top of page

Not What You Were Expecting

One of our favorite exercises in the communication workshops we facilitate involves no speaking at all. It’s called Shared Drawing and it’s done in total silence with colored markers. It’s not even a body language exercise. While it ties into the way people communicate, it’s largely about relinquishing the need to be in control.

In improv, we use a term called dropping the agenda. On an improv stage, there is no room for preconceived ideas. Someone’s “perfect” idea or brilliant opening line is immediately dashed to bits if another performer opens their mouth first. At this point, there is a new reality, and experienced improvisors understand that they must adjust to this, and quickly.

One of the most common mistakes inexperienced improvisers make involves entering a scene thinking they’ve got the whole scene played out in their heads. When it doesn’t go the way they thought, they either struggle to respond because they’re stuck to an imaginary script or they try to push the scene back to their vision in a clunky way, effectively eroding the scene and breaking trust with the other people in the scene.

The way that Shared Drawing works is a group of four to six people team up to create, well, a shared drawing. They take turns making very small marks with their marker. Just short lines, dots, hooks, small circles, etc. Nothing that is going to individually “define” the drawing. For example, someone couldn’t just draw a car. They might draw a circle, with a second person drawing a second circle and third connecting the two which creates the basis for what will eventually be a car, but there can be no discussion or pre-planning.

Things get very interesting when we ask teams to name their drawing in the same manner it was drawn: with people taking turns writing one letter at a time in silence until the placement of a period by one of the participants ends the name. In a drawing that appears to be an octopus, the first person to make a letter might naturally write an O. The next person, catching what’s going on will write an C. The third a T and the fourth an O, so that before the fifth letter, the word sits at: OCTO. But now the fifth person write the letter R, making the arrangement OCTOR. Inevitably, there’s a pause. Everyone stares confused. The word is supposed to be OCTOPUS, right?

Wrong. It is no longer octopus. That word is gone, and there are two ways to respond. One is get frustrated and dwell on why someone would write an R on a word that was clearly supposed to be octopus. The other is accept OCTOR as the situation at hand and look for solutions. Someone still dwelling on the “mistake” of the R might make a last ditch attempt to salvage the word. We see this a lot. They’ll still put a P after OCTOR, creating OCTORP. Seeing the save attempt, the next few follow suit and the word becomes OCTORPUS. No one feels great about it. Is just looks like a clunky version of octopus and, still in silence, the groups is still visibly frustrated with the writer of the letter R. But suddenly someone has an idea.

Jumping to the markers before anyone can put the period on OCTORPUS, they add a D to the front of the word. It is now DOCTORPUS. Everyone laughs, another puts the period at the end and for good measure someone quickly draws a stethoscope around the neck of the octopus. Everyone loves it, and much more so that if they just named the drawing OCTOPUS. We see examples like this almost every time we facilitate Shared Drawing.

This game, in a nutshell, is an improv scene. It constitutes a group of people creating something from nothing on a blank canvass (stage), each building on each other’s ideas and each bringing something from their own brain to create something unique that only could have been created by this group. The successful groups are those that set aside personal agendas, stay completely in the moment and find opportunities in perceived setbacks.

How do we respond to perceived setbacks in our professional environments? Do we sulk? Get frustrated?

Complain? Or do we stay calm, accept the situation as it currently exists and look for creative ways to move forward? This isn’t to say that there aren’t lessons to be learned from mistakes, setbacks or changes. Certainly, they can be discussed. There is a place for tough conversations or disciplinary actions. However, this is about the mental switch from a problem-focused mindset to a solution-focused mindset.

No amount of complaining can change a rough situation. An exploration of why it happened with the purpose of getting information to best ascertain the current situation may be in order, but once you have the necessary information, accept the current situation as reality, move forward and look for opportunities.

What major setbacks or changes has your organization experienced recently? The loss of a major client or key employee? A lawsuit? A major change to the operating systems? A merger? Whatever is was, it happened and the reality is now. Stay with the scene. Someone wrote an R. If you’re having trouble letting go of that, it might be time to call a doctorpus.

bottom of page