When Your Baggage Has an Identity

Part of a series of posts about the Business Improv for Design Thinkers workshop.

We’ll start with a story about how I stumbled into self-awareness about pre-written scripts.

Last March or so, I went to a full-day workshop on how to become a Design Thinking facilitator. I was working a particularly stressful project at work at that time, so I brought all of my work stress with me on Saturday morning, got on the notoriously unreliable DC metro, waited while they put out a fire in one of the stations ahead of me, showed up late, and was still determined to be the best facilitator in the room. I embarrassingly lost my cell phone, made a big production about finding it (it was in my bag, which I had search eight times) and then sat down eagerly and promptly invalidated several suggestions and tried to push through my agenda. Overall, I was the wrench in the works.

In trying to ‘be my best’ I had lost sight of the point of a Design Thinking session. Bringing my baggage with me overshadowed the collaborative nature of a Design Thinking challenge. This baggage is what I call pre-written scripts.

What is a Pre-Written Script?

Pre-written scripts are how you would act and react normally; they form the basis of your social position, your identity at work, and your fun time persona at happy hour. They are based in how your life is set up. Your scripts serve you well. They make it so you don’t have to redefine yourself socially every single day.

The trouble comes in when your pre-written script is blocking your ability to be effective in the moment. When we bring the scripts into a collaborative or creative environment, we can miss out on great opportunities because we’ve got blinders on. Here are a couple of pre-written scripts that I have seen arise in a Design Thinking Session:

I’m a busy Professional

This script is oh-so-useful to get through your crowded day and packed schedule. To be a busy professional, you’ve got months or years in similar situations, so you’ve developed coping mechanisms, short hand, and decision trees that make it so you can make instantaneous decisions based on historical data. This is necessary to keep business going as usual and absolutely necessary to survive your day.

The Downfall. Design Thinking is an inherently disruptive process. Your coping mechanisms, short hand, and decision trees are designed to maintain the status quo. So, if you come into a Design Thinking sessions using all the same thought processes, you’re either going to end up with an extremely similar, and equally ineffective, solution, or you will come up with a radical solution with a flawed underbelly. Additionally, Design Thinking sessions often involve new groups of people, so if you all come in with this script, your scripts are going to clash.

I’m in Charge…of Everyone

This is a particularly pernicious script mainly because you are probably a manager, supervisor, CEO, or just bossy because you like being in charge and you are good at it. Being in charge gives you shots of dopamine and makes you feel comfortable and safe in your skin. If you’re not in charge, how will anything get done? How will people know what the right decision is? If no one is in charge…are we even going to survive this?

The Downfall. Design Thinking is meant to give everyone equal footing in the design process. People need to be able to come forward and present their most creative ideas and solutions. Everyone needs to be able to take charge when his or her strengths are useful and let other be in charge when another person strengths come to the fore. Natural leaders will always emerge, but the helpful leadership in Design Thinking is the kind that facilitates and brings others forward, rather than the straight up decisive people. Don’t worry if you are the take-charge person. You are vital to getting the developed projects piloted, completed, and thriving. But for now, sit back, have a coffee, and watch everyone shine.

I’m the Devil’s Advocate

You see yourself as the anti-hero. You are brave enough to stand up to ‘anyone, absolutely anyone, I don’t care how senior you are’ and tell them they are wrong. Questioning assumptions is necessary in business and life. You have probably saved your group from more than one disastrous decision. You may have learned that you get a status increase each time object to something…and it’s become habit. People come to you because “you’re a straight shooter.”

The Downfall. There is a common fallacy that ‘devil’s advocacy’ means challenging everything even if you don’t have a valid reason; however, the inherent value of challenging assumptions is only increased when there is a valid reason to challenge. (Point of clarification, a negative/uneasy gut feeling is valid, but questioning just for the sake of questioning isn’t.) You may delight in what you see as healthy debate, but someone else sees as cynicism or posturing. Design Thinking requires psychological safety to function correctly; every person must be able to feel his or her position is considered with equal weight. If you are constantly challenging each assumption and assertion, the psychological safety disappears and people begin to shut down. Save your eagle eye for when it is absolutely necessary.

I’m the 100% Decision Maker

You are one of those people that need to research 18 different types of dishwashers to replace your broken one. In your business, you are known as the person to go to for rock solid facts and decisions based on the highest number of data points accessible. You keep your company in the black by creating well-reasoned, risk-averse recommendations or decisions. You are a realist with a very structured way of thinking.

The Downfall. Design Thinking sessions require pushing through a great deal of steps in a short amount of time. It requires making quick decisions on half-baked information. While this is tough to understand at the beginning, it frees you to make random associations and unconscious choices that lead to novel, innovative and disruptive solutions. The purpose of Design Thinking is to create something new. Using 100% decision-making during this process is likely to lead to slight variations of your previous solution. If it helps, choose to make decisions using an 80% solution (this idea is 80% great for an optimist, or only 20% problematic for the cynic) or choose to trust that the popular decision in your group will be the right decision. Chances are, the idea will change so much through the process that you won’t even recognize it by the end, so your objections would have been for naught anyways.

What Does this Look Like to a Facilitator?

Life. Seriously, everyone has these scripts. You can either let them slowly figure out how to readjust their expectations, or point it out and try to get them to drop at least part of their scripts at the beginning.

How Can Improv Help?

Improv can help by disrupting these scripts the moment you walk in the door. By playing a few simple games, you can jolt people out of their complacency and put them into a collaborative and open frame of mind. Simple games such as Zip, Zap, Zop or Snap Pass are ideal to turn grumpy, overworked individual into open minded, relaxed yet energized innovators.

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