Learning to solve problems in the moment

November 21, 2008
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Mary Jane Pories started out as a high school teacher, until some friends invited her to do some improvisation acting.

“I had done a lot of performing — standup and traditional theater — but it also sounded scary,” said Pories, founder of Fishladder Inc., a corporate training company that utilizes the techniques of improvisation.

“What I found is, I started using these same default behaviors in the classroom, and it changed everything.”

She changed lesson plans, the dynamics of the classroom changed, and learning improved. She decided to quit her job as a teacher to further pursue improvisation, and a month later found herself heading to Chicago’s Second City, a corporate comedy and improvisational training entity and entertainment company.

“I got in to Second City and performed there for two years, but the teacher in me wanted to do more than just perform,” said Pories. “I like (performing), but that’s one dimensional. I just thought it was fun to teach other people and have them do it.”

She formed Fishladder in 1999.

Pories believes everyone uses improvisation every day, and business is no exception.

“(Improvisers’) job on stage is really to be problem solvers in the moment,” said Pories. “What businesses are doing is, they’re being presented with problems to solve, either from a customer or internally, and their job is to solve it in that moment.”

Fishladder training focuses on four things: collaboration, communication, innovation and leadership.

“If you can address those and get people to do those well, you can meet your goals,” said Pories.

The majority of a Fishladder training session is spent with participants on their feet involved in improvisational techniques, followed by a discussion on what helped and hindered the process of collaboration and how that applies to the specific company’s issues.

“What’s unique about it is it’s so fast, because improvisation requires you to act in the moment — and it’s fun,” she said. “It causes a lot of laughter, and research shows that the people you laugh with, you tend to work better with … and it’s immediately applicable.”

All of those factors also work together to help participants retain the principles they’ve learn for a much longer time, instead of reverting to old behaviors.

“Our tendency is to fall back into patterns that we know,” said Pories.

Pories said the best way to create behavioral change is through repetition, and while not every company has the resources to bring Fishladder back for follow-up sessions, there are many ways a company can practice the techniques internally. Fishladder also coaches business leaders to help them maintain and grow the new behaviors.

But before a company begins training sessions with Fishladder, Pories said, the company’s desired outcome must be determined in order to know whether Fishladder’s techniques are the right way to get to that outcome. Next, Fishladder employees interview a sampling of the workers to find out what successful training would look like to them.

“Based on that information, we design the experience,” she said. “Then, following, we look back and ask if that’s what we accomplished. Part of the evaluation is we also ask every person that attended how they are going to implement this. Even the best leader with the best intentions can’t make it happen by themselves. Each person needs to make a decision to commit (in order) to make it work.”

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