Radical change: less big thinking, more small actions

“We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.” Seymour Papert

Joshua Menheere

Many of us are starting 2018 with calls for change. We are all supposed to be more agile, embrace design thinking, and show more empathy… as well as get into alignment with organisational goals and, almost inevitably, finding ways to “do more with less”. We may agree with all these aims, but just below the surface lies change fatigue.

Under this stress, we all tend to try to think our way to solutions. We’re in cognitive overload, with more powerpoints to read and project plans to write than we seem to have time for.

But what if “understanding the problem” is preventing us from discovering new ways forward?

Take for example, the global design, advertising and research company, WPP. This is the advice WPP’s consulting arm published in January 2018: “Change is more fundamental, much faster and less forgiving. Conventional rules of growth no longer work.” Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, is the longest-serving CEO of any company featured in the U.K.’s FTSE 100 Index. You might think WPP’s expert analysis and years of experience would allow it to forge ahead.

Yet WPP lowered its growth forecasts three times in 2017 and The Guardian noted insiders in WPP were wanting something “more radical” from Sorrell in response to their own changing environment.

Which begs the question: what would a really radical change to this mindset be?

Acting over thinking

Perhaps the key to radical change lies in leadership research conducted by Herminia Ibarra at Insead Business School. She argues the most effective way to change is through action, not analysis, and by learning from experience rather than introspection. Change happens from the outside in; by first acting like a leader and then thinking like one. This defies standard leadership development guidance, which encourages deep self-reflection into strengths and weaknesses.

Agile, design and business practitioners have raided the improv cupboard, leading to “yes, and…” exercises accompanying the flurry of post-its in workshops across the globe. Yet there is much more to gain from improvisational theatre than energisers and warm ups. Compared with design or software, theatre has the group experience at the heart of its practice. And, crucially, theatre is concerned with physical movement, the embodiment of action.

Questions that improvisational theatre has possible answers for include:

How do we raise the performance of creative teams?

How do we form and shape ensembles?

How do we shift the status of different people within a group?

The subtle art of side-coaching

Viola Spolin ran the Young Actors Company in Hollywood, and was Director of Workshops at The Second City. Her book Improvisation for the Theater transformed American theatre and revolutionised the way acting is taught, taking acting skills and techniques into games. If a student was struggling to understand she would famously say, “Let’s play another game.” A subtle yet essential element in Viola Spolin’s practice was sidecoaching which is both an art and a skill.

David Matthew Prior has developed a coaching approach that some consider a radical act because it is built on ‘less is more’ in terms of how the coach communicates and relates to the client. It is called 3 Word Coach, which owes its provenance to Keith Johnstone’s work in the improvisational theatre. One person is the coach and their instructions are to only respond to the coachee throughout the coaching conversation with three words — no more, no less. The words can be varied, with some that form complete, short sentences, and others could arise as strings of verbal encouragement. For example, the Coach might say, at different response intervals in the coaching conversation: “You want what?” “Tell me more.” “Ahhh. Right. Yes.” The coachee is fully supported to express him/herself by being given more space to process further, go deeper and get to the essence of thoughts, feelings, insights and actions. As facilitator Chris Corrigan explained, “The most beautiful thing about the process was that I played a back-seat role, and didn’t get in the way of the work. I only intervened in really small ways, and mostly said… “How are we?” ; “Ok, what next?” ; “Who else can?”

Perhaps the deeper lesson here is that the most radical acts are deceptively small and intimate. Less about “driving change”, less about arguing and trying to motivate. More about paying real attention in a time-starved world? What might this look like? How might we experiment with new forms with groups both inside and outside organisations? Radical Acts in Melbourne is an event where a small ensemble of people from across Australasia will collectively explore what improvisational theatre can teach us about radical versus conventional responses to those challenges of agility, design, and empathy. Because — “The most powerful form of learning is through action” @jhagel