Josh Work Professional Organizations Trip Reports Conference Report: 2015 LISA: Improv for System Administrators

The Improv for System Administrators workshop was different from the typical "sit around a table and talk" workshop many at LISA are familiar with. We ctually got up and H. Wade Minter led us all in improvisation exercises and then we deconstructed what teach exercise taught us and how we could apply those lessons to our professional lives. He hoped that the session opened our eyes to some of the possibilities that applied improv can make in our companies and in our own development as people, employees, team members.

Before we started we all agreed to give 100%, pushing outside our comfort zones and leaving our judgements (of ourselves and others) at the door; to commit fully and work as a team; and to allow anyone to sit out any part of the session they weren't comfortable with (whether physically or emotionally), as long as they agreed that while sitting out they would not comment or judge on those who were participating.

An active workshop like this one doesn't really lend itself well to a writeup, especially given that it was a survey of a number of different exercises; we went for breadth rather than depth of experience. The exercises we performed fell into three major categories:

That all being said, what were the exercises?

Icebreaker and Teambuilding Exercises

These exercises were selected to gently introduce the attendees to one another, get people physically moving in the space and interacting with each other, and develop a sense of unity and community. They were also designed to be fun, acknowledging that play is important in life and business. Don't ever underestimate the power of laughter; when people laugh together after a shared experience, it creates strong bonds.

Name Circle — We went around the circle and each attendee shared their name, where they were from and where they worked. Different people chose to share the information in different amounts of depth and we didn't judge. We wanted to immediately show that there were no wrong answers in this workshop.

Clap Circle — We "passed the clap" around the circle. This simple exercise begins to get the participants working together on a simple task, encourages eye contact in a nonthreatening way and teaches that "mistakes" can easily be fixed by anyone. Once the clap had been mastered, we added in a new rule that the clap could change directions. Once the group had mastered that, we added in a "Whooo!" sound and motion at the same time. Once we were doing two or three things simultaneously, participants were starting to get their first taste of the improv mantra of "Don't think, just react."

I Like People Who... — We got into a circle, with one person in the middle. The person in the middle would say "I like people who..." and finish the sentence with a characteristic that could apply to others in the circle. For example, "I like people who use Emacs," "I like people who wear glasses," "I like people who know multiple languages," and so on. If the sentence applies to anyone in the circle, they have to leave their spot to find an empty spot. The person in the middle is also trying to find a spot in the circle. At the end of a round, there's one person left in the middle, and we do it all again! It's a fun exercise for learning about your team, and realizing that "losing the game" isn't bad.

Yes Circle — To get us in the "Yes!" frame of mind we stand in a circle. One person points at another and the person who was pointed at says "Yes!" The person who pointed then goes and takes the other person's spot in the circle. Repeat, trying to go faster and faster, getting everyone in the "Yes!" frame of mind. We then continued the exercise silently, with only pointing, and then with only expressions, nods and eye contact giving permission to move. As we removed the verbal and physical aspect, everyone became better at "listening" to one another. It also helps you work within some mild constraints ("you can't move until someone says yes"), while also letting you know that the world won't end if you break the rules — your teammates will help cover you.

Leader of the Pack — The participants spread about the room, with the instructions that only one person may walk at a time. As someone stops, another person has to pick up and start walking. Or if someone starts walking, everyone else must stop. We then up the difficulty by having two or three people walking at once. This is an exercise in observation, making strong choices, seeing what's needed, and trust. It also puts a focus on the internal constraints that we place upon ourselves, without any external requirement — there were no rules against talking, directing, making a system, and so on, yet we assumed many of those. How many other places in your life are similar?

Walk/Stop — People walk around the room when told to walk, then stop when told to stop. Then we reverse those instructions: walk means stop and stop means walk. We add in Name/Jump and Clap/Twist. Eventually all are reversed from their original meaning. This exercise trains us in listening, giving attention and thinking outside the box. It also shows that the fun in the game comes from the little mistakes and failures — a perfectlyexecuted version of this game would be boring!

Line Up By — We asked people to line up across the room by height, age, day of birth and distance they traveled to LISA. This exercise gets people interacting verbally as well as helps them learn something about one another. A great icebreaker for any event.

Chair Tag — We set out as many chairs as people, spread about the room. One chair remains empty and one person stands across the room. When we say "Go," they must slowly make their way to the empty chair, and everyone else must shift seats to try to keep that chair unoccupied. Remember the rule that once your butt leaves the seat, you've committed yourself to move! A great exercise in working as a team to develop strategy, while seeing how panic by one person can ripple through an entire organization. And another exercise in unspoken assumptions; many assumed again that we couldn't talk, direct, or plan.

Bobsled — Have the group separate into groups of 4. Each group stands facing one direction, one behind the other, as if they were on a bobsled. People in positions 2, 3, and 4 place their hands on the shoulders of the person in front of them. The leader directs the groups to start moving randomly around the space, without bumping into each other. Start with everyone stepping with their left feet, then their right feet, until they work their way up to walking speed. Once everyone is up to speed, introduce the following commands one at a time (Bobsleds keep moving while all commands are put into action):

Sun and Moon — Everyone secretly chooses a person to be their "sun" and their "moon." They then have to position themselves so that they are equidistant between their sun and moon. Like Chair Tag, this exercise shows that when someone panics and moves suddenly, that panic ripples throughout the entire room. Or, if you're at LISA, you pack into the tightest possible space, such that you impact the local gravity.

Tiger Martian Salesman — Groups of three stand back-to-back, and on the count of three they act as either a tiger (growl with your paws out), martian (give yourself antennae and beep), or salesman (stick out your hand to shake and say "How're you doin'?"). If all three do the same one, they "win" and cheer wildly. This exercise asks people to try to get a group mind going, and also to wildly celebrate even silly victories. It is strangely satisfying to have everyone do a martian.

Listening Exercises

These exercises were used to build skills in true listening (not just "listening politely and waiting for a chance to speak"), which is something that drives nearly every human interaction, both inside and outside of the office. The listening could be either verbal or nonverbal; focus is the key.

5 Handshakes — Each person in the room silently thinks of a number between 1 and 5. They then walk through the room shaking hands with everyone in the group. They are to shake hands the specific number of times they thought of earlier with a lifting and lowering of the hands equaling "one shake" This exercise is done without talking or communicating verbally. Obviously, people may encounter someone who has selected a different number than they did. They should not refuse to move their hands after their number, but rather just kind of stop participating thus communicating that their number has passed. After each handshake interaction, a person can change their number if they wish to. The goal of the game is to arrive at a group consensus on the "right" number of times to shake hands, and have everyone settle on that same number.

Status Cards — Each person is dealt a card from a shuffled, standard, 52-card playing card deck. The person does not look at their own card. They instead hold it on their forehead, facing out so that everyone else can see their card. They then mill around the room interacting (verbally, physically) with other people. Cards closer to Ace, King, Queen are higher status than cards closer to 4, 3, 2. You would interact with a "high status" person the way you would a boss, leader, or "social superior." You would interact with a lowerstatus person the way you would a subordinate or "social inferior." The goal of the game is to figure out, based on how different people interact with you, what your status is. At the end of the game, we lined people up by what they thought their status was (high to low), and then checked to see how close we were. This touches on the concept of status and how we, consciously or unconsciously, deal with it in our lives.

First Letter, Last Letter — Pair up and hold a conversation where you must start your own sentence with a word that begins with the last letter your partner finished with. This encourages listening and not interrupting. Try this one outside of the class without telling your conversation partner that you're doing it, and see how it feels!

String of Pearls — One person creates the first line of a story. A second person creates the last line of a story. Then one by one, five more people join in to complete the story, one line at a time, with each person choosing where to fit in. It's a great exercise in listening for what is needed and dropping preconceived ideas when circumstances change.

Brainstorming and Ideation Exercises

In improv, we practice the rule of saying "Yes" to everything. Improv-based brainstorming encourages everyone to brainstorm ideas without immediately judging their worthiness. Later, it's appropriate to evaluate and sift through ideas, but freedom to generate ideas without internal or external judgement can yield a wealth of amazing creativity.

Due to time constraints we just did one exercise in this section: We asked each participant to write an idea on a notecard (in this case "How to make LISA even better"). Participants swap cards, then pair up and rate their two cards by distributing seven points between them. Repeat three more times, until each card has four numbers. We add up the points and see which best ideas have bubbled to the top. This is just one of a half dozen brainstorming and idea generation exercises that we teach to companies. In a larger group, you can go to 35 (or, possibly higher). Nonjudgemental brainstorming is a great way to get ideas on the table and empower the quieter voices who may have some of the most meaningful ideas to share.

Wrapping Up

We ended the session in the circle with the attendees sharing observations or questions.

As session leader, Wade's observation was that over the course of three hours the group transformed from a tentative, distant collection of strangers to a cohesive team of people who had shared experiences and much more openness to one another. At the start of the session, everyone came into the room and took a seat as far away from everyone else as they could (except for the people who worked together or already knew each other). By the end of the session, people were hugging, laughing, and high-fiving. If a group of complete strangers could make this transformation in three hours, just think of the possibilities that applied improv could have within your own companies.

Wade also provided some suggestions for resources. Applied improv can be used for many purposes within a company, including teambuilding, brainstorming and ideation training, and sales or customer support training. A trained applied improv company can tailor a workshop to your specific needs. That's the beauty of improv.

You can also take any of the exercises from this session and try them within your own company or workgroup. Remember to keep an attitude of openness, positivity, and "Yes!" Don't judge, and remember the agreement that anyone can sit out if they don't feel comfortable. (Note that it is often more effective to have these workshops facilitated by an outside person or company, and your city should have improv resources that can design training for you.)

To find improv training in your city, search the web for "Applied improv," "Improv teambuilding," or "Improv sales training." If you need help finding a resource, please contact Wade and he can help you find a resource in your city. He also travels, if you'd like to bring this type of workshop into your company.

Finally, take an improv class yourself! Improv classes are incredibly fun and may be the single best tool you can put in your toolset for dealing with others, presenting, public speaking and just approaching life with a "Yes!" mindset. Your instructor's life was p#rofoundly c#hanged by taking improv classes. A good class will be supportive and take you along gradually. Take a risk that could change your life forever. Take an improv class. Contact me for a recommendation in your city.

The first step in building a better team with improv is to lead by example. You have the power to take everything you learned in this session and apply it to your own professional and personal life. Try saying "Yes!" instead of "No". Try reserving judgement of others' ideas and your own. Try taking risks and talking to someone instead of avoiding eye contact. The power starts with you.

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Last update Dec19/15 by Josh Simon (<>).