Improv: a way to

Hannah du Plessis
Feb 3, 2015 · 22 min read

design in uncertainty

by Hannah du Plessis

This talk was presented at Google’s offices in Pittsburgh, for a gathering of
UX Pittsburgh in December, 2014.

Good evening, everyone.

Like many of you here this evening, my background is in design. My first career was in interior architecture. I love design’s ability to see possibility. A designer can walk into a building that might be old, broken, and burnt, but it won’t take long to establish the strength of the remaining structure and sense its future possibility. And then, through a process of iteration, you can bring a whole new reality to life within that structure.

One of my favorite moments happened during a project to design a flagship store for a paint company. In my mind, I could see a very beautiful thing. But now it was 2am in the morning, the soft opening of the store was in seven hours, the space was swarming with people from various trades all working like crazy to meet the deadline. And unlike that beautiful picture in my mind, it looked like a total mess. I feared it was never going to work out, and in that state of fear I escaped for walk.

As I came back from that walk, I clearly remember taking the escalator up to the level where the shop was in progress. As it carried me up, the shop gradually slid into full view. My breath was taken away: finally, the image I held in my heart and the reality of the building matched. What I had dreamt was now a concrete reality. I could not have been more thrilled.

Though I still love the built environment, today I no longer dream about making awe-inspiring interiors. I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and the image I carry in my heart is one of more social well-being in our world.

Social design?
Six years ago I changed careers from interior architecture to something I don’t yet have a good name for! I teach in the field of “Design for Social Innovation,” and I work in a small consulting firm called Fit Associates. My colleague and I work with groups of people, like a non-profit organization and its board, for example. Or several departments in a large company who aren’t used to collaborating. Or the partners in a start-up. The thing all these have in common is that the people involved know something more is possible in their collaboration. We help them imagine the possibility they bring into the world and then support them on their journey of becoming a group of people capable of creating the change they want to see.

So the questions I work with are social in nature. They have to do with intention, with ways of working and relating that result in the best possible outcomes.

This work is very different for me than architecture. I am comfortable when I work with buildings. I can understand the world around me and affect it directly. I can bend the steel, bash out the wall, cut the carpet. I’ve never had a wall be angry at me for demolishing it or a window upset because I moved it.

Social complexity
But when I work with social complexity there is no way that I can fully understand the complexity of the system. I may think I do. I may make a neat diagram, and list attributes like distrust or misalignment. I may draw org charts with arrows going up and down. But a diagram will always be a simplification of the knotty reality. We can observe the actors in the system’s behavior, but behavior is an emergent quality. It is a tangle, a dance of people’s inner lives mingled up in relationships nuanced with power, conflict and so on — all of which is beyond my grasp to understand and affect directly. I can’t run a Photoshop filter over cynicism or order collective purpose from Amazon.

So I’m learning to work in a context that is beyond my current skill set. In the built environment you can be a great success if you are smart and you work very hard. But when you work in social complexity you are working with the human spirit, and that is beyond my grasp and means to control.

This work is more like hang-gliding. I’m working with something bigger than myself. The stance required is not to be the expert who knows, but to be the person who pays fierce attention to what is happening and what wants to happen, and who is willing to be moved by that.

Improv and uncertainty
That is where the title of this evening’s talk comes in: “Improv: a way to design in uncertainty.” Improvisation is a wonderful teacher that has helped me learn to create when things are uncertain, complex and unpredictable. Improvisation is a huge and diverse field, but tonight I am talking specifically about improvisational theater.

One way to put on a play is to get a script (say for example, one written by Shakespeare), cast roles, rehearse the scenes and then perform the play.

But improv has no script to guide the people on stage. The improvisers have no idea what they are going to perform. In place of a script, they have two things: a rough structure and a common belief. In their mind they have a predetermined structure for the show. For example, “In this show we will do a group opening, three scenes, and then close with a group scene.” And in their heart they carry the belief that they will be able to make something magical for and with the audience. They ask the audience for a suggestion, like a location or a topic for their play, and that becomes the spark for their story.

Tonight I’m going to speak about four ways in which improv helps me do my work.

  1. Firstly, improv absolves you of the responsibility to figure things out; instead, it asks you to trust the process.
  2. Secondly, improv encourages you to explore, take risks, and therefore fail.
  3. Thirdly, improv is at it’s best when it’s done within a caring group environment.
  4. And lastly, improv beckons you to become all of who you are.

I hope that you will be able to map these concepts and stories to your own world of design and development.

Choosing trust over control:
improv absolves you of the responsibility to figure things out and asks you to
trust the process

What happens in improv is a form of emergence, where something complex emerges because the individual actors each follow a few simple rules. Think of the seemingly miraculous way that flocks of starlings continuously unfold gorgeous constellations and patterns, not because there is central coordination, but because each bird adheres to a few simple rules: let me not crowd my neighbor, let me steer in the direction of the group, and be in sync with the average position of my neighbor. In improv we follow similar rules. For me they are:

a) Be present
b) Accept fully
c) Respond truthfully
d) Commit completely

The discomfort of the unknown
These may sound simple, but they are difficult qualities to learn! Of course there are moments when the improvisers are in agreement and the scene happens effortlessly. But there are many moments when things move out of your comfort zone. It can be really hard to accept what is happening. Let me give you a few examples.

  • I’m in a scene with a guy and he talks about a “jock.” I have no idea what a “jock” is. I know about Jockey underwear and I know about the short guy on a horse, but that’s it. I don’t think he’s talking about either one of those.
  • One Halloween, our group is excited to do a scary Halloween show. To start our play we ask the audience to give us an example of something that scares the living daylights out of them. I’m eager to get started, imagining suggestions like spiders, snakes, or zombies. What suggestion do we hear? “Commitment.”
  • I step forward to initiate a scene, and my first action is to squat down and reach for the ground. In my mind I am a golfer, squatting down to place my ball. Then in comes my partner and says, “Oh, you also got that awful diarrhea.”

What is happening is not what I want to have happen. I’m invested in a certain picture, and suddenly that picture is taken away from me. I feel uncomfortable, frustrated, fearful, vulnerable, out of control. My default reaction is to fall out of the moment and into the “should” compartment of my brain. “Oh shoot, I should know what a jock is.” “Ah shucks, it’s Halloween for crying in a bucket, not Valentine’s day! The audience should give us something better to work with!” Or “Darn it, Kate, you should pay attention; I’m putting down my ball, not taking a poop!”

When I feel the discomfort of being out of control, I want to bring things back to where I feel okay again. I’m tempted to pretend that I didn’t hear Pete talking about jocks, and just change the subject. I want to tell the audience they can do better and try for a new suggestion that better fits my picture. Or in the golf ball scene maybe I could tell Kate “Eh, if you’ll put on your glasses you’ll see that I’m getting ready to putt.”

Yet none of these seem like the smart option. Pete might feel unheard. The audience member might feel untrusted. And Kate could feel silly or angry for being made “wrong” in front of everyone.

The goal of improv is to construct a shared reality together. Saying “no” kills the creative story we are building. What is happening is happening, and when I resist what is going on I am pouring herbicide on the small creative sprouts that are tenderly sticking their noses out on stage. And mostly I am saying no because of my own inner discomfort — my fear of not knowing and looking dumb. Anaïs Nin nails it when she says, “It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar.”

Leaning into discomfort
So what is the alternative to reacting from fear and trying to control? The alternative is to embrace the number one maxim of improv: “YES, AND!” YES I acknowledge this, YES I agree to what is happening, YES I offer no resistance to what is happening right now. “YES! Jocks, those small uncomfortable things in spandex! YES! The horrid feeling of being locked down in a stifling relationship. YES! It’s those fried jalapeno chicken livers your mother made for us. I taste them all over again, just not with my mouth.”

By saying YES you are giving ideas the momentum they need to emerge. You are putting the story above your own comfort. You are learning to act from a place of trust, openness and curiosity. By saying yes, you are risking, you are consciously stepping into the unknown, you are moving into your fear instead of away from it. It can feel counter-intuitive and very scary. But on the other side of fear you discover worlds you could never imagine had you stayed safely moored in your harbor.

How does this translate into my work?

In work, as in improv, I often bump into situations that do not match my idea of how things should be. My tendency is to bring judgment to those situations. “That client shouldn’t be so anxious. Those people shouldn’t be so tuned out. I should be more open and engaged.” But by slapping a label onto what’s happening I am distancing myself from reality and its potential.

I am learning to say “YES” to what is, even if it is really uncomfortable. I’m learning to say yes to anger, yes to anxiousness, disengagement, disappointment, distrust and all the rest. By welcoming these things as part of “what is” and accepting the moment, I move out of internal resistance and narrow judgment and I’m able to open myself to the possibility the moment contains.

Trusting the process
Let me illustrate. I was facilitating a client workshop. With my colleague Marc, I had designed an activity to yield results that would set the stage for the following activity. But in the course of the workshop, Activity One did not produce the desired results. Oy. We can’t move on to Activity Two. So here I stand in front of a group of wide-eyed engineers, all staring at me. And I’m staring back with no clue about what to do next. As expected, my mind jumps onto its should-should train. “You should have designed this differently, we should have started this earlier, they should have worked more carefully….”

“Wait a moment,” I say to my mind, “What would I do if I were on stage? What has improv taught me?” I coach myself: “Hannah, get back to the present.” I take two deep breaths and connect with my body. Now that I can pay attention, I notice we are in a dialogue dynamic that places me in the center, and I have a marker in my hand. “Now, accept.” So I say to myself, “Okay, here we are in awkward silence. I accept this.” “Now respond truthfully.” Even though there are a thousand things I don’t know to do at this moment, one thought comes to me. “Why don’t I ask them what they are thinking and write it down?” So I say yes to that idea, invite the group to offer thoughts about the situation, and simply capture their words on the white board. And soon enough the conversation gains enough traction for us to move toward the next activity. Phew!

In my role as a design expert I feel a pang of shame when I don’t know something. As an expert I task myself to be the reliable and stable source of knowledge and direction. I am so used to “figuring things out,” to planning things so that I “know.” But I’m learning something different here. I’m learning that there is no shame in not knowing, because what we are creating is beyond the individual knowledge of any single person. My job is to, as Rilke puts it, “have patience with the unresolved and love the question[1].” It’s less about figuring things out or inventing cool ideas, and all about paying attention, surrendering to what is and trusting the process to help me discover the next step, and then the next, and then the next.

Here is a window into a rehearsal. Michael Gellman, a legend in the improv world, is coaching a student of his. The student is in her head, trying to figure out the scene. She says, “I’m nervous if I don’t know where the scene is going.”

Gellman responds, “Kristin, you are hereby no longer responsible for taking care of the stories in your scenes. You are released from your obligation.” Kristin laughs. She seems genuinely relieved. “All of you,” Gellman said, “You are not responsible for the product. Only the process. Improvise moment to moment to moment and the play will take care of itself.” [2]

Improv encourages you to explore,
take risks, and therefore fail

I am failure-adverse. I was trained to be practically perfect in every way. My father is of German descent, was trained as an engineer, and worked in the military. I can plan and manage the living giblets out of life. I love it when a plan comes together, and I die slowly and painfully when I perceive myself as falling short or failing. I am studying improv partly because risking myself is stupendously hard for me. Yet taking risks and failing is the bridge I need to cross, over and over again, if I want to continue into the new and uncharted territory of my professional life.

The word “improvisation” comes from a Latin root that means “unforeseen.” At its heart, improv asks you to react with creativity to the unforeseen elements that each moment brings to you. You are a pioneer without a map. There is no script to guide you. Sometimes your ship sails smoothly: you risk saying or doing something you wouldn’t usually say or do, and it works! You feel great, and your team and audience love it too.

Then there are times when you try something and it sucks! It just doesn’t work. You run on stage and trip in front of everyone, you forget the prompt the audience gave you, you burst out in song and it sounds like dog droppings, you feel stuck and at a loss for words while perspiration tickles down your head. Yet having dud scenes or making poor choices is part of being a pioneer who is continually responding to the unknown. Mistakes are inevitable! How else do you learn except by engaging?

Befriending failure
Improv is teaching me to reframe failure. In the moment when “that thing happens” I have a choice. I can see it as failure and try to ignore it, or I can see all error as architecture. In improv, nothing is a mistake until you make it one. Someone falls on the stage? Let me trip over that same thing, and now we have a story, not a mistake. I stumble on my words? Let me do that again and now I have a speech impediment.

A tiny part of my brain has begun to inhabit a world of possibility where any mistake is really a gift. I look forward to a time when my default setting is “Yes and…” for all that life brings. But, alas, I am a super slow learner. Ed Catmull, the man who cultivates Pixar’s creative culture, argues that even though “embracing failure is an important part of learning, …acknowledging this truth is not enough.” We also need to admit that failure is painful. [3]

Backstage before a performance is always a curious place to be in. People are jumping around, breathing, shouting, singing, moving. In the midst of such a such a busy scene, one of my fellow improvisers is sitting very calmly. I ask her, “Amber, aren’t you nervous?” She slowly looks up. “No,” she says. “It’s not the fear beforehand that I struggle with. It’s being angry at myself afterwards for all the things I didn’t do or could have done.”

When I make a mistake or see the many ways in which I could have done it better — on or off stage — my usual habit is still to freeze with guilt or shame. I stand perfectly still while my inner critic tars and feathers the daring part of myself. But this inner hell helps no one. When I feel myself spiraling down, I remember the words of one of my teachers who would shrug and say, “Just poop it out.” The improvisation community commits to movement: to consciously letting things go, coming back to the present and focusing on the next thing.

Repeated failure is teaching me not only to lighten up and let things go but also to learn self-compassion, self-kindness and self-forgiveness. I’m having to rebuild my relationship with myself and with life when it comes to those moments where what I want and what happens are out of sync. I am learning to accept that, as poet Antonio Machado says, the golden bees [of life] “can make white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.” [4]

How this relates to Design

If I look at what is happening in the Design world at the moment, there is a call for designers to move beyond the belief that apps and technology can solve things, beyond our service to business questions and bottom lines, and to engage in questions too big for any individual to answer. This can be seen in things like “design for social innovation,” “design for good,” and “transition design.” We all resonate with the promise to design a thriving, life-affirming future.

This is not easy work. It is new territory and, as I’ve just said, we will fail repeatedly on our journey to learn how to engender a life-positive world. I certainly have made many blunders this year as I’ve tried new approaches and put myself in unfamiliar territory. Yet I find this choice-point interesting. I can choose to avoid the pain of failure by not risking myself, by avoiding or belittling the situations or people that make me uncomfortable. But that doesn’t make for a good scene, nor for a good life, nor for a better world. Allowing myself to risk and sometimes break gives life the opportunity to knead courage, confidence and trust into me — the very things required of a human being to engage in the work of co-creating a better world.

Improv is at it’s best when it’s done within a caring group environment

Improv is vulnerable work. You are going out on a limb, and you trust that your team will be there for you. Let’s take a moment to unpack trust. Brene Brown gives us a nice image. She says that trust is built one marble at a time[5]. When a group first comes together, trust is not there yet. It is built one interaction at a time. One person says, “This is what I think or feel,” and another responds by saying “I see that, I hear you, you matter, let’s work it out.” In the simple interaction of one person becoming visible, reciprocated by the attention and respect of another, a marble is exchanged. And many honest and caring interactions like this build up the marble jar of trust. When the marble jar tips over — which will inevitably happen because conflict and misunderstanding is part of growth — one needs to attend to it. Ignoring the tipped jar makes for broken trust. Acknowledging the incident and making amends helps us not only build trust but also deepen our understanding of one another.

The best teams I’ve worked on consciously cultivate trust. Before we go on stage, we give each other a pat and say, “I’ve got your back,” meaning I’m there for you, you can count on me. When we go on stage we are aware of each other, we maintain eye contact, we pick up where someone might have dropped an idea, we fill the space to make a good stage picture. We care consciously for the whole because we know that we are co-creating something beautiful. The scene is everyone’s responsibility. If it needs energy, let me bring it. If it needs direction, how can I give it some?

But we all know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Performing into the unknown feels like a bunch of blindfolded chefs cooking an omelette together over high heat while a crowd of people watches. Someone is going to step on toes, poke your ribs, drop an egg, spill hot oil. And as habit would have it, in rolls the “should-should” train, carrying the impulse to blame our scene partners. But just as an inner story of blame is unproductive, so is a group culture of shame and blame. It helps no one if I keep a grudge. It hurts our group morale if I go and talk about my teammate behind his or her back. It breaks trust when I lash out at my fellow players, criticizing their poor choices or prancing around with a sullen look of, “You should have….”

We don’t blame, because we are all responsible to co-create and we make room for error and learning by offering our unconditional support and honest feedback. When we come off stage we get together and debrief. We talk about what happened. We acknowledge what worked and what didn’t. We talk about how those things made us feel. We acknowledge the good and set out to work on areas that need improvement so we can be better together next time.

We also shape our feedback by what we need. Not long ago a new team member said, “You know, being on stage is really difficult for me. When I get backstage and I hear where I could have done things better, it just kills me. Could you, for the next six weeks, please just focus on the things I did well so my confidence can catch up with me?” And as a group we say yes, your growth is our best interest; for the next season we will keep telling you what you’ve done well!

Mapping this to design

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a group of managers about cultivating innovation and creativity in the workplace. I used the word “love.” They moved away like a wave pulling back into the sea and said, “No, we can’t use the word ‘love’ in the business environment.” But I am not so sure that is true. If we take the best hours of a person’s life and ask them to get out of their comfort zone and risk so much, in equal measure we need to create the safety net to catch them when they don’t succeed. And that net is not lined with incentives or strategies, it is lined with soft things like vulnerability, trust, love, mercy for what we’ve done and acceptance for who we are becoming.

Sometimes I wish I could use a syringe to extract the good team culture that lives in many corners of The Arts, and inject it into industry. In so much of industry we expect performance, yet fail to support the human. Why would we risk ourselves if we could be rejected and judged for the outcome? How can we be creative if we are not allowed to experiment, play and sometimes fail? How can I bring my whole self to work if I can’t trust you to really see and hear me?

Improv beckons you to become
all of who you are

Jealousy is one of the forces that motivated me to study improv. My German dad, man. When I moved to Pittsburgh, my neighbor called me “Mary Poppins.” He would tease me in a British accent, chirping, “She is practically perfect in every way.” And that framed a desire I secretly strived for: to be good, to be right, to be appropriate, to fit in. But this desire for perfection is crippling. On stage I would see people who don’t give a dog’s paw about what other people think of them. They would willingly unleash their creativity and imagination and goof off into strange characters, inappropriate territory, and create joyful, happy, wonderful adventures for themselves and their audiences. It was so refreshing for me to see people at home with who they are and willing to be all of themselves.

I find it difficult to be seen, period. I’m not someone that laps up the limelight. I enjoy being with you this evening, but I also can’t wait to get home and sew. I think I’ve made nine tweets in my entire life and I’ve barely gotten on FaceBook. Yet I bring value and interest to the world, and I want to play with and participate in life. Being open and being seen by others is something I am learning to cultivate by showing up, on stage, week after week after week.

I am learning to be okay with who I am. During one of my first musical improv practices, the pianist was playing and I started to sing. My sister sang opera, so I pretty much know when something sounds good. The song I sang sounded absolutely, 100% and without any doubt, horrible. I was off key, out of beat like the noise of metal scraping on the road. One thing you don’t ever do in improve is to “break the bubble.” You always carry on until the scene ends. But this was so bad that I stopped mid-song, soaked in embarrassment. I looked at the instructor. She was smiling and casually said, “That’s ok, carry on.” And I found I could.

Those moments in which you think, “Oh geez that is stupid; by golly, I shouldn’t have said that,” only to have nothing but acceptance mirrored back by the people around you: it is those moments that transform the beliefs we have about ourselves. The beliefs that we are somehow not worthy, that what we do isn’t good enough, were socially constructed by our peers, our families, our schools. And it is also socially deconstructed when we are able to risk being ourselves and then accepted for that.

Once we can own our worth, we can give that same gift to others. My work brings me together with people from all walks of life. CEOs, secretaries, and neighbors. All of them are the stuff of life. They are the materials — the wood, the steel, the glass, the walls — that makes this beautiful whole. Coming from a place of worthiness where I can tell them, “You are important, you are valuable and I am so glad you’re here to create this with us, we need you here,” is an amazing stance and gift that I can give once my own well has some water in it.

In closing

Here is the biggest gift that improv is giving me: a migration from a worldview of control to a mindset characterized by participation and trust. Del Close, an improv master, compares improvisation to walking into a room backwards: everything is already here, we just need to discover it. I am learning to trust that there is goodness in the world, that there is a future that can be resilient and life-affirming for everyone and everything, and that we can collectively bring that future to life. Our job is not to figure it all out, then get it done. I believe our job is to lean into the emerging future, to be present to what wants to happen, to be kind and generous to each other and courageously engage moment by moment by moment. And the scene will take care of itself.

Thank you so much.

About the author
Hannah is principal at Fit Associates, a small consultancy supporting groups of people to create their better future together. Hannah teaches “Design for Social Innovation” at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and “Creating in Social Complexity” at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design. Hannah is part of Pittsburgh’s theatre and dance improv scene; she currently performs with Arcade Comedy Theatre’s musical improv team, the High Scores. She wishes to thank the rich improv scene in Pittsburgh including Unplanned Comedy, Steel City Improv Theatre, The Pillow Project and of course Arcade Comedy Theatre.


[1] Here is the full quote: “I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Rilke

[2] From the book, Process an improviser’s journey by Mary Scruggs and Michael J. Gellman

[3] From the book, Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull

[4] From the poem, “Last night as I was sleeping,” by Antonio Machado

[5] From the book, Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown

    Hannah du Plessis

    Written by

    Small body made in Africa. Medium life experience in leadership, art and design. Large drive to cultivate healthy creative cultures. Principal, Fit Associates.

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