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Can Improv Impact Learning Design? Yes, and…

Blog posts | 23.04.2019


Shaping the future of learning

Anyone who has ever taken an improv class is likely familiar with the phrase “yes, and”. It’s one of the first concepts taught, and a bedrock principal of the art form. If you’ve ever seen quality improv on stage, it is virtually swimming in “yes, and”, if not explicitly, then implicitly through the performers’ actions and responses to each other.

“Yes, and”, in the context of improv, means first accepting what your scene partner gives you as a gift and then adding something that builds on that gift. For example, if your stage partner says to you, “You killed my dragon”, your response should not be “You don’t have a dragon” or “No, I didn’t.” Those statements deny what you’ve been given and immediately shut that scene down. Any possibility of discovery has been eliminated. Just ask any audience member—nobody wants to watch two performers lob “Yes, you did” and “No, I didn’t” back-and-forth for 10 minutes.

A better response would be “Yes, I did. And I would do it again. He ate my muffin.” These 13 words accept what was given, achieve a momentary alignment and agreement between the two partners, and contribute a new idea. This response also establishes so much more—that the first player owns a muffin-eating dragon and that muffins are so important to the other player that he is willing to kill for them. That's a far more interesting result.

“Yes, and” is accepting what is and moving forward from there.

But what on earth does good improv and the rule of “yes, and” have to do with creating quality elearning?

“Yes, and” to Bring Great Ideas to the Surface

No matter how brilliant and imaginative you are, the combined brilliance of several creative, playful minds mentally rowing together is greater. In a recent study* by Fierce Inc., 86% of corporate executives surveyed cited lack of adequate collaboration as a cause for workplace failures.

Applying a “yes, and” mindset in your team meetings and brainstorms opens the door to new ideas. It allows people to think outside the box and ideas to come from unexpected places. A newbie content writer may have a unique learning design idea if given the chance. The veteran art director may have the perfect idea about how to group content. But more importantly, the act of building on each other’s ideas and following the trail of ideas through the forest of discovery will result in better work product. It can be easy to get stuck doing the elearning waltz: content, content, quiz, content, content, quiz? “Yes, and” can help us break free of traditional elearning constraints by facilitating new voices, new ideas and new direction.

“Yes, and” to Work Within Constraints

Of course, reality is reality. Sometimes, no matter how brilliant our ideas are, our clients will remain wedded to their own image of what a course should be. Or perhaps you’re added to a project midstream and you have different ideas about how the course should have been designed. But the client has already approved an approach, so best not try to reinvent the wheel. If you do, you will likely anger the creatives who have already invested numerous hours in the project, create more work for everyone if you’re successful, and sow the seeds of discontent with the client if they sense your team is not united.

Regardless of the reason, once a direction is chosen, it’s time to say yes to the dragon you’ve been given. Engage with your teammates and your client. Let them know you hear what they want, say yes, and add your magic.

“Yes, and” to Discover Great Stories

Improv is storytelling without preconceived boundaries or a net. Step-by-step and line-by-line, improv actors build a story. They’re forced to stay in the moment, listen to what has just been said, and find the next important detail in telling the story.

In elearning, whether you’re creating a compliance course or communicating the virtues of certain fiber optic cables, you’re telling a story. You should be anyway, if you want your learner to stay engaged.

Story discovery generally begins in client workshops. But trying to wade through complex content, numerous business goals, and identify learning goals can be daunting. At this stage you’re often just learning what your client is about and probably don’t fully understand the industry well enough to quickly identify what’s important. The client may know what is important, but not know how to communicate it to you. “Yes, and” can help.

Stay in the moment. Step-by-step and line-by-line build a story with your client as specifically as possible. Respond with: “Yes, and why is that important?”; “Yes, and who approves that”; “Yes, and this is the ideal behavior, right?”. The “yes, and” mindset can help you slow down, get below the surface, and extract the details and nuances that will help your stories have an authenticity and resonance that will draw learners in.

Recently, I had the pleasure of helping create a compliance course for a social media company. We spent more than two full days in content workshops. We employed the “yes, and” philosophy to understand how compliance issues affected their employees’ everyday lives and uncovered specific real-world details about challenges their employees faced. The connected details allowed us to create stories that truly engaged their learners.

A teaching point concerning not disclosing information with a competitor seems obvious. But what if that competitor is a friend of 20 years, who stood up and toasted you at your wedding and is godmother to your children? What if you’re out for drinks, off the clock, and just venting about life? Plus, she has always been your confidant. Then, the answer can be a little less obvious and a lot more interesting.

Getting to those kinds of real-world details allowed us to create a course that contained 29 multi-level real world scenarios for 10 different audiences that connected with their employees.

“Yes, and” for the Win

The “yes, and” mindset can be invaluable in the elearning workplace. It will make you a more collaborative team player. It will nurture creativity and allow the development of fresh approaches. It will improve your client workshops. It will increase the organisational and business impact of your elearning solutions. And, quite frankly, it will make you more fun to work with.


Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.