll be more likely to let their ideas flow. In fact, our brain has no shortage of ideas, but we censor and filter most of them for all sorts of reasons.

Similar principles apply to meetings and presentations, whether you’re talking or listening. By being attentive, giving good eye contact, and smiling, your colleagues will naturally feel less stressed and will be less reluctant to voice ideas and issues without being worried about being mocked or shut down. Of course it takes two to tango, but even the world’s best improvisers can treat a block on stage as if it were an offer; likewise the world’s best businesspeople see every obstacle as an opportunity.

Team Building Is A Wank, Right?

When it comes to discussing ways of improving group dynamics and creating a positive workplace environment, there will always be skeptics. Granted, much of this is stuff that everyone knows, although it often requires someone to point it out to you for it to really take hold. I know there are times when I’ve been guilty of paying minimal attention in a meeting, or when I’ve been less receptive to someone’s random idea because I was in the middle of task that was due yesterday. For me, being made aware of the impact that body language and choice of language can have on the number of ideas to come out of a conversation made this workshop very worthwhile. Plus it was a lot of fun, and doing something fun with your workmates outside of work will always improve the dynamics of a team.

SitePoint is already a pretty fun and creative place to work. But if the attendees of last week’s workshop adopt some of these techniques to create an environment where people are unconcerned about failing, there’s no question it will become even more so.

There is one exception, however — there’s no way that the trash talking at the fußball table is going to let up. Bring that on.

Matthew MagainMatthew Magain
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Matthew Magain is a UX designer with over 15 years of experience creating exceptional digital experiences for companies such as IBM, Australia Post, and sitepoint.com. He is currently the Chief Doodler at Sketch Group, Co-founder of UX Mastery, and recently co-authored Everyday UX, an inspiring collection of interviews with some of the best UX Designers in the world. Matthew is also the creator of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

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