While you may think of improv as entertainment, you may not know how it can be used in training teams to adapt to change. In this episode, Fairplay Communications' Andy Eninger and Scott Zoll explain how improv can create a safe space for growth and dialogue in your organization.
Fairplay Communications offers suggestions that organizations can implement to facilitate better communications, learning, and growth. Their key points include the following:
Learn more about Fairplay Communications on their website.
Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.
Learn more about d'Vinci at www.dvinci.com.
Speaker 1: [00:00:00] This is Powered by Learning, a podcast designed for learning leaders to hear the latest approaches to creating learning experiences that engage learners and achieve improved performance for individuals and organizations.
Speaker 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at dvinci.com.
Susan: Hello, and welcome to Powered by Learning. I'm your host Susan Cort. Today I'm joined by d'Vinci President Mason Scuderi. We're going to talk with our guests Scott Zoll and Andy Eninger from Fairplay Communications, a company that specializes in fast-paced instructor-led learning programs that create a safe space for growth and dialogue. [00:01:00] Their team of learning designers, facilitators, researchers, content creators, and strategists use improvisation to help people in teams learn how to adapt to change. Welcome, Scott and Andy. It's great to see you again.
Andy Eninger: Thanks for having us, Susan. Nice to see you again as well.
Scott Zoll: Yes, it's so great to be here. We appreciate it.
Susan: Thank you. Start off by telling us a little bit more about Fairplay Communications.
Scott: Sure. We are a Learning and Development Organization. As you said, we're grounded in the realm of improvisation. Together and with a lot of the folks that now facilitate with us, we had been doing learning and development for a very long time, for some of us for a couple of decades, often using the tenets of improvisation to do that. We knew that there was more to be had.
We had dabbled in everything from consumer research to leadership development, to working with sales teams, to lots of aspects of blended entertainment. We knew that if we took that and took it a step [00:02:00] further, there was something to be found. So we launched our company, Fairplay, in the spring of 2020, amazing timing, right as the pandemic was just ending.
The good news is our foundation is helping organizations move through change, really building those competencies and skills that help leaders and sales teams move through times of change. And that was a good chance to really practice what it is that we preach, so to speak. We found that although learning and development took a big hit in that first year, it gave us a great opportunity to experiment, to learn from what a lot of our clients were going through. To really coalesce around some of the competencies and skills that we saw were really missing for folks to be able to move through change.
Susan: For sure.
Andy: Yes, that idea of adaptability was key coming out of a pandemic in particular. For most organizations what we found was that they were just struggling to figure out how to engage their employees [00:03:00] and their workforce in general. Being able to come at it from a different angle is really where we found our success mostly in working with organizations. While we talked about and focus on the concept of adaptability, we do so by employing those tenets of improvisation.
Mason Scuderi: That's really great to hear. I think that improvisation is such an interesting idea. And it's not always associated with learning. What is your definition of improv and how do you use it as a part of Fairplay's learning programs?
Andy: It's funny when people think about improv, they often think about winging it or what you might see on Whose Line Is It Anyway? That definitely is the practice that fuels us, it's also the one thing that all of our facilitators, all of our learning designers have in common, they've trained in that way. We noticed that improvisation really is, it never exists, whether it's performance or even as an applied convention without the sense of guardrails.
For example, when I create on stage as an improviser, there's often rules that I'm following. Those rules [00:04:00] might be something as simple as each line of dialogue has to start with the next letter of the alphabet. That's where the fun comes for the audience. It has to be a bit of a high-wire act for there to be comedy and humor and for it to have a structure.
The same goes with applying these tenets to real life and certainly to real life where there are business challenges. We're never just winging it, we're always operating within really extreme guardrails. That's the ability to be flexible, to still be creative, to not have your focus only be on the guardrails and what you can't do, to be looking solely at those barriers, but to look for the opportunity and the possibility in the moment. Whether that's a sales conversation that's gone awry and you get that one objection or that one question you were hoping you wouldn't get or whether that's over time, what it means to come back to a problem and try to find solutions and stay positive and engage and enroll other people with that improviser spirit. That's how I would define it. [00:05:00]
Scott: For me, as somebody who came from outside of the industry, I wasn't super aware of improvisation as it related to the rules of how art was created on the stage. What I saw when I started working in this improvisational world was that there really was a desire or a need to focus on others and to be in support of others. To me, that was such a huge piece and in the application to that, as Andy indicated, both internally as to how we show up in the world and how we create the space for others to show up.
Additionally, how organizations if they are just focused on what's best for us as a group and not just me as the individual, the power of that is what improv really brought out and what I could see the value like I said, not only for in the corporate space but in everyday life.
Mason: That's really interesting. Why don't you share some of the ways that you work with organizations to be a part of their growth and development?
Andy: It's interesting when we improvise on stage you’re always obsessed with what's on the audience's mind. [00:06:00] And I think that same tenet goes for the work we have with organizations. We do a lot of design of custom learning programs, whether that's for a live event, we've just gone through a season of a lot of live events and a lot of those events have been like the first time our 200 senior leaders are back together again in person so it has to be a great, amazing, valuable and engaging.
That's where people turn to us to use this style of engaging learning or whether that's really designing these evocative and interesting virtual programs online to help people dive more deeply into what it means to be a better coach, as a leader or to give and receive feedback or to manage hybrid meetings in a way that's really inclusive. Folks need to get to that from more of an experiential or behavioral standpoint.
They will need people to practice and to understand why we might be behaving in dysfunctional ways so that we can shift that make that recognition [00:07:00] and build the skills to do it in redesigned ways. Improv becomes a really great tool for that. But we love to apply it in a way that's in service of what's going on for our clients.
Scott: I think from the perspective that I have and how I've seen it actually utilized, it's actually two different things, right? In the one sense, you can use it to build skills, first and foremost, and you can do so in an environment and in a way that's inclusive, experiential, it's very dialogue-based. But the other aspect of it too, oftentimes, is that there's sometimes difficult conversations that have to happen in an organization. What I have seen, at least from our facilitators is the ability to hold that space to have certain types of conversations, but do so in a way where you're not having a difficult conversation but you're having a conversation about a difficult topic.
So it really manifests itself in two different ways. Some companies come to us because they're interested in how do we help them work through maybe a particular challenge within the organization, but then how do we take those skills and use them going forward? It's that [00:08:00] combination of being able to have the conversation but then being able to build the skills that are necessary. So when that conversation comes up in the future, it isn't nearly the same challenge as it was the first time they encountered it.
Mason: I think it's amazing you guys started this company right at the start of the pandemic, and have been offering these resources to companies as they all went into a scenario where they're communicating in different ways and are changing to remote work. Since March of 2020, over the last two-plus years, how have things changed now that we're coming out of the pandemic?
Andy: We're seeing a couple of big themes going on. The biggest one I think is return to work and what that looks like. We're seeing a bit of divergence. You see those companies that are like, "Everyone needs to be back or many people need to be back, to let's listen to what folks want and let's design the future of the business in a way that works for folks and everything in between."
I think that the biggest shift is [00:09:00] this sense of power to the people, which is something that lights us up a lot. We've always been very excited about giving folks a voice. I think that employees have a voice like never before. In terms of organizations needing to keep them around, keep folks engaged, recognize and adapt. I think it's really uncomfortable for a lot of leaders to lead people in a hybrid or remote standpoint.
They can't see people, how do they know if they're working, but to step into that unknown has been where we're seeing some of the most innovative companies moving toward. It's also fascinating, we're also seeing the inverse, we're seeing this big backlash to that with companies calling people back and saying, "You need to be back, no matter what you have to come back," whether that's like they're actually saying it or sometimes it's implicit.
They said, "Well we said you can go away but you're really going to be inhibited in terms of your career trajectory if you're not here on site." We're also seeing that, I would say it's a pretty insidious behavior [00:10:00] where they're kind of taking back what they had said in terms of allowing for remote work. It's fascinating to see how companies are organizing and certainly as a company that plays a lot in making the most of people's time together. We are firmly on the side of be remote work, hybrid work in a way that works for people, and let's bring people together and let's make the most of that time.
When you do have folks when you bring people in or you're going to take on that expense or that effort, let's make sure that you're using that time to get to know each other, break down barriers and silos, and really use that time to build that sense of community.
Scott: I think one of the things that I've been seeing a lot too, and we've been hearing a lot from our clients as well, is we as Fairplay work in the learning and development space and oftentimes in the past, what we were always trying to do is help them to meet those learning and development challenges. Now we're seeing a lot of the framing not around what are the challenges that we're trying to solve regarding learning and development, [00:11:00] but what are the business challenges that learning and development can help to solve?
What we're seeing is this much larger conversation that's happening around the business challenges and the business needs of the organization, but balancing that with the needs of the employee because again, these younger generations that we're seeing coming in right now, people are willing to take less money or to not take a job at all if they're not aligned with values of the organization and individual growth. That's a really big thing.
Not just learning and developments that I learn how to do my job better, but learning and on how to be better corporate citizen overall so that I can be of service to you while I'm at this organization. But at the same time, being able to, if there isn't an opportunity for me to move forward with a particular opportunity within this organization that I'm prepared to leave and become an ambassador both for your brand, but do better work in the next place that I'm going to. To me that's, it's been super interesting just that shift alone, not just focused on learning and development but focused on the business challenges that learning [00:12:00] and development can help solve.
Mason: That's so true. Innovation is another business challenge that's important to a lot of organizations and including d'Vinci. What are some examples of an exercise you do with participants that drives innovation?
Andy: You may have heard of the concept of Yes, and… This is a concept that's firmly at the heart of improvisation. When I first started working with organizations, it seemed like, "Oh, this is new and kind of exciting and foreign but now we tend to see people have already espoused Yes, and… Whether that's from design thinking or from other creative brainstorming processes, but it's how you use that sense of Yes, and… which at its heart is all about acknowledging an idea, building, going deeper, freely building without the editing process coming in.
It's that divergent thinking before the convergent thinking. So yes to everything, let's try it out. Let's see how that goes. Let's build the idea on paper. One of my favorite ways to do that and this is less pulled from the world [00:13:00] of improvisation than it is pulled from the world of sketch comedy, which is also where I've worked pretty deeply, but it's almost writing improvisationally and it's called clustering.
You might have heard it called mind mapping, but what it simply is, is putting in an idea centrally on a sheet of paper. AndI love working on actual paper, trees be damned. You can work on your pad if you want to keep it electronic, but putting down your central idea and then start to scribble out additional ideas and take each idea, let it branch off. What you start to find is that, after the first couple minutes, then that abundance of ideas starts pouring in.
There's also a great biological component to this. It helps to circumvent what's called the rehearsal loop. When we're thinking through something or ruminating about an idea, we tend to go over that same tracks, again and again, our brain wants to rehearse and remember and not lose anything as we're kind of getting to that next degree. But putting it on paper allows the brain to kind of move to that next step, move to that next step. [00:14:00]
It allows you to go further out and you start to notice these really amazing ideas toward the edges of the page. That's where these amazing connection points happen. That's where you're getting to the good stuff. Most of our thought processes, most of our conversations, most of like throwing ideas around in a meeting tends to stick to that initial idea and just one level out. This is a great tool to use whether you're working as a group and actually putting it on a flip chart or it's definitely great individually. When I work with speakers, I ask them to do clustering for a few minutes on their own to think more deeply about a topic.
Scott: I think again, as somebody who came in and isn't as trained in the world of improvisation, but understand the utility of it. That concept of Yes, and… always if people understand it or if they've heard of it before, it sort of trips them up because they believe that the idea of yes means that I'm agreeing to things versus yes as an affirmation, and… here's my contribution to that in order to build. Because there's a phrase [00:15:00] in improv or at least that we used to use in the former company, which says, "Bring a brick, not a cathedral."
The whole idea behind that is that when you're collaborating with other folks is if you came in with a fully formed cathedral or idea, what is my contribution to that? Am I going to be in support of that idea if I don't really have a say or a voice? Because I may not agree with your position but if we're able to work together collaboratively each sharing our ideas so that your idea, which may be okay, and my idea, which may be okay, but mash together becomes a great idea.
That is super powerful. Yes, and… shows itself up in a lot of different ways within the work that we do. When I first started in this world, Yes, and… that was what I was taught as the cornerstone of everything that it was. It wasn't, like I said, an idea of saying yes in agreement. It was saying yes to I understand your idea, I'm receiving it, how do we build on that together in order to create something that we all have part ownership in and can feel good about.
Why would you limit [00:16:00] the opportunity to have five brains working on an idea versus just one? It seems that you get a lot more robust opportunity, engagement and come out with a better product at the end.
Susan: Scott, the whole idea of bringing a brick and not a cathedral and Yes, and… have always been so important in communication, but I would think especially today when we're trying to be collaborative in a hybrid environment, it's even more important just to kind of build that safe space of thinking. I can share my ideas in a positive environment.
Scott: That is exactly true, Susan. What we're finding though with people say they want to share their ideas. They want to be a part of the solution. One of the things, when we were originally first starting this business, is what we identified was a communication gap that often existed between strategy that was made to move the business forward, but the people that had to actually take what that strategy was and operationalize it on the front end.
Oftentimes if you're in that individual contributor role or on the front end or even a middle manager who only gets certain amount of information, [00:17:00] it becomes a question of, well, I don't understand why we're doing this. My clients aren't asking for it. Or if you're internally facing, my internal clients aren't asking for this. I don't really understand the why behind this, and if I don't understand the why, I'm probably less likely to support it.
What we're finding now is that people are willing to share their opinions more so than they ever did before. Particularly, with the younger generations that are coming in who are more than willing and they have great ideas. While we may not think that they have the experience that is required to solve an issue, that's actually a good thing because they may be coming at it from an angle that we would never have thought of because we've been so mired in the way that we've always thought.
It's been very powerful. And to your point, Mason, the idea of using it for innovation is so key because if we just keep doing the same things over and over again, we may learn some things, but we're never going to step outside the box far enough for us to maybe really look at ourselves and the work that we're doing differently to make a bigger impact than we possibly could. [00:18:00]
Mason: That's so important. I can imagine the two of you and the Fairplay team have quite a perspective getting to work with so many different companies and organizations. With your perspective and experience, what would you say is the thing that gets in the way most of organizations improving their communications?
Andy: Two things come to mind for me that we're seeing pretty systemically, and one is a lack of psychological safety. A lot of companies and a lot of leaders talk a good game about psychological safety, but we don't always see them practice the actions and behaviors that afford that to their team. They tend to kind of contribute to the fear rather than mitigate the fear for folks.
When we talk about psychological safety, we're talking about people's ability to speak up, share ideas without fear of retribution, having their idea picked apart, being excluded, having their idea just outright ignored, or whatever the thing might be. Or if they're bringing a problem that confidence that their leader is going to listen to that [00:19:00] problem and act upon it.
We see a lot of organizations, whether it's just the speed and urgency, whether it's this need to focus on the fire that's most immediate. They're not creating a sense of psychological safety. Then the other thing that is missing for a lot of folks is that sense of inclusion. Is the ability to include other voices in creative ways especially across hybrid working right now. So that's holding teams the same way you always having team meetings rather.
You do your team meeting, you just ask for people to share ideas. You don't disrupt the way that you've always done that. You don't share the agenda in advance of folks who are more introverted or take time to process, can actually think through their ideas. You let the loudest voices dominate and then that continues, that continues. Then those loudest voices are seen as the best leaders because people hear from them the most and [00:20:00] other people who may have a different approach are not afforded a platform or a stage or a way to contribute.
The reality is connecting virtually has so many other tools. It has the chat, it has breakout rooms. You can connect asynchronously. There's a lot of different ways, but it requires creativity. You can't use the rule book from the way you used to do meetings in the time today. Those are the two things that I've been seeing.
Scott: Yes, when you first asked the question, Mason the first thing that came to my head was this loss of control. Particularly when you're in a management position or a leadership position is this idea of if I can't control the situation that it'll get so unwieldy that I won't be able to reign it back in. Unfortunately, that's what the world needs right now, is this ability to include as many voices as possible.
Let go of some of that control let go of having to organize it exactly [00:21:00] as you see that it should be, there's still the need to obviously address business challenges and the need to move the business forward, but that can actually be done by letting go a little bit and seeing what transpires. And this goes back to the conversation about Yes, and… is you can always edit. Editing will always happen but if you shut down ideas before they even get a chance to breathe, you may miss out on a pretty significant opportunity to move your business forward or move it to a different direction.
Mason: The d'Vinci team recently had two Fairplay facilitators lead us in a session to help build culture and collaboration in our hybrid work environment. This really got us thinking, and as a result, our team has come up with some great next steps that we're integrating into our strategic plan for next year. Can you share some other examples of how Fairplay has helped other companies?
Andy: First, we're delighted when folks can take that and do something with it. We always say that the work that we do in the room is best when you take the insights and work with those use that [00:22:00] to sustain. Congratulations for actually doing something with it.
Susan: It was a great session and I don't even know that we knew all that we were going to be able to get out of it. It was just this onion being peeled back during the time that we had with your facilitators. It really brought our team together. We hadn't been together in person in a while, and it was not just about, oh, how do we work together and collaborate better? We really learned more about each other and how to move forward like Mason said. So, it was really a great experience.
Scott: It was awesome
Mason: Thank you for that.
Andy: It is interesting because talking about the value of learning and development work that's steeped in improv is really hard. Folks tend to sort of, they underestimate how deeply it can impact the group. We often see some of our best work happening in the second or third time that we work with folks when they understand, "Oh, this is where we can get to." It's really [00:23:00] juicy, especially in that latter half.
We did have a chance to work with a large national insurance company recently, and they fortunately, really understood the opportunity even going in. Over a three-day live event with 200 of their top leaders, they let us kick it off with a bait and switch that was really surprising. A pre-written comedic keynote right off the very top that ended up not being the keynote as promised, but an entry point to letting folks know, this is not your typical summit, it's not your typical conference, and let us actually get folks interacting, talking to people at the table next to them.
Then we got to work with the whole group across breakout rooms on the second day going really deeply into how they as senior leaders are driving change through that next level of manager. A lot of these people were pretty in the weed, still they had recently been promoted to that level [00:24:00] of leadership. They still wanted to do everything themselves. They were not great necessarily at delegating, especially across change.
So we got to be partners with this company in up-scaling folks thinking and getting them really tactical. Then, because we were one of many speakers across this event, we were in the position at the very end on the third day to be the moderators pulling everything together, taking people through a thought process of what did you hear? What are you going to do with this next? How will you activate that? How will you operationalize that?
Who's going to be your accountability partner? Here are some of the key themes that we heard over the course of the past few days. How do those resonate? Really kind of drive home the actions people are taking forward, so it doesn't become one of those come together, rah-rah, everyone is excited and then everyone goes off deals with business as usual and it all falls flat. They put us in the position of making sure that all of those previous few days were really embedded into the day-to-day and the week-to-week [00:25:00] of these leaders leaving the event.
Susan: Yes, I would add to that, I think the reason you're able to come up with results and actionable items is because you invest time in the onset learning about the company. When you sent your facilitators to d'Vinci they knew about us, they understood where our growth points were. The session was really business focused and I just wanted to share that, but I think that's what made it extra valuable for us, is that you all took the time to learn about our business, and then that made for a great session.
Scott: I think that's a really good point, Susan. One of the things that companies really like about working with us in particular is the level of customization, tailoring that we do. Because to your point, we don't know your world better than you do, but what we might be able to do is help you think or look at the way that you think and look at your world a little bit differently.
It's imperative on the front end for us to be able to come in, spend time with you, really understand what it is that you're trying to achieve. What are those end goals, how are you going to measure [00:26:00] those things? What are we walking into? What do we need to know about the group and what they're experiencing? The more that we understand that, the more that we can help when we're there in the room to guide the conversation.
Not to manage it, not to run it, but just to encourage it to flourish in the right way. One of the other things that I would say too, that as far as how we work with other organizations that I always find super interesting is we get involved with a lot of companies around their high potential programs. These are young future leaders that they're trying to develop. Sometimes we find when we're working with say, people that have been within an organization or been in the workforce for a longer period of time, you tend to get a little jaded in the way that business works.
What you want to make sure that we're doing and why the high potential programs are so interesting is that we get a chance to work with people that haven't necessarily gone through some of the battles and have some of the scars [00:27:00] and being able to set them in the right path, in the right direction. Oftentimes companies will come to us and talk to us about their high potential programs and what they're trying to achieve, and we're able to impart some of those skills to them in a way that they may not learn on the job, just the way that they think about the work in particular.
Those high-potential programs and even the work that we're doing with them sets them on that right course or that right path so that they can be more encouraging, more engaging, more inclusive when they're getting into those positions of leadership.
Andy: I like to think that it's almost self-preservation. As someone who has a background in comedy, I'm constantly reading the room and it only works if it works for this audience. You can't blame the audience. You have to design for them. Comedy was always developed with you try something out, you notice how it lands, you tweak, you adjust, you try to get it so that it works and it works every single time, from a learning design standpoint that's often how we approach it.
Even if the improvisational aspect is not going to be really deep [00:28:00] in the final product maybe we're designing a meeting in a box or a session in a box that a client is taking.
We'll use improvisation as the way that we develop it so that we can quickly iterate, find ideas, test it out in a pilot situation and make sure when we deliver it, it looks really good because we've done that audience testing. For us, the improv I think really helps us to sniff out what's true for the end user, the people who are going to be going through this, so that it lands for them.
Sometimes the presumptions that we have are the hypothesis even the people that bring us in have are not always correct. And so it's a matter of almost anthropology. You have to discover what's true for the humans in the room.
Scott: That's a really big piece. That last piece that you said, Andy is a huge piece because oftentimes we'll have stakeholders that will come in and say, "This is the issue that we're or the challenge that we're trying to focus on. [00:29:00] We find through the course of the session, once we've built what the session is, as we're delivering and administering the session, we realize that that's really not your problem. That's just an effect of a deeper cause that we really need to focus in on."
Going back to something you said, Mason, it's that those insights and those ideas that come out of the session that we can then feed back to the client that helps them innovate and think about how they want to lead or manage or grow the business in a way that maybe they were only just addressing kind of the tip of the spear and not really looking at what the rest of the bigger concern was, at least for the people that have to take that work forward.
Mason: It's such an interesting juxtaposition of improv and comedy and taking those skill sets and applying them to businesses and organizations. It's just been so wonderful to see that in action and see really what, get to know the company and what really drives the two of you to get out there and make a difference.
Susan: Yes, it's been so neat to watch your company grow and we're so glad to have been a part of one of the sessions and I think [00:30:00] the word improv can be very scary for some people, but when they start to see it in action and providing business results, it can really be an amazing transformation for a company. Thank you for sharing today, Andy and Scott.
Andy: Thanks so much for having us.
Scott: Thanks, Susan. Thanks, Mason.
Susan: Mason, what a pleasure to talk with Andy and Scott from Fairplay Communications again. They're so passionate about helping people strengthen their foundational skills so they can perform better throughout any kind of change.
Mason: Absolutely, Susan. The Fairplay team delivered a great session based on improvisation and helped our team really focus to navigate, to continue to navigate and communicate through change. We're looking forward to building on the foundation we established at our session.
Susan: Yes. Obviously the stronger we are as a team internally, the better we can serve our clients and help them with their needs.
Mason: Absolutely. We're wrapping up a great 2022 helping our clients strategize and formulate and execute on training programs, and we've got a lot of new exciting projects launching here soon, [00:31:00] at the beginning of 2023, and we're looking forward to a great year.
Susan: Thanks, Mason, really appreciate your comments and your time today.
Mason: Thanks, Susan.
Susan: You can learn more about the services at Fairplay Communications on their website at fairplaycommunications.com. If you have any questions about what we talked about today or have an idea for a topic or a guest, please reach out to us through our website, d'Vinci.com, or by emailing us at poweredbylearning@d'Vinci.com.
Speaker 2: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. For more than 25 years, d'Vinci has provided custom learning solutions to government agencies, corporations, medical education and certification organizations, and educational content providers. We collaborate with our clients to bring order and clarity to content and technology. Learn more at d’Vinci.com.