Improv to Improve Listening

One of the interesting links that came through the ‘tubes yesterday was an interview with WET Design CEO Mark Fuller, published by the New York Times on Saturday. In it, Fuller talked about how improv classes have become a key part of the design culture at his company.

Mark Fuller

Mark Fuller was #54 on Fast Company's most creative people list

WET (Water Entertainment Technologies) is not a typical web design firm. They specialize in fountains and architectural art involving water. Fuller’s first water works was the “Leapfrog” fountain at EPCOT, a particular favorite of my sons when we went to Florida a couple years ago. Formed in 1983, WET Design has done a number of impressive water installations, including the Bellagio (1998), the Olympic Cauldron (2002), and the Dubai Fountain at the Burj (2009).

One of the things Fuller pushes for at WET is an organizational commitment to life-long learning. A full-time curriculum director manages courses in three classrooms. One of those courses teaches how to do improvisation. Although it took a while for the employees to get used to it, the improv course now has a waiting list.

The value improv brings to an organization is that it creates a workforce of listeners. As Fuller describes it in the interview:

You’re in an emotionally naked environment. It’s like we’re all the same. We all can look stupid. And it’s an amazing bonding thing, plus it’s building all these communication skills. You’re sort of in this gray space of uncertainty. Most of us don’t like to be uncertain — you know, most of us like to be thinking what we’re going to say next. You get your mind into a space where you say, “I’m really enjoying that I don’t know what he’s going to ask me next, and I’m going to be open and listening and come back.”

We’ve got graphic designers, illustrators, optical engineers, Ph.D. chemists, special effects people, landscape designers, textile designers. You get all these different disciplines that typically you would never find under one roof — even making a movie — and so you have to constantly be finding these ways to have people connect.

With improv, it is important to have good partners, people who are equally committed to the success of the interaction and the development of the tacit knowledge that makes communication easier.

The most important ingredient you can bring to effective improv is commitment. The adrenaline that comes with putting yourself in a situation where you don’t know what is coming helps sharpen senses, but that fear can also prompt a self-defense instinct to distance one’s self from the experience. If that happens, not only will you leave your partners hanging, but what you say becomes less convincing. The mindset you must take into improv is “Yes, and”—in other words, validate what you just heard and try to contribute something useful to improve the sense in the situation.

It is easy to imagine how these skills can be useful during brainstorming sessions, as well as transactions between different departments in an organization.

The courses are just one part of Fuller’s intentional crafting of a company culture. There is a lot of work posted on walls (to share ownership and invite early feedback), low tolerance for blame, an immersion program (to give people job experience in other parts of the company), and hiring interviews that look closely at hobbies.