An Improv Inception or Solving Problem-Solving Improvisationally

I’m trying something new for my class this first week of November. I’m going to reverse engineer the next Interdisciplinary Improvisation class that I teach for the Master of Digital Media Program—one that disassembles and analyzes the inner workings of what I’m going to teach in a reckless (and likely impossible) attempt to answer, “Why would you teach that?”.


Boring Stuff Already Said

I’ve already written about the why’s of improv in a digital media school or digital media environments—exercising:

  • the embodiment of trust
  • risk-taking
  • culture building
  • listening
  • being receptive to what others offer
  • building on other people’s ideas

… and many more valued competencies. Why those particular collaborative oriented competencies? Think of the improv course as one designed and persistently refined to in part ‘solve’ identified problems that learners may/will face when tasked to work together and deliver client-driven digital media artefacts.

Inception Moment (Level 1)

One of the biggest problems learners have is understanding the steps they need to take in solving ill-structured problems.These are the kinds of problems that are not easy to identify, that are multi-layered—that cannot be solved until attempts at solving them are balanced by equal attempts to fail at solving them. They tend to include the following:

  • Defining the problem
  • Generating possible solutions to the problem
  • Evaluating alternative solutions
  • Implementing the most viable solution
  • Monitoring the implementation of that solution
  • Repeating the process (Jonassen, 1997)

The Marshmallow Challenge is a great example of trying to solve a problem. Another way to emphasize the message of the challenge is to allow a group to do it more than once. Now many of you are likely reading this thinking ‘yes, yes…iterate, build-it, prototype’, and you’re right, and we do, particularly with our Projects 1 course handily facilitated by my colleague Larry Bafia.

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Inception Moment (Level 2)

So what is the problem my next improv class will try to ‘solve’? Years ago, learners in our second and third cohorts often asserted the need for the Master of Digital Media Program to support “learner ownership of the problem solving process”. It is, in fact, one of the most important, challenging and rewarding competencies that learners can develop, and iterative attempts at facilitating an environment of practicing those problem-solving muscles occur regularly in all our courses. Herein lies the puzzler. How can learners emerge from our first semester relatively unscathed and leap forth ready to ‘own’ the problem solving process on our projects? 

For those of you heuristically inclined (which is everybody), one possible answer is to create an opportunity for individuals and teams to become increasingly conscious of those tools and/or processes and/or rules of thumb that help them solve problems more efficiently.

Reclaiming Improv

So why exercise problem solving in an improv class?

Many people associate the word ‘improv’ with improv comedy. And although that’s partly true, each time I teach improvisation I need to reclaim the word. This isn’t necessarily because I have a background as a piano improviser, nor that improvisation is common to all artistic processes. It’s because improvisation is a mechanic that permeates all human activities, including problem solving in digital media.


The Improvisational in Problem Solving

Now, although we all rely on heuristics when we solve problems, each design problem that we face at the MDM Program (and beyond) and the project that propagates it, has it’s own unique challenges. In our projects, teams of learners who may or may not have worked together need to align on a common process to manage a digital media project and work with a client they have likely never met before who has an emerging design idea for a digital artifact or prototype, and who is also dependent and reliant on the team to develop it. Like it or not problems will surface. Typically, these problems can be categorized as:

  • Individual (buy-in)
  • Collaborative (team, culture)
  • Management (time, communication, scope)
  • Project (ideas, content)

Sometimes the problems are simple but most of the time they are layered, like properly scoping a project you’ve never ‘built’ anything like before over the course of 12 weeks, so that a client can be assured that you will be delivering some kind of working prototype.

Or, realizing after 3 weeks that as a team you didn’t really identify the real problem or core need but the only way to find that out was by building a series of prototypes that the client realized, didn’t really match what it is they imagined.


The Heuristic Toolbox

Each of us has different approaches to solving ill-structured problems. We each rely on previously applied problem-solving processes, and some of us have cultivated a certain level of expertise informed by our experience in our particular knowledge domain(s). In the case of learners at the MDM Program, they have the additional joy and pain of leveraging a series of user-centred design oriented tools from different design traditions, collaborative tools to address, resolve and avoid some team conflicts, tools to estimate tasks and prioritize features and tools to maintain persistent alignment throughout a project pipeline.

By the end of the next improv class then, learners will be able to leave the class with the beginnings (or continuings) of their own problem-solving process map—one that is malleable and ever changing. And importantly, they will embody the practice of drawing from this exquisite corpse of heuristics that they can eventually apply to solving problems in our Projects 2 course. That practice, a spontaneous, sometimes adhoc one, smothered in risk, where you never really know what new insights will emerge that will lead you to the discovery of an unexpected solution, maybe even… an innovation—an improvised process that once upon a time provoked one client to exclaim in a burst of cautious excitement— “You identified a problem we didn’t even think we had!!!”

The Terrifying yet Possibly Fantastic Unknown Client

When you provide a service to a client you never really know what kind of client your going to get. So what to do with that wild card? There are many ways to mitigate the client if perceived as a threat. The hardest thing to do and the one skill that we all think we’re good at, is being crystal clear on what a client’s problem is, ensuring that there are few uncommunicated expectations and that they are not promised the world and given one continent. Another skill you can develop when dealing with a client is to prepare all possible reactions that they may give towards what it is your pitching, creating or designing, before, during or after your first meeting. You can prepare for this in a few ways:

  • work with your team on role-playing the client as the rest of the team presents the idea
  • draw a persona map of your client as below

Ultimately, when you think of a client as collaborator and engage them in that way, the work will be better for it, you will be challenged to grow and improve and you’ll also make a better client for someone else one day.

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Other people make your ideas better


So many stories exist of individuals holding back on proposing their own ideas to others for fear of them being stolen. Let’s examine that for a moment. Some would argue that all ideas are stolen, that we build our ideas on the seeds that others plant.  Why not try and pitch your unbelievably fantastic money-making idea to a group of people and see what happens? While your idea may be appropriated and trolled, there are likely more realistic outcomes:

  • your idea or something close to it has been done before and someone you decide to work with may already have come across it or done research in this area.
  • if the idea is good and people are genuinely interested in it then their efforts to work with it and you on it are only going to make it better because the combined knowledge of many is more than one single person.
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This is hard, writing about the unknown joys and perils of collaborating with others when I’d rather talk about the steady times I continue to have with familiar collaborators. The truth is we never know what the outcome of a collaboration is going to be. Some of us have the luxury of developing collaborative partnerships that last many years but there are also collaborators who want to try out new partnerships. The wrong thing to do is take offence. Instead, understand that we are sometimes driven to work with people we’ve never worked with before because the risk of what may come of it is worth taking instead of relying on the outcomes of the same old.

This is a recurring message we try to communicate to our learners at the MDM Program. That’s why in their first semester they don’t really have a choice as to who they are going to be on a project with. At first this might not seem fair, particularly if individual learners if given the choice, would gravitate towards other learners they feel more connected to. The reality, however is that if they want to transition into the work force of any particular industry, they will need to learn to adapt (and quickly) to a new culture and community.

So, celebrate new partnerships because you never know what gold may come from it, either in new and unexpectedly great results, or simply in extending your existing network and expanding the number of opportunities for work that will come up. What other advantages are there of working with new collaborators?