In a recent report from USC, researchers discovered how being funny changes your brain.
They showed a cartoon from the New Yorker, and asked participants to create one funny caption, and one un-funny caption. Meanwhile, they performed MRI scans on them to record their brain activity.
“What we found is that the more experienced someone is at doing comedy, the more activation we saw in the temporal lobe,” said USC doctoral student Ori Amir, who led the study with Irving Biederman, professor of psychology and computer science. The temporal lobe receives sensory information and is the region of the brain key to comprehending speech and visual cognition. It’s also where abstract information, semantic information and remote associations meaningfully converge.
In contrast, the amateur comedians and non-comedians relied on their prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions like planning complex cognitive behavior and decision-making.
“The professional improv comedians let their free associations give them solutions,” Biederman said.
Many business leaders ask me what they can do to create more independent thinkers and problem solvers in their organizations. Now the answer is clear: Send them to an Improv Class! The more experience they get, the more they will rely on making new connections between items and creating innovative solutions.
For information about having an improv class for your organization, contact Andrew for details.
What do you like doing?
What are you great at?
What does the world need?
What are you paid to do?
And where do those things coincide?
For me, it's teaching. Teaching a subject that I am passionate about. Watching the small transformations on people's faces when they suddenly realize a truth about how they work. These things get me out of bed in the morning.
Teaching is also a vocation I fought against for years. Both of my parents were teachers. So I went to school for acting. I got a masters degree. I run a company. And, I teach. When I sit down and think about all the things I do, the one that brings me the most joy is teaching.
So ask yourself - where do those questions coincide for you? And how does that answer change your views on what you do?
Many years ago I had the honor of working with the head of the Lithuanian National Theater , Jonas Jurasas. I was in graduate school, and he was a guest director of great renown that the school hired to direct a play. The show was a messy circus themed play that was a huge stretch for many of us, and a great challenge for us as actors and artists.
At one section, I had to descend down a ramp overhearing the onstage conversation. I would start walking and Jonas would say "faster!" so I would speed up. Then he would say "slower!" and I would slow down. Then he would say "No! Faster!" and I would speed up. Only to have him say "No! Slower!" I finally took the moment at a great to ask him, “When I make that entrance, do you want me to move fast, or slow?" His answer was emphatically “Yes!”
At first I thought it was a translation barrier. Did he understand what I was asking him? His english was quite good, but there had been a few translation errors in the process. So I asked him again, "What I am wondering is, should I move fast, or should I move slow?" His answer again - "YES!"
After a few other questions, he finally clarified what he wanted. He said "you are walking slowly, but you are moving so fast inside!”
At first, I took this as an example of how a crazy Lithuanian Director tells you to do something. I mean, how was this possible? I can move one way, or the other, not both! After a little more conversation with him, I realized what he wanted. He wanted the movement to be physically slow, and the thought process to be very fast, like holding a team of horses back from running. When I started trying that, he would yell out "YES! THAT IS WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR!"
Very often I find myself telling this story as a great example to being able to do two things that I thought were incongruent. In my mind, I couldn't do both - it was impossible. I was limiting what I thought I could do, and what I was needing to do to make the play work. I had been stuck in an 'either / or' style of linear thinking, and was unable to find a win-win solution. The possibility of doing both things simultaneously was alien to me, and so it could never be a solution.
So when you find yourself in an 'either / or' decision process, ask yourself the question: "Can I do both?" Maybe unlocking the linear thinking can be a key to a new innovative solution.
In my work running a company, I love looking at financial documents and balance sheets to discover the ratios between assets and liabilities and figure out an organizations solvency. If you have never seen a balance sheet before - take a look at this tutorial I filmed for the Washington Non-Profits association.
The key take-away is that a balance sheet is a snapshot in time, it is a report of the financial status of the organization at that specific moment.
The same is true with teaching case studies - they are snapshots of what was true at that moment in time. They represent the moment when that event happened, and it may never happen that way again. Many people use case studies as a tool to say 'what would YOU have done?' There is merit in that line of reasoning, however impossible it may be. Since you were not there, and you don't have the same attachment, emotional investment and engagement with the process, it is hard to say what you really would have done.
When I teach workshops I stress the importance of focussing on the differences in a situation, rather than what is similar. Focussing on what is similar can lead me to say 'this is the same as last week...' and place a solution in play that may or may not have relevance. Our brains are wired to search for patterns, so the default for our brains is to say the situations are the same, when in fact they are probably very different.
By focussing on what is different, you can make sure you are staying in this moment, and not reacting to the past. You can stay active to the people, processes and engagement at hand, rather than dismissing new information that can be the key to innovation.
So remember - when you see a situation that seems the same - ask yourself if this resembles a snapshot in time you had previously, and focus on what is different to stay active in the moment.
Solutions you used yesterday are often not the correct solutions for today.
When I was in graduate school, my teacher, Steve Pearson, used to say that each individual creates their own method of working. The idea is that there is no single way to learn; we each have to figure out what works for us, and then take that path. I never quite understood the power of this lesson until recently.
This week I have been facilitating a variety of workshops for various organizations: Valve Software, Amazon, Space Needle LLC, and a few others. On every workshop, when I introduce an exercise for the group, inevitably there are a few people who work to ‘solve’ the game. They look for how to accomplish the task, in order to move onto the next task. It is a linear, goal-oriented mindset that appears to value winning and accomplishment over knowledge and problem solving. What tends to confuse people is when I describe that there are no “right” or “wrong” ways to do the exercise; the point of the exercise is to ‘do it’ and have an experience that draws correlations to our everyday habits. The exercise is about bringing awareness, not solving a problem.
As a teacher, I understand that my job is to give people the tools to find their own way, and teach them not to do what I did, but to create their own way of working. Telling someone the Five Best Methods for Productivity might be easily digestible (and highly profitable), however it doesn’t create true productivity. When people hear these lessons, they might change for a week or two, but they will revert to the practiced habits of the past. I have found that when people discover their own five methods of being productive - meaning the five that work for them based on their own experiences - then they actually do make lasting changes.
As an actor, and an artist, this is what we learn from our acting teachers. We constantly practice to see what works for us now, in the stage of life where we are now, knowing that what worked last week (or even last night!) might not be correct for today. Another wise acting teacher once said that each performance of a play must be 10-15% different each night, as each day always presents a bit differently. We strive to find what is relevant for this moment, so we can be present in our work, and not trying to “solve” the play.
So – the next time you find yourself placing the same solution on an issue to “solve” the problem, ask yourself:
By staying present and focusing on the lesson, rather than rushing to get the gold star of accomplishment, you can create real productivity – one that works for you.
Every year we perform an improvised Shakespearian show called "The Lost Folio". The idea behind "The Lost Folio" is that it is a play of William Shakespeare's that was lost in time. We recreate it live, with suggestions from the audience.
This year, I was reminded how fluid the English language has always been, and how many words, grammatical conventions, and idioms were in flux during Shakespeare's time. Due to the influence of new ideas and languages it was ever changing. When the complete works of Shakespeare were eventually published, many scholars believe that moment started to codify the English language, and set certain parts of it in stone.
In improv, one thing I have found is that codifying something, naming it and setting the rules, begins to make it stale. It now has edges - set perimeters - that keeps it reigned in and not fluid. For many new improvisers they get stuck on the rules and the question of "Am I doing this right?"
By codifying something, you stop the forward motion and arrest its development. When you stop a process by naming it, you no longer make it innovation.
When I speak with many business leaders, I ask them "What are hard and fast rules that you adhere to?" Sometimes looking at the assumptions and rules can help to find where we have blocked ourselves from innovation, and where we can open up to new ideas. Ask yourself "If this were all new, and the rules didn't apply, what would you be doing differently?"
So, as I perform in "The Lost Folio" this summer, I look forward to inventing some new words that are a mash-up of many languages, and having fun with a style of English that existed before we were stuck in the rules of grammar.
Contact Andrew to find out more about how to drive innovation in your organization.
There is one thing that separates good actors from struggling actors: How well do you listen?
In my work I get to interact with actors at all levels. A struggling actor knows their lines, and is pre-planning how they will react when they hear their scene partner say something. They are scripting (even if the play is improvised) how the story will come out, and how they will listen. There is a need to control what happens, and what the audience sees, rather than actually listening and being affected by what someone is giving you. In fact, you can actually see them trying to listen, as if listening is something to show people you are doing it. You can visually see them planning how they will respond, rather than listening and reacting.
The same is true for managers. I have worked with many managers who have a "listening face" which they use to "show" people they are listening. When asked to share what they just heard, their retention and understanding of what was said to them is appallingly low. And just like with actors, employees can see when you are not listening to them. They can see when you're merely waiting for their mouth to move so you can speak. They can see when you have disengaged because you have already solved the problem you think they have (even if you are not sure what the problem actually is, or if there even is one!) They can see when you are not present.
This skill is hard to learn, and there are a variety of methods to help you be aware of how you listen and how you can improve. After a few of my exercises, I have had participants say "This was the first time I really was able to hear what someone said..." Imagine if all your staff felt that way, like they have been heard and appreciated.
Honing this skill can affect your bottom line in multiple ways: increased engagement, improved customer satisfaction, innovative directions, happier and appreciative staff and family, etc. It's a simple skill that we often overlook in the wider scope of our work.
Find out how to increase your listening potential - email Andrew today.
When I speak to CEO's I get a lot of questions about reframing the idea of "Planning" and instead using the word "Preparing." I know that a 'Strategic Prepare' doesn't have quite the same ring as a 'Strategic Plan', and that is a shame. I do believe that the word 'Plan' sometimes sets people up for failure.
More often than not, plans have benchmarks that can fail: 'We will achieve goal X by this date.' When a company does not make those goals, the plan then becomes null and void, and people tend to say 'Well, this is no longer a useful plan....' This is why I encourage CEO's to use the idea of preparing rather than planning: If I prepare for the future, then whatever obstacles I encounter are a part of the next steps. There are no mistakes, and no reason to scrap the plan, just new information to add to the outcome.
One tool I have taught is in this process is the pre-mortem. It basically says that before any big action or implementation, you have a meeting to discuss its failure. The pretext is: It is now six months or one year in the future, and this has failed miserably. The question is: why? Why did it fail? What caused it to fail? What were the events leading up to its eventual demise? By looking at the possible reasons why something will fail, we can begin to be prepared for the issues that might affect its success. This can even go as far as life or death to some professions, as detailed in the book 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" by Col. Chris Hadfield. The years of planning, and simulations of what could go wrong in space, help to prepare astronauts to be ready regardless of what does happens. It also trains them to be ready when unforeseen events take place - and to treat them these events the same way as in the simulations they encountered. The level of preparation for space travel is intense - and necessary. It is never a straight path, or one way of accomplishing a task, and any unforeseen event could possibly cause something catastrophic.
So the next time you are seeing out a plan for the future, ask yourself what you are doing to prepare for the unforeseen events that could derail you: things that can make you head in new directions, and help you stop being reactive to issues, and instead be proactive to managing your desired outcome.
Click here to contact Andrew for more information on his workshops and coaching.
I have found a classification of people in the performing arts called 'accidental administrators.' They are the people who trained to be actors, or directors, or some specific aspect of theater, and ended up being the person in charge of the organization. When I ask these people about their journey, I usually get the same response; they decided to do the things that no one else wanted to because these things had to be done.
So they became the accidental leader of an organization. They didn't plan, prepare or desire to be the person in charge. They just found themselves there because of who they are, because of the type of person they are.
Sometimes this leads to a level of Imposter Syndrome, and even malcontented staff surrounding theses individuals who say 'who put them in charge?'
The answer I tell those disgruntled workers is: You did. And they did. They chose to make the organization work, because it had to be done and no one else would do it. They saw what needed to be done, and did it.
When companies begin - the lines between job descriptions and duties are fairly fluid. Individuals need to do what must be done to make a new organization survive. As a company grows, it's needs change and everyone must adapt to the constant changes. Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as making a commitment to code everyday, which is a goal he has had to step away from as the realities of being the CEO of a large company change.
The main quality I find from these accidental leaders (and in full disclosure, I identify with this group) is that they adapt to the needs of the changing organization as time goes on. Accidental Leaders are still leaders, and they are not stuck in amber waiting for the next ice age. They listen, react in real time, and adapt to the changing situation either by training themselves, or finding the support they need to make a dream come true. They are quintessential problem solvers, who see the end result and goal and reach for the dream.
When you are hiring, how can you identify these individuals? Look for the person who has been doing work outside the scope of their training. That shows they are doing whatever they can to be successful. And test them on problem solving. The ability to adapt and change in real time is a key skill.
How can you develop these skills in the staff you already have? Provide training in the skills of improvisation. It can lead them to higher levels of listening, critical thinking and problem solving as well as leadership development.
Don't let accidental leaders believe that it is all coincidental that they are where they are. It is who they are that makes them leaders.
For more information and workshops of Leadership Development - click here for Andrew's workshops.
A number of years ago, I listened to a lecture about the three areas of knowledge:
In fact, it is impossible. When we learn something new, we actually make a reference in our heads to something we already know. We categorize new knowledge based on previous experiences. So our brains are wired to make connections between items and to find commonalities.
To me this is the key to innovation; Driving those connections that a re possible deeper and deeper and making more remote, obscure connections to find something new. Instead of connecting on topics, can you connect based on shapes, or sounds, or style. This is how architects create new building designs based on a bird's wing, or business managers create new processes based on a board game. You have to be open to making those connections, and finding new pathways in your brain between two (or more) odd items. That connection leads to innovation.
So - don't waste you time trying to find something you don't know anything about. Use what you have, and accept and build on what you already know.
Click here for more information of Andrew's workshops on innovation and the uses of Yes, and in the workplace.