Navigating ambiguity with a surf and a dive


This week I had the privilege of visiting the renowned at Stanford to learn about how they teach creativity and innovation to their graduate students.

The school screamed collaboration, curiosity, and discovery — and while there, a couple members of the teaching faculty and I put these principles into action to make a spontaneous, 2-minute mobile video on one of my favorite questioning frameworks: Surf and Dive.

I learned about this framework from Dr. Julia Sloan at Columbia University, and it’s a sure-fire way to diverge (read: broaden) your thinking, and test assumptions. Check out the video link below and let us know your thoughts!

TOOL: The Failure Bow

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Ted DesMaisons – a fellow Improviser, also a blogger, Stanford Business School Graduate, and a very gifted man and teacher.

His latest blog post, The Transformative Failure Bow , talks about one of the greatest resources in an improviser’s toolkit: the ability to transform failure and a mistake into a celebration of boldness. It is a learned skill worth practicing. Here he describes the history of this great tool, how he teaches it, and how it creates transformation by shifting our reaction and definition of “failure”.

He asks the question we all could be asking — what are we rewarding? The effort, the result, or both? How do you define the result?

“As Matt Smith affirmed in a recent conversation, “The Failure Bow isn’t designed to reward or focus on the failure. It’s designed to reward the willingness to be transparent, the capacity to remain available in the present moment, and the ability to get back on the horse without residing in shame.” It’s that awesome eagerness that leads an athlete to say “Hit me another, Coach” or a student to insist “Let me try again.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.”

The Transformative Failure Bow 

TOOL: It’s all about the debrief… six questions to spark informative answers

How does this relate – is often the debrief question we as facilitators go to, to spark some meaningful answers.

Yes, and we can delicately and deliberately lead our participants to more truthful, reflective and relevant conversation by asking them a series of questions that bring about the golden nuggets of learning — learning that moves you forward as a team, and individual or an organization.

Thanks to training guru Thiagi and a helpful refresher of his methodology last week at the Applied Improv Network San Francisco chapter meeting, here’s picture proof of my six favorite debrief questions.

TOOL: Delight and engage your audience with reincorporation

Improvisation as a communication tool can be broken down into two steps:

Listen, then react.


Without being able to plan ahead in the conversation or the scene, Improvisers are skilled at being present and in the moment, fine-tuning their listening skills to yield honest reactions that keep moving the story and conversation forward.

Skilled Improvisers are also excellent at re-incorporation, or “the call-back” as it’s coined in the comedy world.

Reincorporating a piece of information, a line of dialogue or a small moment from earlier in the scene or story usually results in a big laugh. Reincorporation is a favorite of Improv audiences because they are amazed we remembered such details, and what is familiar usually get a laugh.

Without superb listening and awareness skills, reincorporation wouldn’t be possible.

But, reincorporation can delight more than just Improv audiences. 

Its applications stretch from presentation skills to interviews, praise, and building connections with everyday conversations.

Reincorporation really just means we’ve been listening, and it always feels nice to know you’ve been listened to. It shows that you care, and you are paying attention – imagine the delight and surprise when a small piece of information is reincorporated in an improvised story, perhaps an hour after it was first introduced. Reincorporating an idea, or an employee concern, or praise of a job well done can have the same effect.

Specificity plays a role here too. The more detailed the reincorporation, the bigger the reaction and delight you are creating.

As a presentation tool, reincorporation helps with retention, learning, and information summary. Repeating key points or key themes  in a presentation is a strategic tool.

Listen, then react… with an emphasis on the listening.

TOOL: Create opportunities for connection

Here is an important tool to add to your toolbox that doesn’t require an internet connection, or proper knowledge of emoticons.

It’s connection.

How can you create or find more opportunities to increase cross-functional support, empathy, collaboration and trust across an organization?

It can start with increasing the frequency and quality of interactions that your staff has with each other every day. It means increasing the ability to connect with your peers, share ideas, break down barriers and step away from your computer screen.

Create more opportunities for your staff to interact and get to know each other.

In designing the layout of Pixar Animation Studios, Steve Jobs famously requested there only be one restroom location  in the building – so that employees would have more opportunities for the kind of spontaneous interaction that fuels creativity. Today we see many companies bringing in catered lunches or creating cafeterias and open spaces which can encourage a sense of community, connection and camaraderie.

Sometimes building connections is as simple as providing opportunities for employees to work  with those they wouldn’t normally interact with.

The DreamWorks Improv Performance troupe is made up of wonderful people who represent almost every department at the company. We have animators interacting with visual effects artists interacting with engineers.

When there is a problem to solve across departments, these employees are no longer strangers to each other – they are allies and generous collaborators. The trust developed on stage carries over into the work environment and helps to build a stronger organization.

The more opportunities you can create to bring different departments, viewpoints and strengths together, the more connections will be formed to enhance the innovative and collaborative tendencies of your organization.

Step one to humanizing an organization is to create more opportunities for human connection. It starts with stepping away from the computer. 

Give & Take – Training the art of negotiation

A negotiation is rarely a winner-take-all event. Instead it is often a give-and-take. Therefore, our ability to perform and achieve negotiation prowess is determined by listening, trust, empathy and observation skills.

These teachable skills allow individuals to focus on the other person, and allow them to build rapport with their negotiation partner. It is a delicate process of finding and building connections instead of barriers.

Companies all over the world are employing training techniques (many derived from the Improvisation world) to teach the art of negotiation.

This article from Training Magazine  highlights many of these efforts, including the work being done at BATS Improv in San Francisco.

Improvisers learn how to:

  • Listen and react
  • watch for body language cues
  • pay attention to tone and inflection
  • use and be comfortable with silence
  • build trust by finding shared connections
  • become more aware of intent vs. interpretation
  • learn how “status” (dominance vs. submission) is a performance choice we are constantly making
  • create collaborative conversations
  • embrace failure
  • use role-plays and practice scenarios in a safe environment

Read the full article here: Give & Take |


TOOL: Choosing how to play the “scene”

When we think about a basic framework for how and why to apply the tenants of Improvisation to life off of the Improv stage, we can start by discussing the word “performance”.

Whether or not we are used to thinking of it this way…the truth is, we are all performing every moment of our lives.

If this seems daunting or strangely unsettling, you’re not alone.

Luckily, we can use the tools of Improvisation to create more conscious performance choices, (tailored for each stage or scene) to achieve more authentic, successful and meaningful interactions.

Learning and acquiring these skills allow each of us to build a toolkit of performance choices – that we can use to become more adaptable, flexible and aware in the moment.

Here are some basic tips that can help you when thinking about the performance choices we make all the time:

  1. Be present – practicing mindfulness, and the ability to read a room and pick up on non-verbal cues allows us to tailor our performances for the appropriate stage
  2. Remember the power of “status” – be aware that the choices we make in our behavior, our tone, or words, and our non-verbal communication can elicit powerful shifts in status dynamics between people.
  3. Make your performance partner look good – remember that we are often not alone on the stage. Being able to effectively communicate and collaborate with others has an obviously large effect on the overall performance of the team. Use active listening, a “yes,and” mindset and a give-and-take approach to allow space for others to achieve their performance goals.
  4. Know your objective – in each scene, we want to know what our characters objective is. Knowing our objective, “our want”, allows us to adjust and adapt our choices on stage depending on how close we are to achieving that goal.

If this blog post was beneficial to you, who can you share it with to continue the conversation?

How to foster a culture of courage and creativity

Innovation requires courage and creativity, which can be difficult to foster and maintain in a culture“, says’s Chief Product and Technology Officer, Lisa Kavanaugh.’s innovation strategy is one many companies are adopting:  to teach Improv skills to every member of their company.

These Improv skills are used as tools to build a safe work environment where ideas are encouraged, shared and built upon.

Hear from the team about the success of this important initiative here.