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“Yes, and …” (or how a simple speaking trick can boost creativity)

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„There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain. There are far more ‘No’ sayers around than ‘Yes’ sayers, but you can train one type to behave like the other” (Keith Johnstone).

Playing on stage as a theatrical improviser, I got the first hand experience of what integral creativity might look like. Back then I used to get stuck sometimes in fears, in egotistic assumptions or in not listening enough what other actors were playing and saying. It is the same, sometimes with corporates dealing with innovation.

There are several rules at work when improvising. The key one is maybe to say „yes” to everything; not blocking any of other actors’ intentions, moves, lines. When you reach this ability, the performance reaches new heights of excellence as each step is directed towards exploration, opens up new possibilities. By saying “yes” you co-create a space of common acting, leave space for everyone to contribute equally and wait for inspiration to emerge collectively from the group of actors. “The improviser has to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination” (Johnstone).

The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural. And an important change of mindset is involved here; when an actor (someone) concentrates on making the thing he gives interesting, each actor seems in competition while when they concentrate on making the gift they receiveinteresting, then they generate warmth between them.

The second real challenge is to really listen; not just hear, but listen. We do not really exert our full capacity of listening or seeing, or tasting or feeling or smelling the world as a territory but through our filters and maps. Listening at this level presupposes that you let your senses at the “raw” level and force your inner voice in your mind be quiet and silent. Listening at this level takes you back and forth from your shoes into the other’s boots and pushes you to act as being one with the other. This is “collaborative emergence” (not at all “competitive emergence”). “When you listen, you become a hallway — a passive, receptive uterus. You become feminine” (Osho). Hence the yin/ yang explanations of creativity.

Improv theater function on the bases of “complex theory” or “fractal evolution”. Emergentists argue that there are several natural laws working within the body of any natural system. One is unpredictability; you may see it in ants life and also in improv. No single ant, no single actor may know the next “move” or the final outcome of a group action. And still, there is always an outcome, better than any individually foreseen one and fulfilling everyone. Another law is that the produce of an “emergent” work is not reducible to any of its components or actors. You can not decipher the real initiator of the outcome nor you can deduct from the outcome anything about the players.

Another law is that the framework establishes itself from the collective work; ants or improv actors set up the main “physics” of the space they themselves co-created. In a sense, is what holacratic evolutionary companies experience; the whole working space and rules are settled by permanent co-creation. Thus, each and every single actor is an “associate” of the play or work he contributed to; hence, the self-awareness and own full responsibility. This law is usually called “inter-subjectivity”: it is like defining a marriage as “me, you and our relationship” not just “me” and “you”. “Our relationship” becomes a character in itself. Overlapping subjective understanding in a common work or play generates common beneficial results.

John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematicians in the history with grand contributions in all the related fields (quantum physics, genetics, topology, informatics, etc.), was the first to suggest that for complex systems (as jazz or theater improvisation, or creativity or life in itself), the simplest description might be its simulation. This means that you can not describe and predict creativity or the innovation outcome of a group of people by describing its components but only by letting them act.

A simple case of an improvisation game would be like this: four actors in a row in front of an audience. They receive from audience a “title of an unwritten yet story” that they have to tell. A fifth actor will conduct the performance by indicating from time to time which actor has to be the storyteller. Each time the storyteller changes, he has to take over the story from where the former actor conducted it and also to take into consideration and reincorporate everything was being said before by the other actors. What emerges from here are always creative hilarious or dramatic memorable stories, as each actor has his own personality but is also trained to listen deeply and say “yes” and not block any crazy idea before said.

Let’s have an example of such a story.

Actor 1: “A bear chases Dan through the forest. He escapes the bear by rowing across to an island”

Actor 2: “Inside a hut on the island is a beautiful girl bathing in a wooden tub”

Actor 3: “Dan is making passionate love to her when he happens to glance through the window. The bear is rowing across in a second boat”

Actor 4: “The girl sees the bear too and she screams “My Lover!”.

Actor 1: “She hides Dan under the bed. The bear enters the hut, unzips his skin and emerges as a gray old man who makes love to the girl”

Actor 3: “Dan creeps out of the hut taking the skin with him so that the old man can’t change back into a bear”

Actor 2: “Dan runs down to the shore and rows back to the mainland …”

Actor 4: “… towing the second boat behind him. Then he sees the old man …”

Actor 1: “… paddling after him in the tub”

Actor 2: “The old man seems incredibly strong and Dan feels there is no escape from the guy”

Actor 4: “Dan pulls the bearskin around himself and waits for the old man among the trees”

Actor 3: “Dan becomes a bear and tears the old man to pieces. He then rows back to the island and finds …”

Actor 1: “…the girl has vanished. The hut has become very old and the roof is sagging in, and trees that were young saplings…”

Actor 2: “…are now very tall.”

Actor 4: “Then Dan tries to remove the bearskin and finds…”

Actor 3: “…it is sealed up around him”.

(adaptation of a story mentioned by Keith Johnstone).

Improv checks in all the four corners of the AQAL integral creativity framework: own imagination and beliefs (UL) of each player, few rules as instruments of creativity (UR) — listening, do not block, keep your status or character — , collective emergence (LL) and a clear framework of a game setting (LR) — the rules of each game itself — , everything nurtured by the watering belief that “I and we together may create something novel”. And this kind of performance is never-ending, same as creativity. (You may learn a lot on integral innovation in business from my book, “The Leadership Spark”). The interest to the audience lies in their admiration for the way the actors work with each other. “We so seldom see people working together with such joy and precision” (Keith Johnstone). It is the same for the holacracy organized companies.

You can imagine now how Zappos employees felt when first faced these challenging new mindsets, after holacracy system (or a variant of it) got implemented in the company; to be able not only to express your ego and also to keep it in check, to affirm your identity and also to embrace other’s is the ultimate expression of embracing your whole self, both feminine and masculine, is to let yourself be guided by a new understanding of life, a more peaceful and fruitful one.

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