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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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Using improv to get past Covid-19 and create more relevant L&D

Improvisation should not be left to the comedians, actors and dancers of the world. It’s also a priceless tool for learning practitioners.

For years, L&D – painfully aware as it is of its need to change – has been trying to do what business thinker Clayton Christensen once crystallised as The Innovator’s Dilemma: trying to disrupt yourself from within without impacting your current business and customers.

Turns out that’s really hard. Maybe impossible. You know you can’t go on as you are, that what you are offering is great for now but won’t be forever… but doing so will cut off your own legs, at least for a while.

Well, now we’ve had enough disruption to suit anyone – the UK’s employment rates flipping from best to worst and the semi-tolerated exception of #WorkingFromHome becoming the norm are just two examples of the craziness caused from the phenomenon we call Covid-19. There are very few aspects of business, work, life and schooling that have not been disrupted in the short term and likely will never go back to where they were at the end of 2019. And that absolutely includes corporate learning.

I’m working directly with several organisations who are finding a way through the disruption; like a training company whose business model (in-person delivery) blew away in a puff of smoke overnight. This form of training is something we might not see come back until the end of 2021… if ever.

The company is doing stuff Clayton would be delighted to see, such as pivoting to online delivery and asking its clients to take a risk with innovative new approaches. And the good news is, enough clients are willing to try that it looks like it’s been saved from closing down.

Before you start thinking about interpretive dance or other bits of hand-waving, don’t worry. There’s real science here.

My challenge to the wider workplace learning community... 

Are you able to do the same? Can you take the perverse and awful chance offered by lockdown to be as creative and flexible in terms of changing what you’re doing, too? I think you can. 

Personally and professionally, I know this can be done, as I’ve used some tools and techniques I’m going to share with you right now, in the hope you go off and explore and play with them yourself. They worked for me, and I think they’ll help you and your team too in the context of leadership, communication and creativity.

They’re from a very interesting guy called Robert Poynton, who is both an academic teaching at the Said Business School at Oxford but who is also a trainer, facilitator and gadfly in his own right. At the core of his interventions is smart application, in a business and a learning context, of some of the practices of improvisational theatre.

Applying improv techniques in the business world

Before you start thinking about interpretive dance or other bits of hand-waving, don’t worry. There’s real science here. Like me, you probably thought the brilliance you see on Start The Week or Whose Line Is It Anyway? is all just down to the folks involved being really, really smart people. And that’s true –they are –but they’re actually ‘only’ using a set of techniques around thinking and collaboration that it turns out can be codified and applied in the business world too.

To be clear, I’m recommending that you teach improv practices to help brainstorming and innovation, and there are many organisations who do. The techniques Robert has decoded out of improv are a fantastic way to think about how we operate now to deal with the disruption. In any case, the heart of what Poynton’s telling us he sums up like this: Notice More, Use Everything, Let Go.

But how does this relate to L&D and how the profession is having to deal with corona while also re-tooling to help us navigate The Fourth Industrial Revolution?

L&D needs to notice more

Comics study everything. They’re super-receptive to things swirling around in culture and the news and re-use it. We can be the same, curious about the world around us and open to taking what’s helping and interesting and seeing if it can help deal with our problem.

What this means for us is that we need to be very aware of what is happening around us in terms of change in our industry and organisation, down to how our learners are responding to workplace learning experience changes. We also need to be paying attention to what’s happening in adjacent practices (software, neuroscience, data science) and among our peers in other L&D teams.  

In the L&D world, we have to get really good at letting go of how we were taught to do our practice in the past. 

L&D should use everything

I’ve learned this especially from my conversations with the humanitarian aid sector, where they just use what’s to hand and make it work. Don't feel constrained to just use what you know – be scrappy and get the job done by any means necessary.

You really shouldn’t feel like you need to invest in the most expensive LMS or LXP or mount the best corporate university: use what you already have! That approach is at the heart of experimentation and design thinking, and it's precisely the sort of agility that we're going to need in the new world of work. 

And we also need to start letting go

In improv, I hand over the thread of the story to you, my improv partner, and you take that story in a completely different direction. You might give it back to me, you might not, but I have to be ready to see it go, even if I’ve put a lot of work into it.

Be the same. In the L&D world, we have to get really good at letting go of how we were taught to do our practice in the past and your preference for only teaching communication skills person-to-person. You have to let go and use everything that's around you. For example, if you accept the fact face-to-face training is gone forever, you are liberated to think of the upside of that; less time spent on travel, less need to cram learning programmes into one offsite day (or multiple of days) for example. You are truly free to innovate.   

Summing up, I am convinced improvisation is the perfect mindset to have in times of incredible stress, where your old practices are not working anymore. Poynton tells us we have to ‘accept the offer’, and I agree.

We have to work with Covid-19… which has turned out to be the ideal disruptor we would never have had the courage to apply ourselves. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, after all. 

Want to find out more about using improv in learning?

Listen to this episode of Chris Pirie's ‘Learning Is The New Working’ podcast series in which he covers many of these themes with Robert Poynton directly. Readers of TrainingZone can also go here to get a free transcript of the interview.


Author Profile Picture
Chris Pirie

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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