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Creative Thinking Management

How to Boost the Improvisation Skills of Your Employees

Employees are more creative when left to their intuitive and improvised cognition

Have you ever attended an improv show? In this kind of scene, the actors are forced to invent a character on the spot, without even having a second to predict what will happen next. It’s as if their decisions and actions come together without the need for previous reflections.

Well, according to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, these instantaneous cognitive acts are not due to mysterious intuitive abilities but to simple rules that every actor must follow. Refraining from blocking their partner’s suggestions, actors seek to always reinforce the narratives at play on the stage. This leads to the creation of “a collective cognition” that acts and makes decisions without the intervention of a hierarchy.

This shared intelligence can also be applied to the way in which employees are managed in an organization. By giving employees initiative, reducing their information load, allowing them to act without justification, and bypassing the chains of decisions, you foster their creative abilities to improvise.

These four ways of freeing your employees’ cognitive load will boost their productivity and their capacity for innovation. Let me introduce them to you.

Openly encouraging their initiative

When Keith Johnston instituted the principles of improvisational practice, he based it on the idea of acceptance.

Anything that one actor suggests to another as a condition or action must be accepted, and even reinforced by the actor in his or her performance. If he refuses, he interrupts the transmission and creation of the collective idea that allows the continuous improvisational play. Thus, by asserting his partner’s suggestions for play, the actors’ creativity comes out of an exaggeration and a permanent force of proposal in relation to the scenic elements (characters, objects, sets), until the last twist.

This attitude can also be applied to management. When the Pentagon ordered a war experiment in real conditions for (the Millenium challenge), it had two teams confront each other with all possible means.

The blue team represented the United States military forces. The Red Team represented the opposing team and was led by Lieutenant General Van Riper.

Throughout the battles, the red team gradually differentiated itself by its great flexibility and speed of attack. Not using satellite and telephone communications, they relied solely on motorcycle messengers and light signals to communicate. Instead of waiting for precise information, they sent sentinel boats to frame the terrain and defend the territories.

Van Riper’s belief was that by letting the troops move and have as much initiative as possible, they were more responsive to circumstances and deploy effective strategies on their own.

His philosophy of war favored the improvisation of actors, rapid cognition, and quick adaptation to circumstances. That helped him win decisive victories over the Blue team.

Giving them less info to process

You may have been in this situation before: you are in the office thinking about a decision for your company. At that moment, all your colleagues send you their ideas and advice by email. But the more information you receive, the more complicated your decision becomes and prevents you from thinking for yourself.

The same can happen when employees are forced to act while being overwhelmed by information. This makes their decision-making skills more confused.

This is what happened to the doctor at the Cook County Hospital over and over again. Seeing the influx of patients who might have serious heart problems, they had no clear criteria to sort them out. Instead of basing their decision on essential factors, they would accumulate as much knowledge as possible about the patient’s conditions (blood pressure, age, stress, weight, lifestyle) to make their decision.

This confusion in their choice led to random diagnoses, that based more on their personal knowledge than on the real risks of the patient.

To counter that, the idea of Goldman’s algorithm was to synthesize patients’ conditions into an index of aggravating factors (such as the history of diabetes or previous heart problems). This new index enabled doctors to predict severe cases with 70% more accuracy.

In the same way, make communications with your team as synthetic as possible so they can do their job independently.

Trusting their skills

One of the obstacles that reduce the cognitive potential of the people who work for you is to ask them for permanent justifications.

By pushing them to rationalize, you interrupt their actions and prevent them from diving into their work. You reduce the flow they experience in their task. Sometimes at the cost of a project or even a life.

This is what the commander of a fire brigade that Gary Klein, the famous expert in decision-making, interviewed in his book, almost experienced.

On one mission, the commander and his team faced a burning house in a Cleveland neighborhood. Destroying the door, they broke into the house, and began to put out the fire in the kitchen with their water hose.

But despite their best efforts, the fire continued to feed on the kitchen floor. Sensing that something was wrong, the commander immediately ordered his troops to leave the house. Within moments, the floor collapsed, revealing the fire hidden in the basement.

This incredible intuition could not have saved their lives if the team had had to explain their decision to act. Trusting each other sufficiently, the team members listened to the commander and got out in time.

Even if this is an extreme case, you will gain a lot from your staff by trusting their intuition and natural talent. Rather than asking them to justify themselves, let them prove to you that their ideas and actions can lead to interesting situations. You can ask them for explanations later.

Short-circuiting hierarchy systems

Decision chains in today’s large companies are very effective in maintaining consistency in corporate actions. But quite often, they can reduce very creative initiatives coming from the players on the field.

This is also what Van Riper understood in the Millennium Challenge when managing the Red Team. Far from asking for real-time feedback, he let them take the pulse of situations and act by themselves. This allowed them to decide quickly and rely on faster cognition.

Similarly, when his teams encountered unexpected adversity, they would first ask them to stabilize the situation before communicating. This allowed them to react on the spot and use their own resources on the ground.

While these tactics were not without risks, they gave the team significant cognitive flexibility when faced with a blue team that relied primarily on a rigid order and information transmission system.

In the same way, you may give employees autonomy in their decisions and let them come back to you when they really need it. Based on this trust, you greatly increase the flexibility of your strategies, whether they are military, marketing, or commercial.

Now it is your turn to take inspiration from these management techniques to boost the intuitive skills of your employees.

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