Harvard infiltrated the world of… LARPing?

Harvard studied a Vampire-themed “live-action role-playing” group for 2 years to understand how leaders can advance their improv thinking skills, faster.

The Harvard Business Review just released a new study on the virtues of improvisation in the workplace — and to do it, researchers had to get medieval.

Over two years, researchers gained access to three different live-action role-play groups (think: Westworld-meets-capture-the-flag). Why? Because, turns out that these live, cooperative games like Vampire: The Requiem are a pretty good simulation of the fast-paced politicking, strategizing, competition, collaboration, and hierarchies of the workplace.

And, aside from the hilarious mental image of business school grads going undercover as a vampire syndicate, they revealed some pretty cool stuff about how improv works at an organizational level, how people hone their improv skills, and why some level up faster than others.

Here’s what they found:

There are 3 levels of improvisation

The researchers describe improv thinking as “spontaneous action in response to unanticipated events characterized by the convergence of planning and execution;” that flow state when the space between thinking and doing is nearly non-existent. On an organizational level, this means that teams (in this case, rival factions of the undead) are adapting and reacting seamlessly to challenges and, at their most advanced, generating innovative solutions to future strategic hurdles. Over years of observation and horse of interviews, the study revealed 3 levels of improvisational fluency:

  1. Imitative: Less experienced teammates observe their more-experienced peers and match their responses with “minimal variation.”
  2. Reactive: Drawing on inputs from the environment and other teammates, individuals develop their own original reaction to an unexpected situation, “without relying on others’ actions as a guide.”
  3. Generative: The most advanced improvisers probe into the future and proactively try new things to anticipate and even proactively “catalyze” future events. The study touts generative improvisation as the riskiest — but often the “most effective for developing innovative ideas.”

So, what helps some people unlock that coveted, generative level of improv faster than others?

Trust, collaboration, and competition

Researchers noted that more advanced kinds of improvisation, particularly generative, relied heavily on trust and mutual respect of team members. This psychological safety also created a positive feedback loop: the more teammates’ new ideas were supported, the more confident they were proposing ideas in the future.

Researchers also looked at “trajectories of how each participant advanced their improvisation skills.” It all came down to competition vs collaboration. Competitive individuals were quick to develop reactive improvisation: they often acted on as many inputs as possible (to the point that they leave nothing to other teammates). However, their approach cost them in the long run, alienating teammates and “hampering the longer-term development of generative improvisation skills.”

On the flip side, collaborative individuals take longer to develop reactive improvisation, since they often prefer to see how other teammates react to new environmental cues. However, this tactic also helps these individuals gain the “social connectedness and mutual trust necessary” to achieve generative improvisation.

In short, it’s a balance, and if you can hit the ground running without leaving your teammates in the dust, you’re doomed to success: individuals who start out competitive and become more collaborative as they gain experience transition fastest from imitative to generative improvisation.

Pretty sweet, huh? So here’s the point:

It’s not magic, it’s practice

Or rather, practice prepares us to make improv magic happen: those rare moments, months, or years when an entire team is in the zone; seamlessly creating, collaborating, and challenging each other with a shared sense of trust and safety. Now that’s the stuff of corporate fantasy…

Speechless is an organization that uses Improv Thinking to help people be themselves and be heard. Visit https://www.speechlessinc.com/ for more info.

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