Following your fear in the design process
Stryker Theater, PIT NYC, image credit Peoples Improv Theater
The back wall of the Peoples Improv Theater (The PIT) in New York says in large letters: Follow the Fear. In this case we’re talking about the fear of not knowing how to approach something that interests you. We see that a lot in our clients. They want to make a change. They don’t know how to make it. They fear not knowing whether a change is the right change.
So you get a lot of yes, butting. And nothing gets in the way of change like yes, butting.
Places like IDEO and Stanford’s D-School recognize that giving in to fear can prevent the creative collaboration needed for human-centered design, and for years they’ve been incorporating improv skills into their exercises to help people work through their fears.
And you’re dealing with fears on multiple levels. In any human-centered design process, it’s critical to involve a diverse group of people who have stakes in the outcome. In the case of a nonprofit, you want board members, leadership, staff, and outside stakeholders.
When you get that many people in the room, creating an atmosphere conducive to the development of ideas is challenging. A lot of people don’t consider themselves creative and clam up. Others, with very practical concerns for the bottom line, won’t agree to any idea that doesn’t strike them as a sure-fire, how-did-we-not-think-of-this-before winner.
So the trick is getting them all to open up to the creation of ideas. That is the basis of improv.
On an improv stage there are ways of guaranteeing creative collaboration. This gives multiple people working together the chance to find and develop an idea. In that way improv and design have a lot in common. They’re both about listening. They’re both about the creative discovery that comes from working in agreement. They both want you to push beyond the obvious by asking: what’s interesting about this situation, and if that’s true, what else is true?
They also both get stopped dead cold by yes butting.
Yes, we would like to change, yes we would like to grow, yes we would like to be clearer about what we do, but we don’t know that this idea is the right one.
I get it. I really do. Especially in the case of board members. They have to answer to the bottom line and if the organization goes under, they’re accountable. Boards, particularly for regional nonprofits, tend to be made of local business people, who by nature of running a business, can be conservative in their decision making. You don’t radically rethink your business and how it communicates with the world unless something is very wrong with it.
But that is the case with many of the nonprofits we encounter. Too many of them are still built for a world where they believe their mission is enough to sustain the organization. What we do is important, they say. People will understand that.
People are inundated with asks for their money all day long every day. People literally see thousands of ads every day. Nonprofits aren’t just competing with other nonprofit missions. They’re competing with Amazon.
Change may be a source of fear, but not changing to account for this market scares me more. So how do you bring people and their baggage into the design process and encourage them to be actively creative contributors?
Improv. Even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, which might be a good idea because improv scares people as much as change.
There’s an exercise in intro improv classes that asks students to find a partner, preferably someone they don’t know. They’re told they are long-time friends and planning a vacation together. This is done in three rounds: No; Yes, but; Yes, and.
One person makes a suggestion: How about Brazil?
Second person says no: No. It’s dangerous.
Result: You’re going nowhere.
Person one: Brazil?
Person two says yes, but: Yes Brazil sounds cool, but so dangerous.
Result: You’re going nowhere, but in a passive aggressive way.
Person one: Brazil could be cool!
Person two says yes and: Yes, and it could be hot too!
You might have a plan in the works.
But what about the danger, you’re asking.
It’s just an idea, it’s not dangerous yet. It’s not anything yet, but now it can be, even for people who don’t consider themselves creative.
Improv is built on guidelines that help you define a creative space and then develop that space. When it works, it’s because you allow things to develop organically from an idea introduced into the room. Another person in the room will say, yes, that idea, and this idea to help fill in the who, what and where. Together they identify what stands out about that idea. If that’s true, what else is true?
To develop ideas this way, you have to work in agreement, you have to take risks, and you can’t predetermine where you’re going. Most of these ideas won’t work, and that’s how it should be. All of the ideas, however, will help you think deeper about the organization.
In another exercise, we work with our client to create audience personas, which are archetypes of either donors, advocates, or clients. We challenge the people in the room to immerse themselves in a specific persona, to think about that person’s day from the moment they wake up until now.
Now, as that person, how do you encounter this organization?
In improv, this would be character work, and it would affect perspective as an idea developed on stage. In the design process, it helps your team step away from how they always see their organization. It puts them in the position to see their communications are never about the organization itself, but rather about the person experiencing it.
The goal is the free flow of ideas and a collaborative effort to develop them organically. Allow them to breathe.
Most of them won’t be the answer. In fact, some of them will be awful. But even the awful ones can start the process necessary to discover honest answers. When people start opening themselves up to creative cooperation, one idea provokes another and you find yourself in an environment that fosters ideas instead of smothering them.
Then, out of nowhere, maybe from the person you least expect it, comes an idea that turns all of the heads in the room.
So follow the fear and believe that change that grows from a deep exploration of the organization will truly reflect that organization. It should be a little bit scary. You and your creative partners are going into the unknown to discover where that takes you. And you have to commit. Otherwise you’re relying on dumb luck to come up with good design.
Yes it will happen from time to time, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Dean Temple is the creative director of Drake Creative Collaborative. His clients have included VDAY, the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, the Internet Archive, and the Library of Congress. His solo show Voice of Authority, which premiered at the PIT, will be at the 59E59 NYC, July 17-21, 2019, and Surgeon’s Hall at theSpace UK during Edinburgh Fringe, August 2-24, 2019.