THROUGH IMPROVISATION, WE EXPLORE TOPICS SUCH AS PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY, TRUST, CREATIVE THINKING, AGILE WORK, AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE PART OF A TEAM
Improvisation can have a significant impact on the workplace and organizational culture. Improvisation techniques are used to develop skills such as adaptability, creativity, collaboration, empathy, listening, and decision-making in uncertain situations. These elements are essential for effective leadership and teamwork. At the #loveHR Summit 2023, Mark Emdin, an internationally recognized expert in leadership and organizational culture, will speak about the conditions for high-performing teams and the elements of games and improvisation. Emdin has over 25 years of experience leading organizations and collaborating with leading companies worldwide. He specializes in using improvisation techniques and methodologies to develop more effective leadership skills and improve organizational culture, which we discussed with him in an interview that will serve as an introduction to his lecture at #loveHR Summit 2023 in Portorož.
In short, what are the conditions that team leaders need to ensure for effective team performance?
First, let’s consider what defines an effective team. Here we look at three criteria. First is ‘Task Performance’ which means the key stakeholders or users of the team’s work are satisfied with the quality, quantity, and timeliness of the team’s work. Secondly, we look at the ‘Quality of Group Process’. Is the group becoming more effective and improving its performance over time? Finally, we look at ‘Member Satisfaction’ which means that the team contributes to the learning, growth and satisfaction of its members. There are trade-offs among these three outcomes in the short run (e.g., sometimes a team has to put task performance ahead of member learning), but great teams are able to make those trade-offs and build positive outcomes on all three over time.
Now, if the above are the outcomes, what then are the inputs, or conditions you need to have in place? To build a great team, first come the essentials:
1. Does the work we do require us to be a Real Team that is interdependent?
2. Do we have the Right People with the required skills and diversity to deliver the required work?
3. Are we clear and aligned on our Compelling Purpose?
When the Essentials are in good shape we can then turn to the three Enablers. These are:
1. Do we have Sound Structures in place? This means the right size team with supportive norms and behaviours.
2. Does the team operate in a Supportive Organizational Context and have access to the resources it needs to be successful?
3. Does the team have access to Team Coaching, someone to help the team develop effective team processes?
As you can see, team leaders need to be intentional in how they design their teams so that they can become high performing teams. You can’t leave it to chance.
Many people, especially in business, are afraid of improvising. What are the benefits of improvising and how do you encourage people to improvise?
There is a misconception that improvisation is about being funny and this creates anxiety for people. The reality is that in life, including at work, we are already improvising. Not a day goes by when we are not responding, reacting to or building on the ideas of others. A meeting may have an agenda, but we don’t really know how the discussions will go.
It is not about encouraging people to improvise because, as you see, we are already doing it. It is more about encouraging people to go further and use improvisation in a more applied way when it comes to business.
Let me give you an example which also links back to how teams work together. To be successful in improvisation we need to let go of the story or ideas that we have in our head, listen to and use the ideas of others so that together we create an amazing scene. Teams who work in silos are often holding into their targets, their ways of working, their story so tightly that they are unable to listen to the ideas of others resulting in poor collaboration. Robert Poynton makes the link beautifully when he asks us to imagine how more productive and enjoyable work would be if we noticed more, let go and used everything around us.
What happens when team leaders involve the elements of play in team or organization development?
There is a lot of research and evidence that shows that bringing elements of play into learning or organisation development is advantageous. We look at challenges, problems and opportunities from different perspectives. As a result, it promotes engagement, creativity, improved team work and, because it is fun, reduces stress. It also creates a shared experience that participants will remember and often refer back to.
You are also part of easylaughs, an improvisation school based in Amsterdam, and lead their workplace learning team. What skills do participants focus on or explore when participating in an improv workplace workshop?
The great thing about improvisation is that it is truly flexible. Through the various exercises and games we bring into the workshops, we explore topics such as psychological safety, trust, creative thinking, working in an agile way and, of course, what it means to be a team. I have also used the principles of improvisation with an organisation to design an approach to dealing with an large scale change project.
I am also a member of the Applied Improvisation Network, a global network of improvisers who use improvisation in a way that is not performance focused. Some use it as part of coaching, therapy, education and training. The creativity across the network is amazing.
You are also a certified Lego serious play facilitator. Can you describe this innovative approach and why it should be a part of any business?
Lego serious play is a great way to create a 3D model of what is in people’s minds. As a facilitation technique it is fully participative as everyone builds a model and shares their unique insights. The Lego model itself is a sort of ‘fire starer’ for a group dialogue.
Where it becomes exciting is when you start to combine the models. People need to start thinking about what will I give up or take away from my model so that we have a better single model? How do we connect the pieces so that we have a new and coherent story. It can also serve as a great way to align around organisation design, culture and strategy.
In your opinion, what does it takes to be a good (HR) leader in these days? What are their biggest challenges?
I can only share what business and HR leaders share with me through my work, and I am sure it will not be surprising.
Leaders have always needed to lead in complex environments. What I see and hear is an increase in the ambiguity and unpredictability across the multiple contexts that leaders operate within. Despite having great systems, processes and structures across our organisations, the reality is many of these are more guides than definitive pathways. To be successful, this also requires greater delegation and empowerment, something that a number of leaders struggle with: another form of ‘letting go’.
Many of my clients are also challenged by a need for effective collaboration. There is a lot written on the topic and it has become a bit a buzzword. However, it is possible to have too much collaboration or the wrong type. This often comes at the expense of leaders have time to do their deep-thinking work. More often than not this is an organisation design challenge.
I also am a firm believer that we need to develop, support and reward leaders who focus on making their teams successful and competitive. This is effective leadership, rather than developing charismatic leaders who through networking climb our organisation ladders.
Of course, data and digitalisation will be important, and there are others better equipped to share a point of view than I am. I will say that I am a huge fan of the emerging AI technology.
What will employees expect from employers and their workplace in the future, especially after pandemic which significantly changed the way how we feel about work?
I think the overriding word would be flexibility. Employees are already expecting more flexibility and support from their employers. Flexibility with respect to where we work, when we work and how we work. We are seeing calls for greater holistic support, expanding from physical and mental health to also include areas such support with financial health.
I do a lot of work with start-up and scale ups. One of the attractions for people to join them are the intrinsic rewards that people receive. There is an explosion in the growth of socially focused entrepreneurs who are running organisations with a more participative culture. I think our larger corporations can learn something from smaller enterprises.