Improvisation and Innovation | What’s Play Got to Do With Work?

Two months ago, I was uploading biographies for Lifehack’s Co-design for Youth Wellbeing Symposium. I didn’t have one for Lee Ryan, so I googled the name and found a world of new phrases. Playback. Applied improvisation. Lego Serious Play. Lee has trained in creative problem solving in Europe and the US, and worked for many years for TNS, a global market research company.

With my interest piqued, I caught up with her to chat about the link between improv and innovation, how to bring design thinking into community organisations, and the power of playback theatre.

Lee Ryan headshot

Kia ora Lee! Let’s start from the top. How did you end up working at this unique intersection of business innovation and theatrical improv?

Well, I had done lots of improv back in my 20s and in my early work in education. I reconnected back to improv when I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on improv by Gregg Fraley at CREA - a conference in Europe devoted to creativity and innovation. That helped me to connect improv with innovation. Innovators, facilitators and improvisers all need to improve their creativity and spontaneity, building ‘aliveness’ in their environment.

Applied improv sounds pretty outside the box. What’s it got to do with solving real-world business or social problems?

Once I started getting trained in innovation, I found that the skills you need to be a good improviser are the same for innovation. If you want to be better with people, improvisation is a way to practice.

I’m now part of the global Applied Improvisation Network and they are the group that are most responsive to invitations and offers. If you say “Let’s ….” they’ll jump in. If you say the same to a room of designers, as I noticed in a Service Design conference in San Francisco, they will flinch.

If you want to read more on this, Michelle Holliday has written a lovely post on using improv to save the world.

You must encounter lots of skeptics. How do you prepare for that?

That’s a common and ongoing challenge. At a deeper level, you're touching on what it means to be an adult and what we conceive as ‘work’. This is captured by Robert Poynton’s post on medium:

This rather perverse attitude owes something to puritans and engineers (both strong influences on the culture of modern business). To puritans, work is virtuous whereas play is indulgent and sinful. The two are separate and opposed, so play has no place at work. Engineers add another negative interpretation. To an engineer, ‘play’ is looseness in a mechanism, so you don’t want too much, or things become sloppy. Precision is good, play is bad. No wonder we find it hard to engage in play.
— Robert Poynton

If you want to become more creative, you need to cultivate a willingness to play, both individually and collectively. Not as a distraction or a reward, but as part of the work itself. Given the public image of play, that takes commitment and a certain amount of courage. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. It might as well be you.

Sometimes, it’s also about managing people’s brains, as we all like to have a measure of control and some certainty. We can learn from consultants how to frame new information or new ways of doing things.  This recent keynote from Cooper, a San Fran design firm, talks about how it’s useful to refer to data about innovation.

How do you start if nobody around is doing it?

It’s a bit like Doctor Seuss - wherever you are, that’s where you start. Look at your community and ask: What can I access? What can I offer?

It doesn’t matter what medium you use when you’re enabling people to tap into their creativity. Find what’s around and tap into that - whether it’s sport, singing, theatre, improv, painting or something else.

What I’ve done before with Viv [McWaters from Creative Facilitation] is curate our own training. We’ve identified something we want to learn and brought some people together around it. If you have some facilitation skills already, you don’t need to wait for an expert.

Another term I’ve seen you mention is Playback theatre. What’s that?

When I lived in Melbourne, I took workshops with Melbourne Playback who also run extraordinary theatre events. Playback Theatre is an interactive form of improvisational theatre in which audience members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot.

Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas created Playback Theatre in 1975, and since then it’s spread around the globe. People have used it in a range of contexts including public performances, community arts, social dialogue, peace building, conflict resolution, education, change management and celebrations. There are regular Playback gatherings and festivals in different parts of the world.  

There’s a Playback Conference in Bangalore in 2019, with the local team choosing the theme ‘Celebrating Diversity’:

“Worldwide, diversity is being threatened with narrow parochial view-points gaining ground. A wave of nationalism is surging through different nations. Values of multiculturalism and diversity are under threat. The me-first or my community-first or country-first approach runs counter to the Playback narrative of an inclusive, empathic and a ‘we’ world. Playbackers worldwide must take a stand that supports inclusivity, compassion and diversity. The Conference theme can be a great step in that direction.

Brazilian theater activist, Augusto Boal, created Theatre of the Oppressed in the 1960s out of a belief that "we can make this world a place where we can be happy rather than just a vast marketplace where we sell our goods and our souls".

There are no spectators in Theater of the Oppressed. The fourth wall of traditional theater is abolished and spectators become 'spect-actors'. The spect-actors are the participants in the creation of the drama - it is their conflict, their worlds, and their life experiences that we wish to address.

By giving the participants power in the creation of the action, they are being transformed and prepared to participate in the theater of life. Using the various techniques and activities outlined in the Theater of the Oppressed doctrine, spect-actors uncover the root causes of problems and what internal and external factors block them from effective action. They are able to "see" their problem, "analyze" it and "act" to change the situation.

These kinds of innovation techniques sound resource intensive. How can we manage the tension between having little time or money with a desire to put users at the center?

The tensions never disappear. Nobody has enough money or time. The work just expands to fill the gap!

Innovation practises are easier to sell when they are in vogue. But just because a boss loves it doesn’t mean people on the ground do. You’ll can encounter resistance from the front line staff who have reasonable questions. "How does this fit with what I already do?" "Does this work?" "Is this relevant to the work we do in this context?"  Case studies help a lot.

With wicked problems, it can be true that doing nothing makes things worse, and doing something might not lead to positive consequences. It’s a tough tension to manage!

Another challenge I hear people grappling with is how to balance our need for a plan and an interest in messier innovation methodologies like codesign, agile and lean.

That’s another global problem! I think it’s useful to be clear about the difference between strategy, planning and co-design.

  • Strategy: here’s the system, our space in it - an overview of how we think we can best act with intent within this system. This impact model from Lifehack is an excellent example.

  • Planning: Here’s what we intend to do this year/month/week.

  • Codesign: This is how we work with people to understand their needs and continually learn.

When you look at like that, they can exist together. You can have a plan about what you’re going to try, while having a mindset of continual learning behind it.

And what are you working on at the moment?

One thing I'm excited about at the moment is Radical Acts Melbourne. Two days of discussions,workshops and inspiration. Plus, we're performing a 'Radical Acts' Public Playback Theatre Performance. Basically, the whole experience is about exploring the intersection of innovation and improvisation.

What other books or resources could you recommend?

This is Service Design Doing is a great starting point. Adam St John Lawrence is one of the authors, and he has a background in theatre which comes through in the book.

This blogpost by Adam explores how great experiences, like great stories, go Boom Wow-Wow-Wow BOOM. If you like storytelling and James Bond movies, this post is memorable.

For a podcast, try Adam's Improvisation for Innovation podcast.

Another helpful book is Cathy Rose Salit’s Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work. It’s all about creating relationships at work, but with techniques like improv theatre and performative psychology. 

Cathy Salit is an author, performer, executive coach, social entrepreneur and CEO of the consulting firm Performance of a Lifetime. Cathy and her team of coaches use theatrical performance to engage leaders and teams in creating and acting on uncharted possibilities to grow their business.  

It’s always useful to listen to Cathy and here she is on the Liminal Podcast. (Hang in past the introduction….!) Or Johnnie Moore interviews her in Becoming who we are not: facilitation as performance.

Listening back to this interview, I feel reinspired in my work. Facilitation is not about having clever tricks to make people behave differently; it’s about helping people discover and grow together. We need to avoid the traps of aiming for “behaviour change” and be more open to the amazing things that human beings are capable of.
— Johnnie More on his interview with Cathy Salit at

Oh, and there’s Training to Imagine by Kat Koppett. The subtitle sums it up: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques for Trainers and Managers to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning.

If you don’t have the budget for books or travel, these are some fabulous online resources:

Belina Raffey and her team use improv with humour and nature to help organisations and the people in them.  Their Sustainable StandUp group is awesome, and you can check out for notifications about new projects.  Also, here's Belina talking on Let Go, Notice More, Use Everything.

The International Centre of Art for Social Change has lots of resources.

One other thing to keep an eye out for is Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters upcoming creative facilitation course. You can sign up to the mailing list at Creative Facilitation to keep up with that.

Wow, reading back over the interview notes has got me all inspired again. If you're interested in talking about how you might bring improvisation into your work or community, I would love to chat