Why Our Brains are Hooked on Being Right – via HBR

I’m preparing for my “Summer O’ Conflict”, which basically means 5 weeks of Conflict Resolution training.

Conflict is fascinating, but as someone who watches and coaches Improvisers I have to say that the choice to start a scene with conflict is all too common. Some know it’s an Improv Pet Peeve of mine –  and I try to get at the root of why this is a common choice for so many of us.

I believe there is something about choosing conflict that keeps us safe. It gives us a problem to solve, but also keeps us from truly connecting and playing in the unknown. We can snap into ‘conflict mode’ quicker than ‘connection mode’.

This article from HBR sheds light on the neurological responses involved in conflict:

“In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).”

More More More…

Further more, when we argue, and we win, we want to keep winning and keep arguing.

“That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”

We run the risk of conflict not only being a choice, but a habit…one that we are neurologically rewarded for doing well in.

When Improvisers introduce conflict just for the sake of having something to do on stage, I stop and ask them to tell me what the conflict is really about. Often times they don’t know.

From competition to conversation

Improv is a team sport, just like so many businesses. Similarly, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be productive and important.

What worries me is the instinctual choice to fight instead of doing the harder work…listening.

If we can view conflict as a conversation instead of a competition, remove the idea of winner versus loser, right versus wrong and instead push towards agreement and the notion of being changed by the other person, then I’m more interested in your dynamics, and your scene. Our brains would like that too:

“Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.”


I Have a Great Idea – via Harvard Business Review

Bear with me for a couple hundred words, can you? I have a “great idea”.

There is an HBR Article floating around that got me fired up. Really fired up.

It was sent over by my friend Phil O’ Brien of Climbing Fish.

The article, written by Umair Haque, argues that the rise of “TED-style thinking” is one cause for our broken relationship with great ideas. He argues that the rise of bite-sized, easily digestible, talks, blogs, learning opportunities are…easy solutions. Here:

We’ve come to look at these quick, easy “solutions” as the very point of “ideas worth spreading. But this seems to me to miss the point and power of ideas entirely. Einstein’s great equation is not a “solution”; it is a theory — whose explanations unravel only greater mysteries and questions. It offers no immediate easy, quick “application” in the “real world,” but challenges us to reimagine what the “real world” is; it is a Great Idea because it offers us something bigger, more lasting, and more vital than a painless, disposable “solution.”

It’s true – audiences (especially adult audiences) want to know: how can I utilize this information now, how is this relevant to me, and what is the ANSWER?! I’ve seen it in the workshops I teach, the consultants I work with, and in my own experience.

I am not unlike the audiences of today. As I sit through each Graduate school class in my Master’s program I find myself struggling with classes that don’t provide immediate utility, relevance and answers. I worry about the cost, both opportunity and financial.

But what Haque is arguing, is for these learning experiences to encourage more questions than answers. To give us space to reflect and the time to transform these great ideas into more great ideas of our own. The learning I receive in graduate school makes me uncomfortable, far more than I’d argue a TED talk ever could. It is me at my most vulnerable self.

Why? It’s because I’m not given the simple, quick solution and immediate utility. But, I have the space to ruminate on it, share with my learning community and make the process relevant and meaningful for myself.

It’s a hard lesson to learn – especially when you are impatient, passionate, excited, and anxious.

“That is precisely how Great Ideas change us: not merely by pleasing us, but by challenging us. That is precisely how they elevate us: not merely by pandering to us, or by provoking us, but by enlightening the whole of us. That is precisely what makes Great Ideas truly worthy — not just easily palatable, and commercially profitable.”

I think of this often as I design and deliver corporate workshops and engage in many others. I remember that when I was first learning how to Improvise (which, I consider the “Great Idea” that changed my life), it wasn’t boiled down into one class or one 18-minute talk. Improv teaches you there is no right answer, or one solution. Sure, it’s also relevant and applicable, but not just in one clear way.

This “Great Idea” keeps me constantly off-center. This sort of learning helps a person truly come into their own, the learning isn’t spoon-fed, it’s up to them to grab the spoon. And, it’s stuck with me longer than any TED Talk, blog post, article ever could. It didn’t just spew knowledge, it fueled reflection and a desire for more experience.

Not all great ideas are intended for the masses or for digestible consumption, but that also means the ideas don’t have to be perfect or fully-formed to start to spread.

Learning is personal. Learning is meaningful. Learning is powerful. How can we as educators help keep this alive with the boundaries that technology, time, money, have set? I want to hear your great ideas.

The Presentation Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making, via HBR

If your New Years resolutions include improving your presentation skills, you’ll want to check out this recent study and article from Harvard Business Review. Has this happened to you…?

“During an interview, your potential new boss asks you to briefly describe your qualifications. At this moment, you have a single objective: be impressive. So you begin to rattle off your list of accomplishments…”

…and before you know it, 5 minutes have gone by. Fear kicks in, the clock is running, and we resort to lists instead of the big picture.

Getting clear, concise and specific in an interview, presentation, or meeting isn’t always easy, especially if we are focusing on the quantity of our material as opposed to the quality.

Naturally, our instincts tell us so because of a phenomenon called “Presenter’s Paradox”… the assumption that more is better.

“More is actually not better, if what you are adding is of lesser quality than the rest of your offerings. Highly favorable or positive things are diminished or diluted in the eye of the beholder when they are presented in the company of only moderately favorable or positive things.”

So if more is not the answer, what do we do? 

  1. Consider choosing a new objective – “be impressive” sounds fine, but we owe it ourselves to really understand and get clear on our objective, and work backwards from there. Improvisers choose every action based on their character’s objective and it does wonders to help them inform the scene and navigate the unknown.
  2. Less lists, more stories – use storytelling to help focus on the big picture. Turn your bullet-point accomplishments into key story points with a beginning, middle and end. Look to the Story Spine for help on this one.
  3. Ask yourself “The 5 Why’s” to help you get clear and specific.
  4. Remember that even though you’re in the hot seat, the interview or presentation isn’t all about you. Follow the improviser guideline of “making your partner look good” by finding opportunities for connection, commonality and interaction.

It’s not me, it’s you

“If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that life is a virtuous cycle — when you keep on giving, eventually you get”…

These are the words of Jodi Glickman from her latest HBR piece on networking. The idea of pure generosity, of “it’s not about me, it’s about you”, isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us, but it’s a skill that improvisers hone again and again.

For an improviser, it isn’t about you at all (it, meaning the scene, the game, the moment)…. it is all in support of the other person.

The mantra we adopt is: Make Your Partner Look Good.

What does this do and how does it help us? Well it’s not dissimilar from how we would network at a party or social event.

Focusing on offering support of the other person takes away some of the worry of self-scrutiny, and carrying a conversation. By being curious and generous we find new ways to connect with people, listen for what matters to someone and try to find ways to offer support, understanding, or assistance by “yes, and’ing” their thoughts and answers.

We can learn from anyone and everyone.

And we have something to offer anyone and everyone – it may not be there in that moment but perhaps in the future.

If you can approach a conversation this way, instead of “what can you do for me?”, you’ll find the ease of networking. It just takes some practice.

The genius of the “and”…


“Collaborative innovation involves the genius of the “and” versus the tyranny of the “or.” It’s not that brainstorming must always turn into “Groupthink” or that introverts or individuals have the best ideas. In good brainstorming, one feeds off the other and the end result is significantly more powerful than either approach alone.” – Harvard Business Review 

The need, space, and time for “Passionate Champions” to “and” an idea is the often missing step in the brainstorming process, says this latest article from HBR. 

Step One: Collaborate on ideas as a group. Make sure everyone is heard, help individuals improve their own thinking and be exposed to ideas they may not have thought of on their own.

Step Two: Open up the session to passionate, individual champions:

“Anyone, alone or with other people if they need or want help, can pick any idea and develop it further. Even if the idea has already been developed in one direction, a Passionate Champion may see it very differently and develop it in a totally different manner. Or, they can pick an idea that was not advocated by the group or selected by the client, and develop it as they see fit.

In our work, we find that Passionate Champion ideas often account for 50% of those that make it through internal and external vetting, and 20-30% of the ideas that make it into final concepts. What’s more, they are often the most breakthrough in terms of truly new, game-changing concepts.”

Create the safe environment for ideas to flow, allow those who want to “yes, and” an idea to do so. Who can say yes to an idea in your organization? 

The Three Ingredients of a Successful Team

Is there a secret recipe for a successful team? A little of this, a little of that and BOOM! Can it be that easy?

The latest HBR post suggests these 3 must-have ingredients in your recipe for a successful team. And, well…how much you add of each gives something for leadership to chew on.

1. A big challenge: How big is the goal you are chasing? Is it big, a bit scary but abundantly clear what the mission is? Do you have the support you need?

2. People with a passion to perform: Do you have passion to find answers to the big problems and challenges? It’s the passion and excitement that keeps your team pushing through and keeps you engaged during the frustrating times.

3. Space to excel, space to create and innovate: The freedom to fail, room for experimentation to help ignite the power of passion and kick around the big problems.

These ingredients (challenge, passion, and space to create) nicely compliment Daniel Pink’s research on workplace motivation. His 3 ingredients: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

These food analogies are making me hungry. What is your recipe?

Who in Your Company Can Say “Yes” to Innovation, Without Permission? – via Harvard Business Review

It’s no secret everyone wants to innovate and to be innovative, and you can propel it forward by adding a lot more of the word”yes” into your vocabulary.

I don’t mean saying yes to more meetings, more red tape, and more hierarchy -but instead, saying yes to more PLAY.

“The truth about big innovation is that you get what you play for. If that looks like a typo — if it’s jarring to see “innovation” and “play” in the same sentence or to hear anyone suggest that you, a manager, should play at anything — then this blog post is for you”, write Mark Sebell and Vijay Govindarajan in this latest post from the Harvard Business review. 

Everyone – leadership included, should come to play.

What it means to play is to be more open to new ideas and to have the ability to test out, and toy around with products or inventions you may have scoffed at in the past. Innovation could leave you feeling vulnerable, and risking failure – and you’ll need to asses the level of risk that’s right for you and your organization. But, when everyone comes to play, and it’s easier to get on the field instead of sitting on the sidelines, you’re at least putting more ideas on the field than watching them go by, judging them as they pass. Playing, in this case means removing the barriers that were once in place so that you can say “yes, and” where you used to say, “yes, but”, and letting teams run with an idea for a little while so that they fail faster and better instead of never trying at all.


Innovation is…putting the obscure to work for something useful

To see things in a new way is the hallmark of creativity and innovation.

We know some of our personal and organizational roadblocks already – sometimes we don’t believe we are creative, we censor ourselves, we favor stress and deadlines instead of the mental relaxation that can be necessary to create… and perhaps we also suffer from functional fixedness.

Functional fixedness, says researcher Karl Duncker – happens when we fixate on the common use of an object. Especially under stress or pressure, our brains have trouble seeing alternative uses, or connections (solutions, perhaps) from things right in front of us.

We tend to see just an object’s use, not the object itself.

“When we see a common object, the motor cortex of our brain activates in anticipation of using the object in the common way. Part of the meaning of an object is getting ready to use it. If a type of feature is not important for its common use, then we are not cognizant of it. The result: our brain’s incredible inertia to move toward the common. Efficient for everyday life, this automatic neural response is the enemy of innovation.”

Thinking outside the box means thinking about what else that box can represent.

Researcher Tony McCaffrey suggests the “generic parts technique”, breaking each object into its parts, no matter how obscure, so that alternative uses more easily emerge.

One of my favorite improv exercises, object montage, asks participants to come up with alternative uses to everyday objects, with rapid-fire quickness.

Of course, the next step after we have these new ideas is to “yes, and” them as much as possible.

For if we were to block them, we’d never know where these alternative uses would lead.

Read the full article here:  Why We Can’t See What’s Right in Front of Us – Tony McCaffrey – Harvard Business Review and also check out this recent post in Scientific American for some more great techniques!