Scrabble Is An Improv Game

Posted on 8 January 2022 | Comments Off on Scrabble Is An Improv Game

I love playing Scrabble, and I love performing improv. And it occurred to me that there are lots of similarities.



Let’s play

Scrabble is a game we play. And improv performers are called players, and in the short-form style of improv that my team performs, the scenes and rehearsal exercises we do are called games.

Getting comfortable with uncertainty

Scrabble and improv are exercises in getting comfortable with – and even enjoying – uncertainty. From one turn to the next in a Scrabble game, I don’t know what letters my partner and I are going to get or what words my partner is going to put on the board. And in improv there’s no script, so I don’t know what random suggestions we’re going to receive from the audience, and I don’t know and can’t predict what my scene partner (or partners) and I are going to say and do.

Letting go of control

They’re both also exercises in letting go of control. In Scrabble, it helps if I don’t get fixated about a letter I want to get or a word I want to play. Things are changing unpredictably from turn to turn, and if I’m blinkered about placing a particular word on a particular position on the board, I might miss an unexpected, higher-scoring opportunity that becomes available when my partner plays their next word. And in improv, it helps if I don’t try to plan what I’m going to say or do, predict what’s going to happen next, or control the direction that the scene goes, because my task is to respond to what’s happening from moment to moment.

Yes, and…

In Scrabble, after the first word has been placed in the centre of the board, every subsequent word has to connect to and add to a word that’s on the board. And improv is about accepting and building on the moment-by-moment reality that my scene partner (or partners) and I are creating together – that’s the “Yes, and…” principle of improv.

Do YOU play Scrabble with an improv mindset? And where else in your life does an improv mindset apply?

Twitter Tips and Resources – Part 90

Posted on 28 June 2019 | No responses

This is Part 90 of an ever-growing blog series, with each post featuring links to 10 useful, funny and/or provocative articles I’ve come across (or written myself) about how to use Twitter more effectively, especially for business (and how NOT to use it).

Here are the latest 10:

  1. “How To Make It Drop Dead Easy To Share Your Content” by Josh Steimle (@joshsteimle on Twitter)
  2. “The #1 Mistake We All Make on Twitter (It’s Probably Not What You’re Expecting)” by Ash Read (@Ashread_)
  3. “13 Insanely Actionable Techniques to Get More Twitter Followers” by Josue Valles (@josuevallesp)
  4. “Be More Helpful and Try Less Selling on Social Media” by Declan Connell (@DeclanJConnell)
  5. “How to Make Twitter Actually Useful” by Joanna Stern (@joannastern)
  6. “The Unwritten Rules of Social Media” by Tyler Thursby (@tthursb)
  7. “Adopting a Twitter ‘Follow’ Philosophy” by Kenna Griffin (@profkrg)
  8. “Psst…HEY YOU, yes, you, Wanna Buy Twitter Followers (read this first)” by Sheena White (@sheenamwhite)
  9. “10 Things That Make You Look Bad On Twitter” by Kim Garst (@kimgarst)
  10. “How to use Twitter for business: The Beginner’s Guide” by Adegboye Adeniyi (@legendcrest)

And a bonus article for you about how to write better content, whether for online or offline readers:
“Here’s Why Plain and Simple Writing Works Better” by me

For a list of links to Parts 1-89 in this series (which was born on May 19, 2009), see the Twitter category on this blog.

Would you like to recommend any other good Twitter resources? I certainly don’t list EVERY article about Twitter that I see – I might recommend an article that I disagree with, if I think it contributes something useful to the debate, but I won’t recommend an article that I think is badly written.

Happy tweeting!
Kay Ross


Here’s Why Plain and Simple Writing Works Better

Posted on 28 August 2017 | No responses

Yikes! I recently saw this cringe-inducing sentence in a tweet:
“Constant consumption of negative media stories can have a deleterious effect on our health.”

My translation, in plain English:
Constantly reading or watching negative media stories can be bad for your health.

Why did I make those changes?

  • “Deleterious” is a formal word that many people, even native speakers of English, might not know and would probably never use in everyday conversation.
  • “Deleterious” = 5 syllables = more difficult for the brain to process; “bad” = 1 syllable = easier for the brain to process.
  • The dictionary definition of “deleterious” is “injurious to health”. So technically, if you use the word “deleterious”, the phrase “on our health” is unnecessary.
  • The phrase “can have a deleterious effect on” (6 words) can be expressed more simply and clearly as “can be bad for” (4 words that people are more likely to understand instantly).
  • The word “consumption” is an abstract noun. Verbs are better. And in this context, I decided that the phrase “reading or watching” is better than the word “consuming”, because we actually read or watch media stories.
  • I changed “our health” to “your health” – it’s as if the writer is speaking directly to each individual reader. The word “your” is more likely to evoke an emotional response and prompt a change in each reader’s behaviour (or at least make the reader curious enough to click the link in a tweet). “Our” is vague – who exactly is the writer referring to?
  • The original version of the sentence has 91 characters (including spaces); my revised version has 81 characters – that’s better for a tweet.
  • Words work better when readers/watchers/listeners can quickly and easily create a picture in their head.
  • Simple, plain English works better, even in business communication – and that doesn’t mean insulting people’s intelligence.

More before-and-after examples

Here are some more examples of how I translate clunky text (real text that I’ve seen online) into more effective, user-friendly text:

Clunky: “Is Your CEO Supportive of Innovation?”
Simpler: Does Your CEO Support Innovation?

Clunky: “Many of those in-attendance on Friday found the comedian’s speech to be an interesting one.”
Simpler: Many people at the event on Friday said they thought the comedian’s speech was interesting.

Clunky: “7 Facts For Why Your Business Needs A Blog”
Simpler: 7 Reasons Your Business Needs A Blog

Clunky: “The main reason for this is that…”
Simpler: That’s because…

Clunky: “…there is a simple rule to follow that can be applied to the creation of an effective article title.”
Simpler: …there’s a simple rule for creating an effective article title.

Clunky: “Devising goals in this manner invokes a higher potential for success.”
Simpler: You’re more likely to succeed if you devise your goals this way.

Clunky: “If you have any comments or questions, please fill in the form below and you will be contacted via email within 3 business days of us having received your email.”
Simpler: If you have any comments or questions, please fill in the form below and we’ll reply within 3 business days.


Doctor white coat shutterstock - small

Do you or your colleagues write like that? Call me!

If you or your colleagues in your organisation write content like any of those examples, contact me! I’ll diagnose the problems and translate your text into plain-English words that work, from a user-friendliness and marketing point of view.

Image via Shuttlestock

Stories Aren’t Professional, She Said

Posted on 16 June 2017 | No responses

“Stories aren’t professional.”

That’s what one of the participants said during the “Storytelling for Business Success” workshop that I taught recently for some staff at a bank.

At the beginning of the three-hour workshop, I asked the participants what they thought about the idea of using stories (true stories) in their work, and nobody expressed any concerns or skepticism.

So I proceeded to share lots of information – and yes, stories – about the elements of memorable, satisfying, shareworthy stories, and how companies use stories effectively for both internal and external communication. We also explored how to find the stories in the numbers, people’s daily work, the company’s history and mission and values, its products and services, and its clients’ experiences and results. I explained that ethical business storytelling is not about telling lies, and that storytelling is not just about entertainment.

It wasn’t until about two hours into the workshop, when the participants were doing an exercise to craft a story related to their work, that someone dropped the bombshell. “Stories aren’t professional,” she said.

Here’s how I wish I’d responded:

  1. People do business with people, not intangible entities called companies.
  2. People prefer to do business with people they know, like and trust. Stories build the know-like-trust factor.
  3. People make decisions emotionally, then justify them with logic.
  4. Data reach the logical brain; stories reach the right brain, the heart and the gut, and inspire people to take action.
  5. Even if you don’t work in the sales or marketing or PR department, you’re always selling – you want people to buy your product or service, buy into your idea, support your cause, feel something, change their thinking and behaviour…
  6. Lots of research proves that emotion-laden stories are an effective technology for influencing people’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Neurologically and biochemically, we’re wired for story – it’s how we make sense of the world.
  7. Therefore stories are professional.
  8. So if you want to succeed in your career, and if you want your company to succeed, use stories, because they work!

campfire storytelling

For lots of evidence, search for books, articles, videos and podcasts about storytelling in business. Just a few of my favourite writers and speakers about how and why to use storytelling in business are: Kathy Klotz-Guest, Bernadette Jiwa, Michael Margolis, Shawn Callahan, Ann Handley, Jude Treder-Wolff, Lisa Bloom, Lisa Cron, Kendall Haven, Raf Stevens, Carmine Gallo, Paul Smith and Stephen Denning.

People don’t really buy a product, solution, or idea,
they buy the story that’s attached to it.

~ Michael Margolis of Get Storied (@getstoried on Twitter)

Do you believe that stories aren’t professional? Please leave a comment. Or if you’re already a convert to the power of storytelling in business, please share a story about how you’ve used stories successfully in your business or career.

Image via “Storytelling by Theodor Liebmann and Stefan Krieger” from Michele Pistone


How to Write a Media Release and Influence a Journalist – Part 24

Posted on 14 June 2017 | No responses

This is Part 24 in an ongoing series of blog posts I’ve compiled, with resources about how to write effective media releases and pitches, and how to influence journalists and bloggers (with integrity, of course) so you get the publicity you want.

Each part in the series lists 10 (or sometimes more) articles, videos, podcasts, infographics etc. by various people. For a list of links to Parts 1-23, see the Media Relations category on this blog. This series used to be titled “So You Want to Write a Media Release and Influence a Journalist?”

Here’s my latest list:

  1. “Pitching Your Business to a Journalist? Here’s What Works.” by Jason Feifer (@heyfeifer on Twitter)
  2. “4 tips for writing compelling press releases” by Melissa Baratta (@mlbaratta)
    I commented:
    Great tips, thanks Melissa. And I’d add:
    Avoid self-congratulatory or subjective words/phrases about your company, product or service, such as world-leading, the leader in…, amazing, exciting, innovative, state-of-the-art, out of the box…
    And please don’t say that your company is “delighted to announce” something. (Honestly, sorry, journalists don’t care.)
  3. “If you want to pitch me an article, PLEASE do not do these things…” by Mandy Edwards (@memktgservices)
  4. “4 Things Editors Are Looking When They Read Your Pitch” by Kimanzi Constable (@KimanziC), about pitching a story to a website editor
  5. “Why I rejected 95 percent of the pitches I received last week” by Nicole Fallon, Managing Editor of Business News Daily (@NicoleMFallon)
  6. “Do’s & Don’ts of Media Pitching” by Nicole Denholder of Next Chapter, a Hong Kong-based crowdfunding platform for female entrepreneurs (@NextChaptercf)
  7. “Here’s Why Your Pitches Aren’t Getting Responses” by Krystal Covington (@KrystalGoLead)
  8. “You’ve Heard That Earning Media Coverage Is All About Relationships – But How Do You Build Them?” by Benjamin Doda (@BenjaminDoda)
  9. “The dos and don’ts of social media pitching” by Jim Dougherty (@jimdougherty)
  10. “This 1 Trick Can Get People to Finally Notice Your Company” by Cheryl Snapp Conner (@CherylSnapp)

Would you like to recommend any other good resources on this topic? Please post a comment (but beware: I’ll delete spam ruthlessly) or send me an email. I won’t list EVERY article I see; I’ll only recommend the ones that I think are well written and that add something useful to the debate.

Kay Ross
Marketing Consultant / Editor / Copywriter
Hong Kong
Twitter: @kayross


All About Improv, Applied Improv, Creativity, Play, Innovation… Part 4

Posted on 26 April 2017 | No responses

I’m Kay Ross, a Hong Kong-based improv performer, Applied Improvisation trainer, and obsessive compiler and sharer of useful resources that I find online.

This is Part 4 in my blog series “All About Improv, Applied Improv, Creativity, Play, Innovation…”, in which I’ve selected and compiled a list of all sorts of goodies for you (articles, podcasts, videos, books…).

See the previous parts in the series here: Part 1 (published April 26, 2013), Part 2 (published April 26, 2015) and Part 3 (published April 26, 2016).

Since publishing Part 3 a year ago, I’ve found lots more resources, and I’ve picked what I think are the most relevant, useful, interesting and thought-provoking ones. I don’t necessarily agree with all the opinions expressed in them – I’m simply sharing them to inspire conversation and learning.

So here’s my gift to you: my fourth list of resources.

It’s a PDF, 37 pages long, and absolutely free! After you click on the link above, you’ll need to download the document so that you can click on the links within it.

I’ve sorted the resources into five categories:
Part A: Specifically about Improv and Applied Improvisation
Part B: More Generally about Creativity, Play, Innovation…
Part C: Should We “Celebrate Failure”?
Part D: Books
Part E: Improv Glossaries

Within each category, the items are listed in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname or the name of the source organisation.


Me (left) performing with fellow Applied Improvisation Network member Joëlle Sarrailh in an improv jam at the Manila Improv Festival, July 2015 (photo by Jay Ignacio)

Me (left) performing with fellow Applied Improvisation Network member Joëlle Sarrailh in an improv jam at the Manila Improv Festival, July 2015 (photo by Jay Ignacio)


Yes, and…

I’d appreciate your comments. Is my list useful to you? Do you have any questions? And would you like to suggest any other resources that I can list in Part 5 in the series? Please post a comment, send me an email or tweet me nice at @kayross.

And please feel free to share this blog post with anyone you know who might be interested.


How to Calculate Your Fee for an Applied Improvisation Workshop

Posted on 23 March 2017 | No responses

I know how challenging it can be to figure out how to calculate your fee for designing and presenting an Applied Improvisation workshop (or providing any kind of service) for a client.

I’ve been a freelance marketing consultant, editor, copywriter and trainer for over 20 years, and an Applied Improvisation trainer for about five years, and people often ask me for advice about how much they should charge for their services.

So here’s what I’ve learned: When you’re calculating and negotiating your fee for an Applied Improvisation workshop, you need to weigh up many interconnected factors:

  • time, not just for the workshop itself, but also for briefing/admin/research/design/preparation, and travel to and from the venue
  • out-of-pocket expenses, e.g., travel, accommodation, meals, photocopying, hiring additional trainers, marketing and all your other business expenses
  • the number of participants
  • the complexity of the assignment, e.g., are there any challenges in terms of the client’s goals, expectations and decision-making process; your familiarity with the client’s company and industry; the audio-visual requirements; the participants’ age, mobility, language, culture…?
  • your skill and experience
  • the value to the client of the tangible and intangible results that the individual participants and the client’s whole organisation will get from the workshop
  • the nature of the client’s organisation, e.g., is it a big multinational corporation or a small, local, non-profit organisation that you support?
  • the venue – is it suitable, and do you have to find it and manage the whole booking, payment and stage management process yourself?
  • whether the assignment includes follow-up activities, assessment or reporting
  • the urgency of the assignment
  • the attractiveness of the assignment, i.e., have you worked with this client before, do you like them, are they a pleasure to work with, do they pay your invoices on time, do you want to support a worthy charity, is the venue location convenient and appealing for you, do you have to spend a lot of time educating skeptical decision-makers about what Applied Improvisation is and how it can help, do they quibble over every dollar, how keen/desperate are you to do this assignment, is this a one-off thing or will it be the start of a long-term relationship, have you spotted any red flags…?
  • other possible benefits for you, e.g., can you sell your books at the event, can you video the event and take photos for your own marketing purposes?
  • your level of confidence that you’re worth it!


Some factors that should NOT influence your calculation (at least not too much)

  • the client’s budget (if they’re even willing or able to tell you what it is) – that’s useful information to know, but don’t let it unduly influence your calculation of a fee that works for YOU!
  • how much other trainers charge – you don’t know what their expenses and their revenue/profit goals are
  • a client’s promise that it will be good “exposure” for you (unless you’re sure that the connections you make will be worth it)
  • a client’s promise to give you a testimonial and referrals – they should be an expected part of the deal, not a bonus that warrants a discount in your fee
  • a client’s promise to give you more work in future if you give them “a good price” on an assignment

I don’t have a magic formula – you’ll need to decide for yourself how much weight to give to each one of those factors, and I can’t tell you how much to charge.

Have I missed any factors we should consider when calculating a fee? What tips would you like to add? Comments welcome.

If you’re not yet familiar with the concept of Applied Improvisation, well, it’s about taking the principles, skills and mindset of theatrical improvisation (which is when a team of people perform together without a script) and applying them offstage in life and business. The results include better teamwork, leadership, communication, trust, creativity and nimble responsiveness to change – because life and business don’t come with a script. For more information, visit the website of the international Applied Improvisation Network.

Kay Ross
Hong Kong
Tweet me nice at @kayross


Twitter Tips & Resources – Part 89

Posted on 25 October 2016 | No responses

This is Part 89 of an ever-growing blog series, with each post featuring links to 10 useful, funny and/or provocative articles I’ve come across about how to use Twitter more effectively, especially for business (and how NOT to use it).

Here are the latest 10:

  1. “Why it takes so long to achieve social media success” by Mark Schaefer (@markwschaefer on Twitter)
  2.  “The Two Things People Hate Most About Brands on Social Media” by Evan LePage (@EvanLePage)
  3. “How We Increased Our Twitter Engagement Rate by 180% in Two Months” by Jaime Stein (@jaimestein)
  4. Especially for authors: “Facebook OR Twitter? Here’s Why You Should Choose Both!” by Rachel Thompson (@badredheadmedia)
  5. “14 Twitter Tools We Can’t Stop Telling You About” by Stephanie Nissen (@StephNissen_)
  6. “Why Twitter Killed the Twitter Share Button” by Jay Baer (@jaybaer)
  7. “Is Twitter Just About Sharing What You Had for Lunch?” by Catriona Pollard (@catrionapollard)
  8. “The Mac Daddy List of Twitter Tools for Marketers” by Kim Garst (@kimgarst)
  9. “6 Tips to Clean Up Your Twitter Account” by Neil Patel (@neilpatel)
  10. “A Precise Explanation of the New Twitter Rules” by Madison Malone Kircher (@4evrmalone)

For a list of links to Parts 1-88 in this series (which was born on May 19, 2009), see the Twitter category on this blog.

Would you like to recommend any other good Twitter resources? I certainly don’t list EVERY article about Twitter that I see – I might recommend an article that I disagree with, if I think it contributes something useful to the debate, but I won’t recommend an article that I think is badly written.

Happy tweeting!
Kay Ross

All About Improv, Applied Improv, Creativity, Play, Innovation… Part 3

Posted on 26 April 2016 | No responses

On April 26, 2013, I published a blog post titled “All About Improv, Applied Improv, Creativity, Play, Innovation…”, with a link to a 16-page list of resources that I’d compiled.

Exactly two years later, on April 26, 2015, I published “All About Improv, Applied Improv, Creativity, Play, Innovation… Part 2”, with a link to a 20-page list of more resources that I’d compiled.

Since then, thanks mainly to my travels on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve found lots more good stuff. I’ve read several books and hundreds of articles, watched lots of videos, and selected what I think are the most relevant, useful, interesting and thought-provoking ones. (I don’t necessarily agree with all the opinions expressed in the articles, videos and books – I’m simply sharing the resources to inspire conversation and learning.)

In this installment, I’ve included a section about the sometimes-contentious topic of failure, which has prompted a lively discussion among members of the Applied Improvisation Network in recent months.

So here’s my gift to you: my third installment in the series (23 pages long), absolutely free.

I’ve sorted the resources into four categories:
Part A: Specifically about Improv and Applied Improvisation
Part B: More generally about Creativity, Play, Innovation…
Part C: Should We “Celebrate Failure”?
Part D: Books

Within each category, the items are listed in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname or the name of the source organisation.

If you click on one of the links in the PDF and find that it doesn’t work, copy and paste the link into your browser – it might work that way.

BlueberryLakePlayground-crop Sept2015 039

Me in the playground at the Blueberry Lake Resort near Montreal, Canada,
during the conference of the Applied Improvisation Network, September 2015.
At the conference, I led my “Life is a Playground of Possibilities:
Improvising More Resourceful, Joyful Ways of Being” workshop
outdoors next to that playground.

I’d love to hear from you. Is my list useful to you? Do you have any questions? And would you like to suggest other resources that I can include in the next installment in the series? Please post a comment, send me an email or tweet me nice at @kayross.

And if you love improv and applied improvisation, please feel free to share this blog post and the list with anyone you know who might benefit.


Creativity and Improvisation

Posted on 29 December 2015 | No responses

I recently read the book “Creativity, Inc. – Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” by Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation (Random House, 2014).

This is a brilliant, must-read book for anyone who manages people and companies in creative industries (or anyone who wants to nurture creativity in their organisation, regardless of the industry).

Creativity Inc.
The author mentions the word “improvise” only once in the book, yet it seems to me that much of what he writes about creativity and the Pixar culture is actually about approaching things with an improvisational mindset.

Here are some examples:

  • “A competitive approach measures other ideas against your own, turning the discussion into a debate to be won or lost. An additive approach, on the other hand, starts with the understanding that each participant contributes something (even if it’s only an idea that fuels the discussion – and ultimately doesn’t work).” (P101 in the hard-back edition)
  • “…when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched – and that is precisely what is so exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to let it evolve, it could be destroyed.” (P132)
  • “…we must be open to having our goals change as we learn new information and are surprised by things we thought we knew but didn’t.” (P140)
  • “It’s folly to think you can avoid change, no matter how much you might want to. But also, to my mind, you shouldn’t want to. There is no growth or success without change.” (P146)
  • “To my mind, randomness is not just inevitable; it is part of the beauty of life. Acknowledging it and appreciating it helps us respond constructively when we are surprised. Fear makes people reach for certainty and stability, neither of which guarantee the safety they imply. I take a different approach. Rather than fear randomness, I believe we can make choices to see it for what it is and to let it work for us. The unpredictable is the ground upon which creativity occurs.” (P147)
  • Quoting Pete Docter, director of the film Up: “If I start on a film and right away know the structure – where it’s going, the plot – I don’t trust it. […] I feel like the only reason we’re able to find some of these unique ideas, characters, and story twists is through discovery. And, by definition, ‘discovery’ means you don’t know the answer when you begin.” (P151)
  • Also quoting Pete Docter: “Some of the best ideas come out of joking around, which only comes when you (or the boss) give yourself permission to do it. […] I’ve heard some people describe creativity as ‘unexpected connections between unrelated concepts or ideas.’ If that’s at all true, you have to be in a certain mindset to make those connections.” (P152)
  • “In creative endeavors, we must face the unknown. But if we do so with blinders on – if we shut out reality in the interest of keeping things simple – we will not excel. The mechanisms that keep up safe from unknown threats have been hardwired into us since our ancestors were fighting off saber-toothed tigers with sticks. But when it comes to creativity, the unknown is not our enemy. If we make room for it instead of shunning it, the unknown can bring inspiration and originality.” (P157-8)
  • “People who act without an approved plan should not be punished for “going rogue.” A culture that allows everyone, no matter their position, to stop the assembly line, both literally and figuratively, maximizes the creative engagement of people who want to help. In other words, we must meet unexpected problems with unexpected responses.” (P163)
  • “If we can agree that it’s hard, if not impossible, to get a complete picture of what is going on at any given time in any given company, it becomes even harder when you are successful. That’s because success convinces you that you are doing things the right way. There is nothing quite as effective, when it comes to shutting down alternative viewpoints, as being convinced you are right. […] The better approach, I believe, is to accept that we can’t understand every facet of a company and to focus, instead, on techniques to deal with combining different viewpoints. If we start with the attitude that different viewpoints are additive rather than competitive, we become more effective because our ideas or decisions are honed and tempered by that discourse. In a healthy, creative culture, the people in the trenches feel free to speak up and bring to light differing views that can help give us clarity.” (P173)
  • “While the allure of safety and predictability is strong, achieving true balance means engaging in activities whose outcome and payoffs are not yet apparent. The most creative people are willing to work in the shadow of uncertainty.” (P183)
  • “Creativity involves missteps and imperfections. I wanted our people to get comfortable with that idea – that both the organization and its members should be willing, at times, to operate on the edge.” (P220)
  • “Paying attention to the present moment without letting your thoughts and ideas about the past and the future get in the way is essential. Why? Because it makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them – and, more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes us willing to try something that may fail.” (P222)
  • “…uncertainty can make us uncomfortable. We humans like to know where we are headed, but creativity demands that we travel paths that lead who-knows-where.” (P224)
  • “Lindsey Collins, a producer who has worked […] on several films, imagines herself as a chameleon who can change her colors depending on which consistency she is working with. The goal is not to be fake or curry favor but to be whatever person is needed in the moment. “In my job, sometimes I’m a leader, sometimes I’m a follower…”, she says.” (P232)
  • “Instead of setting forth a “perfect” route to achieving future goals (and sticking to it unwaveringly), I wanted Ann to be open to readjusting along the way, to remaining flexible, to accepting that we would be making it up as we go.” (P257)
  • About some challenges Pixar faced as it got bigger, and as the pressure grew to produce successful films consistently: “How, we all wondered, could we maintain Pixar’s sense of intensity and playfulness, beating back the creeping conservatism that often accompanies success while also getting leaner and more nimble?” (P280)

Catmull also says a LOT about mistakes, risk, failure, and letting go of the fear of failure (much-debated topics in the applied improvisation community around the world):

  • “We can accept that any given idea may not work and yet minimize our fear of failure because we believe we will get there in the end.” (P81)
  • “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).” (P108)
  • “…failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders, especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.” (P109)
  • “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative.” (P111)
  • “If you create a fearless culture (or as fearless as human nature will allow), people will be much less hesitant to explore new areas, identifying uncharted pathways and then charging down them. They will also see the upside of decisiveness: The time they’ve saved on not gnashing their teeth about whether they’re on the right course comes in handy when they’ve hit a dead end and need to reboot.” (P111)
  • “It isn’t enough to pick a path – you must go down it. By doing so, you see things you couldn’t possibly see when you started out; you may not like what you see, some of it may be confusing, but at least you will have, as we like to say, “explored the neighborhood.” The key point here is that even if you decide you’re in the wrong place, there’s still time to head toward the right place. And all the thinking you’ve done that led you down that alley was not wasted.” (Pp111-2)
  • “When experimentation is seen as necessary and productive, not as a frustrating waste of time, people will enjoy their work – even when it is confounding them.” (P113)
  • “There is an alternative approach to being wrong as fast as you can. It is the notion that if you carefully think everything through and consider all possible outcomes, you are more likely to create a lasting product. But I should caution that if you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them – if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line – well, you are deluding yourself. […] For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work – things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal. While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.” (P114)
  • “There are arenas, of course, in which a zero failure rate is essential. […] But just because “failure free” is crucial in some industries does not mean it should be a goal in all of them. When it comes to creative endeavors, the concept of zero failures is worse than useless. It is counter-productive.” (P115)
  • “While experimentation is scary to many, I would argue that we should be far more terrified of the opposite approach. Being too risk-averse causes many companies to stop innovating and to reject new ideas, which is the first step on the path to irrelevance. Probably more companies hit the skids for this reason than because they dared to push boundaries and take risks – and, yes, to fail. To be a truly creative company, you must start things that might fail.” (P118)
  • “One of the biggest barriers is fear, and while failure comes with the territory, fear shouldn’t have to. The goal, then, is to uncouple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employees’ hearts. How, exactly, do you do that? […] The antidote to fear is trust, and we all have a desire to find something to trust in an uncertain world. Fear and trust are powerful forces, and while they are not opposites, exactly, trust is the best tool for driving out fear. There will always be plenty to be afraid of, especially when you are doing something new. Trusting others doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do (or if you do), you trust they will act to help solve it.” (Pp123-5)
  • “Rather than trying to prevent all errors, we should assume, as is almost always the case, that our people’s intentions are good and that they want to solve problems. Give them responsibility, let the mistakes happen, and let people fix them. If there is fear, there is a reason – our job is to find the reason and to remedy it. Management’s job is not to prevent risk but to build the ability to recover.” (P128)
  • “If we allow people to solve problems without permission, and if we tolerate (and don’t vilify) their mistakes, then we enable a much larger set of problems to be addressed. When a random problem pops up in this scenario, it causes no panic, because the threat of failure has been de-fanged. The individual or the organization responds with its best thinking, because the organization is not frozen, fearful, waiting for approval. Mistakes will still be made, but in my experience, they are fewer and farther between and are caught at an earlier stage.” (P164)
  • “Unleashing creativity requires that we loosen the controls, accept risk, trust our colleagues, work to clear the path for them, and pay attention to anything that creates fear.” (P295)
  • “Change and uncertainty are part of life. Our job is not to resist them but to build the capability to recover when unexpected events occur. […] Similarly, it is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.” (P317)

What do YOU think? Do you find Catmull’s tips helpful? How do you apply the principles and mindset of improvisation in your work? Please leave a comment.

Oh, and as well as being a marketing consultant, editor and copywriter, I’m also an improv performer and an applied improvisation trainer. So contact me if you’d like help with nurturing creativity, teamwork, communication and nimble responsiveness to change in your organisation.


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