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Everything’s An Offer

Everything’s An Offer: How to do more with less by Robert Poynton

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

As I sat in the wings, I realized why I continue to be excited about the practices of improvisation even after all this time. It is because they give you something to do that can fill this gap. The practices provide a structure that is easy and quick to grasp. That structure is very open but nonetheless provides constant guidance and support. It doesn’t give you a prescriptive plan, it gives you something to navigate by that helps you to make your own choices. It is this practice that enables improvisers to embody exactly the qualities that business leaders like Norman identify as critical: flexibility, adaptability, cocreativity, collaboration and so on. The practice is what makes it possible for improvisers to make more with less in no time at all and glean an enormous amount of personal satisfaction from doing so. And as Gary pointed out in the Three Lions Bakery, this practice is within the reach of all of us. It is something you can put into action, on your own, in your own way, for your own purposes, whenever you wish. To work with the ideas we will explore here you need no permission, no task force, no marketing campaign or formal training. You don’t even have to tell anyone you are doing it. This means that while the practice of improvisation may not be an answer, it is a great response.

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The heart of this practice can be summed up in six words: let go, notice more, use everything.

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The mental adjustment required to make all these ideas happen was to realize that plans, however meticulous they may be, are only part of the story, even with things as tangible as wood, stone and cement. I had to learn firsthand on the building site what the best architects, engineers and builders already know from experience. Namely, that the inevitable gap between what you anticipate and what actually happens is an opportunity as well as a problem. In that gap lie all kinds of possibilities—to adapt and improve the thing you are making, to create a better fit or to allow the circumstances to suggest more appropriate alternatives. Plans are the first word, not the last, and departing from them is not a sign of weakness or failure. Whatever you are making, the most effective and rewarding projects require a great deal of creative adaptation.

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This is not just about comedy. People laugh at improvisation not because it is funny, per se, but because they find it joyful.

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This raises the question “ How do improvisers generate flow?” The most familiar method—break a problem into its component parts and analyze what to do—won’t work. However quickly you think, there isn’t time to process all the possible responses and work out what the best one would be. Being smart or clever in the conventional sense is not enough. In fact, on the improv stage, trying to be clever often does more harm than good (an idea we will explore more thoroughly later on). Improvisers need a more efficient method than trying to cram thousands of possible scenarios into their brains.

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A similar difficulty bedeviled attempts by engineers to make robots walk. Robots with large centralized “brains” can become paralyzed when trying to process everything around them. As a result, they would spend their time “not walking, but worrying about getting the layout of the yard right.”3 Robot engineers (and their robots) took a great step forward when, instead of trying to give their machines a central processor clever enough to analyze everything, they provided each leg with a little processing power of its own and some simple rules to follow (rather like the reflexes in our own bodies). Improvisers have arrived at a similar solution. As Gary explained on that pivotal day in the Three Lions Bakery, what they have is a practice made up of a small set of simple rules (or individual “practices”) that can be applied in any situation.

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Practice is not only something you do, but something you keep doing. If you want to be really good at something you are never done with practice. The best footballers in the world still practice their passing. The best musicians still play scales.

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Seeing a world full of offers feels very different from seeing a world full of problems. Problems are something you want to get rid of, whereas an offer is something you can take and use.

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Let’s try again and this time I will give you some direction based on the practice of seeing everything as an offer. As before, we are looking for an original title for a story. This time, before you do anything else, look around you and just start to reel off (or note) what you see, particularly anything you hadn’t noticed before. Don’t limit yourself to the names of objects—include textures, associations, anything. Open up to your other senses too, what do you hear, touch, feel, taste, smell? Include your inner sensations, too. It only takes a few seconds and allowing yourself to slow down, just a tiny bit, will enable you to respond all the faster. I am going to join in and do the same thing as I write. Here we go…

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Couch, leaf, black, cement, house, cloudless, purple, soft, corduroy, square, handle, smooth, patchy, musical, grouchy, raffia, Japanese, roller skates, trunk, beauty. There are some offers. As yet I don’t know where these will lead me but I know they are offers. Now that they have been made visible dozens of potential titles are available, too, just by combining them. For example: “The Japanese Roller Skates” or “Patchy Black” or “The Grouchy House” or “Raffia and Cement” or “Cloudless Beauty” or “Couched in Purple.” I could easily go on, but you get the point.

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Nonetheless it is important to understand that seeing everything as an offer is not about looking on the bright side. In Monty Python’s Life of Brian people break into song as they are being crucified, happily intoning, “Always look on the bright side of life.” This is not what I mean by seeing everything as an offer. Looking on the bright side is a kind of judgment and, as we will explore in Chapter 8, part of the improviser’s practice is to stay out of judgment (i.e., to try and avoid premature decisions about what is good or bad).

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Seeing everything as an offer does not require you to see the loss of your job, your dog or your grandfather’s antique wristwatch as a good thing—it just asks you to look at the reality you face, ugly or otherwise, and ask yourself the question “What is here that I can use?” An offer is not nice or nasty, prickly or cuddly; someone falling asleep in your presentation, a pay raise or a broken leg are all offers in equal measure. The only question the practice leads to is “What do I want to do with this?”

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When bad things happen, we feel bad. Trying to see them as good feels fake and creates conflict within us. Much better to concentrate on how you can constructively use whatever you have been given.

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If the practice is “use what you have,” then “what do I have?” is an obvious question you can attack immediately, which gives you a simple, easy way to get going.

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This does not mean that accepting is good and blocking is bad. You need both, but in different measures and at different moments. The skill is to know how to use accepting and blocking to your advantage; not by using them equally, but by understanding the consequences of each so you know which serves your purpose.

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Occasionally this discussion of the virtues of accepting leads people to believe I am recommending you should say yes to every offer. I am not. It is impossible to accept every offer, and if you try, you will quickly end up feeling confused, overburdened or exploited. Accepting too many offers can bring its own difficulties, as we shall see in the next chapter. What is most important, whether you block or accept, is to do so consciously rather than simply being driven by habit and circumstance.

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One senior executive had a very perceptive way of summing up the balance between accepting and blocking. In the immediate aftermath of a workshop he said, “I have realized that I block about 95 percent of the time.” Gary and I asked him what conclusion he drew from this, and he said, “Blocking seems to be an essential part of my role, so I think I probably should be blocking about 70 percent of the time, but I realize now that often I just block out of habit, ignorance, or fear. I am going to work hard to cut out the 25 percent that I block unnecessarily because that is where the future of my company lies.”

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This shift of focus may be a little counterintuitive at first, but it is easy enough once you get the hang of it. This can be quite a big change—most of us normally spend an inordinate amount of time and energy worrying about ourselves. So when that knot in your stomach tightens up and you feel panic beginning to rise, push your attention out instead of letting it flee (or sink) inwards. Don’t think you have to come up with an answer or a clever response. Look around you, notice what other people are doing or saying, pay close attention to their expressions, their body language, their energy. If you do, just like the improviser, you will find that, almost invariably, something suggests itself. We often work harder than we need in order to try and look good, and we can save ourselves a lot of effort simply by being present.

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Improvisers also concentrate on adopting a physical attitude they call “fit and well,” which is the opposite of “sick and feeble.” It consists of being open, balanced and upright. This physical attitude is in itself a creative force and will often induce or allow new ideas to come forth. Confidence can create competence, as well as the other way around. There is nothing mystical about this. Recent developments in science have started to uncover the biochemical underpinnings of thought and feeling, and it turns out that the neurotransmitters that mediate how we think and feel are produced as much in the body as in the brain. Your bodily state literally affects what you think. It is not a metaphor. Move your body and you will change your personal biochemistry in a tangible way.

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Since there is nothing you can do to stop shadow stories coming, the practice is to let go of them, or at least, not to become attached to them. When you let go of one shadow story another one will soon spring up unbidden, which you can also let go of. This means there are plenty of opportunities to practice. One specific way of working on this is to make sure that you don’t finish other people’s sentences. Let them say what they want, rather than filling in with your own shadow story. If you let them finish, you might find that what they say is more interesting than you had imagined. Even if it isn’t, they will thank you for respecting them.

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Step 1—List the Routines. Take some project or process that feels stuck and list all the routines you can find. Include anything that is a repeated piece of behavior, like “we use TV advertising,” “we sit in the same place at the table” or “our recommended retail price is always something and ninety-nine cents.” You want to be as comprehensive as you can. Don’t worry if the routines sound obvious or dull. This step alone can be illuminating. Is the list long or short? Were routines easy or hard to find? Are they your own particular routines or are they industry or category ones? Can you spot any redundant conventions (like the headless fish)? Step 2—Choose Some Routines to Break. The second step is to choose a few of these to break (you only need a few). Look for the ones that might be limiting you, or that might just be fun to play around with. Step 3—Brainstorm Ways to Break These Routines. Then brainstorm ways in which you could break them. Don’t hold back here. This is a chance to let a little bit of nonsense into the process, and nonsensical thoughts often lead you toward new ideas.

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Step 4—Choose Which Idea to Use to Break the Routine. From the long list of ideas, choose one to adopt. This is the point where you get practical, so you might need to tone down or adapt some of the wilder ideas to fit your circumstances.

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Improv directors and teachers discovered awhile ago that “be changed by what you hear” is a much better piece of direction for an actor than “listen better.” This is logical—you can only know I have heard you if there is some kind of observable response, otherwise you are merely broadcasting. In a nutshell, their advice would be to get bad at poker—it is the opposite of the poker face that gives nothing away—you need to show, demonstrate or signal that you have heard.

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That kind of motivation is invaluable, and, by stark contrast with motivational speakers, it costs nothing, which is a thumping big offer. Next time you have the annual conference or company meeting, why not invert the normal convention and instead of getting an outside speaker, turn it into an Abrashoff-style exercise in listening that demonstrates a real willingness to be changed? Or design it to elicit suggestions and ideas and then use the podium to announce those ideas that you can put into action immediately. If it feels risky to turn a conference into a listening exercise, just imagine for a moment the risk you are taking with yet more blah blah blah.

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Imagine we are working together on a basic three-ball exchange (the fundamental unit of juggling in which each ball swaps place). I see that the throws from your right hand regularly fall too far forward—out of reach of the left. Rather than give you detailed corrective instructions, I simply ask you to notice what is happening to the throws from your right hand. As your awareness kicks in, there is a very strong tendency to autocorrect and the throws from your right hand start to land in a better place on their own. Experience shows this works better than telling you what corrections to make.

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The same is true with the improvisational practice. Try not to issue corrective instructions like “I must block less.” Instead, if blocking were the area you wanted to work on, set yourself the goal of noticing when and how you block. Write it down in a journal or diary. See if you notice any obvious patterns but don’t try too hard to analyze it. Stay with noticing. Often, that effort alone will induce a constructive change.

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Yet though Igor was undoubtedly unusual, Homo sovieticus was remarkably familiar. I have seen plenty of people in London or Los Angeles struggle in much the same way. Improvisational exercises are designed so that no one can determine what happens; however, like Igor, many people find this difficult to accept and quickly start to tell other people what to say or do. Rather than allow something to emerge, they try to coerce or compel other people to conform with their own idea. This happens fast. Many people have so little tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity that they will get visibly agitated within a matter of seconds.

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 “Even if they refuse to play, you can still use that. You could ask them why there was resistance to doing something different and that might provoke a conversation they really need to have.”

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Psychologist Guy Claxton dubs the kind of rational, conceptual thought which happily delivers verbal explanations as our “hare brain.” He contrasts this with our unconscious, intuitive capacities which he calls the “tortoise mind.” By definition the tortoise mind is invisible and mysterious and doesn’t give reasoned explanations. Which allows the hare brain to assume that the tortoise mind is only good at low-level functions like regulating heartbeat or digesting food.

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In a nutshell, I see that certainty is becoming less important than creativity. We are not so much living in an age of change, but living through a change of age.

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A recent session at the Saïd Business School brought this home to me. A participant (on a leadership program) either failed to hear or completely misunderstood an instruction for a game. As a result, an exercise which depended on a message being passed along a line was about to crash completely. I stood to one side of the room watching, and as the flow of the game began to stutter and it began to break down, I could feel the heat of people’s gaze. They were looking to me to see whether this was right or if it was working. I could feel anxiety rising and an inner voice started to whisper that I could step in and correct what was happening. I was on verge of doing so when something inside me shifted. My breathing slowed, I felt very grounded and suddenly it became obvious to me that I didn’t have to listen to the voice. I smiled involuntarily, my body relaxed and everyone around the room understood, as clearly as if I had said it out loud, that everything was just fine. I would even wager that at this point some people thought I had set up the disruption on purpose. In reality I had no idea that it would occur or what would happen next, but I knew and trusted the feeling that it would lead somewhere interesting, which it did. It opened the door to a fabulous few minutes. We laughed and learned so much. The breakdown in communication that had happened in the game gave us a real experience of the issues leaders face and led to a great conversation. What the group was able to observe and create together was far more powerful than anything I might have prepared beforehand. This was the joy of uncertainty coming home to roost.

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