I recently did some work with David Simoes-Brown and the team at 100% Open. He came up with a catchy name for one of the activities I shared. This is an approach to training that I’ve developed with my friends Viv McWaters and Simo Routarrine. David christened it “problem theatre”. Viv and I have also called in Action Storming.
It’s influenced by all sorts of things, like forum theatre, psychodrama and constellations, with a big dose of improv on top.
Although we build up to it in a variety of ways, the central idea is to explore dilemmas presented by participants through improvised drama. If the theme of a workshop is dealing with difficult people/relationships, we ask someone to give us a real world examples of situations they have struggled with. I’ll be calling that person the client for the purpose of this post. And then we re-enact the situation, using fellow participants to play the various characters.
So although we’re going to apply some improv ideas, we are working with a real world situation, not an imagined one.
We typically create a scene with a very few lines of dialogue and kick off setting it up to be as realistic as possible. Usually this means we get it so that it really fires the hot buttons of the client, who starts by playing him/herself in the scene.
After this, we replay the same short scene again, with all those playing being asked to retain the same lines and character except for the client, who is invited to try anything different. I usually encourage them to try something crazy that would never work, as a way of loosening up the creative synapses.
We’ll play the same scene lots of times. There may be a little debrief between scenes but not too much. We are trying to downplay the role of analysis in favour of plenty of experimentation.
We also introduce the idea of tagging, so that our client can be tagged out by someone who wants to have a go at dealing with the difficult situation. As coach, I will quite often step in myself and do something crazy to encourage experimenting, and to undermine the limiting belief that I’m the expert with the answer. That’s a training pitfall that I think can be oppressive. (I think my job is about helping to create a field in which people can make discoveries for themselves).
When I’m coaching it, I discourage observers from analysing what they see; it’s so easy to lapse into apparently expert commentary and it quickly saps the energy. My view is, if you can see a better way to play this, then step in. Like they say about TV quiz shows, it’s quite a different matter to be in the spotlight.
Quite often we may seem to just flail around for a while, and as coach I have to manage my own anxiety that it might not go anywhere. Usually what happens is that there seem to be sudden little breakthroughs, where people come up variations that have a noticeable impact – often something sensed by the whole group. Many of these are not much like solutions but they could be part of a solution. There are no guarantees but eventually someone will assemble some of the fragments into what feels like a breakthrough response.
As coach, I try to curb the temptation when I think I spot one of these fragments, to get excited and point out what it is. I’m trying to discourage that kind of analysis, and I reckon if there really is an insight in the performance, people will get it without me pointing it out. (This post on the pitfalls of explicit learning gives some clues as to what I’m thinking here.) I am not a fan of the notion that we must start with a theory before we engage in experiments; my own experience is that the premature theorising stifles the ability of groups to experiment.
This whole approach seeks to avoid the temptation of teaching five rules for dealing with X, and it avoids teaching theory in favour of practice. In this way, it’s pretty different from a lot of training. It values discovery and surprise over the comfort of predicting what people will learn. As such it may not go down well with some HR departments.
But it does really engage participants and usually leaves them with a lot to talk about. I also think it demonstrates that in all these situations, where may feel stuck, there are actually all sorts of choices available to us. And that’s something that gets easily stymied by the false comfort of “proven approaches” to what are generally reassuringly complex and wicked problems. As Viv and I are fond of saying, the clue about those difficult relationships is in the name. They are difficult and require us to try new things. It’s really tiresome to pretend they are so easy as to lend themselves to a rule-based solution.
(There is probably more to be said about how this fits with ideas about informal learning and what it owes to Tim Gallwey’s inner game insights about coaching… but I’ll save it for another day. I could also add a footnote about the use of the problem-solution frame here but I’ll trust you can see what I’m driving at.)