Playful learning with Improv Prototyping

Liberating Structures are interaction patterns that allow everyone in a group to be unleashed and involved — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum. If you’d like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand, make sure to join one of our Immersion Workshops. Or join the Dutch User Group to practice with Liberating Structures in a safe-to-fail environment.

For most of us, ‘learning’ comes in a form that requires a lot of brainpower. We are expected to work on challenging cases, engage in complex discussions or reflect on our own behavior. This cognitive, knowledge-based type of learning is certainly useful. But it is also taxing and exhausting — you can’t do it all day. And some things you can’t learn through knowledge alone.

“The twist that this structure brings is that the person who introduced the scenario becomes the ‘director’ and the others become the ‘actors’”

The purpose of Improv Prototyping is to re-enact a challenging scenario faced by a group or an individual and work together to devise different behavioral strategies and interventions by acting it out. The twist that this structure brings is that the person who introduced the scenario becomes the ‘director’, while the others become the ‘actors’. This allows the director to playfully experiment with strategies, behaviors and interventions.

The emphasis here obviously lies on improvising; try new things together and discover and learn from what unfolds. Improv Prototyping actively engages groups to learn in other, less brainy ways. It invites people to learn by observing and by trying different behaviors in an improvised scenario. And its a whole lot of fun.

Impressions of Improv Prototyping, which are notoriously hard to capture. On the bottom-left, an example of one of the props we often use (an Oscar). Note the use of props in the various images.

How to facilitate Improv Prototyping

You can facilitate Liberating Structures in an infinite number of ways. Below are the steps we like to use, and that work for us. But certainly experiment with other steps to achieve the same goal.

  • Form groups of six to eight people;
  • Invite people to individually think of one challenge they are facing — either individually or as a group (2 min). Have people share the scenarios in their groups and pick the one that they feel is most suited for acting out in a short play (5 min);
  • Explain that the person who introduced the scenario becomes the Creative Director of the play. The others become Actors. Working together, they will enact the scenario of the Creative Director and explore different ways in which the story can unfold based on different decisions and different behaviors. It really is a bit like Star Trek with time travel :);
  • Working with the Actors, the Creative Director creates a rough script for a short play by deciding on roles, gathering props, offering lines and a devising a rough timeline (5–10 min);
  • Invite the Actors of the groups to start enacting the play (10–15 min). The Creative Director offers feedback, makes suggestions and offers (additional) lines as the actors progress through the scene. The Creative Director can start and stop the play as needed, or rewind and retry parts of the play. Encourage the groups to work together to try to come up with variations of behaviors, timelines, and dialogue to see what happens unfolds as the play unfolds. Expect a lot of laughter as teams playfully experiment with behavior;
  • Invite groups to reflect on what they learned from the play, first individually then in their groups. What did they notice? What surprised them? (5 min);
An example of Improv Prototyping to demonstrate how to improve a Sprint Planning where a Product Owner is actively ‘pushing’ work into the Sprint. Working together, the group identified strategies for the Scrum Master to use to keep ownership of the Sprint Backlog with the Development Team. Note that the audio isn’t of good quality, but we want to convey the fun and the involvement of participants.
We’ve used Improv Prototyping to let participants enact a personal fear and explore different coping strategies

Examples of how we’ve used Improv Prototyping

  • We’ve used it to let Scrum Masters act out significant challenges they face when working with Development Teams, and explore different strategies and behaviors;
  • In our Professional Scrum Master-classes, we’ve used it to let participants enact Scrum events ‘gone wrong’ — like a Daily Scrum that turns into a status meeting — and explore different behaviors and interventions;
  • During meetups, we’ve used Improv Prototyping to let participants enact a personal fear and explore different coping strategies;
  • You can use Improv Prototyping during Sprint Retrospectives to help teams find better ways to interact during, and outside of, the Scrum events. You could also use to explore pair/mob programming and swarming;

Combinations with other Liberating Structures

The true power of Liberating Structures lies in stringing them together, where the interaction naturally flows from one structure into the next. Below are some of the combinations we’ve made:

  • Lead-in to Improv Prototyping with a structure like Impromptu Networking or 25/10 Crowd Sourcing to help groups identify and select potential scenarios for re-enactment;
  • You can use 1–2–4-ALL during Improv Prototyping to gather more ideas about potential different strategies and behavior. When the group has played out the scenario, use 1–2–4-ALL to explore potential alternative strategies and proceed by playing them out;
  • Use Tiny Demons to first identify personal fears and anxieties, then invite participants to pick one of those and act them out. We once experienced a wonderful example where someone used their fear of flying as input for Improv Prototyping, and worked with the actors to identify strategies for dealing with that fear;
  • Use What, So What, Now What to debrief the results from Improv Prototyping and identify next steps;

Tips & ideas

  • The best Improv Prototyping happens when you stay close to a real challenge that a team or a person is facing. Invite groups to exaggerate, but remain grounded. This is also a wonderful opportunity for cathartic laughter. Then, explore different behavioral strategies together;
  • We love to bring props to Improv Prototyping. Think clapperboards for the Creative Directors, an Oscar statue to award to a seriously fun play, wigs, hats, glasses, and other props;
  • Sometimes, groups get stuck talking about their play rather than enacting it. Do your best to encourage teams to start acting as soon as possible and see what happens. It's a bit like Scrum; work incrementally;
  • Improv Prototyping requires a level of safety and comfort with each other that you usually don’t have at the start of a workshop, training or meeting. It's a good idea to create a safe environment by using other structures first;
  • Some people don’t like the roleplay that is an inherent part of Improv Prototyping. Other groups struggle to experiment with different behaviors. One thing we often do is invite one or two groups to share their scenario with the whole group. This allows others to learn from the structure as well;
  • It can be helpful to remind the group of the rules of Improv: “Make the other look great” and to “Yes, and” each others acting.

Closing

In this post, we’ve described the Liberating Structure Improv Prototyping. It's a structure that helps groups explore new behaviors for challenging scenarios they face, but in a way that relies more on improvisation and creativity than on knowledge and using your mind.

Interestingly, Improv Prototyping is also one of those structures that we held off doing for a while. We felt a bit uncomfortable with inviting to groups to participate in improv. But once we tried it, we saw how powerful it can be at helping individuals and groups overcome challenging scenarios. Give it a try!

Interested in joining an Immersion Workshop (again)? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. Or join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.