As the author of GameChangers - Improvisation for Business in the Networked World, the co-founder, with Dr. Virginia Kuhn, of GameChangers, LLC and the primary blogger on gamechangers.com, I feel qualified to weigh in on the recent bandying-about of the phrase 'gamechanger' by the Democratic presidential candidates, and the media gnawing on it the night of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries like teething puppies who'd just dragged a shoe out of a closet.
I did not coin the term. Sports announcers have called players like Brett Favre and LeBron James gamechangers for years. On NFL broadcasts this past season, Pontiac sponsored a 'Gamechanging Performance' commercial.
The context in which I use and write about 'GameChangers' refers to the lexicon of improvisation, and to theater games as the basis of improvised scenes. My work ties improvisational skill - knowing how to identify and play productive games and, when necessary, change the game -- to the successful conduct of business in the global economy.
This context has more relevance to a political campaign than Brett Favre scrambling to complete a long pass on fourth-down, though both are forms of improvisation.
Successful entrepreneurs like Walt Disney and Taryn Rose have always been natural improvisers. What makes Tina Fey funny is the same thing that makes Richard Branson money.
From the preface to my book:
GameChangers are people who make a positive difference. As we move from the rigid, hierarchical business structures of the Industrial Age to the fluid, project-based models of the Networked World, GameChangers have never been more important or essential. Whenever teamwork, creativity, flexibility and problem-solving skills are necessary for success, these players step up. They develop relationships that are good for business. They pay careful attention to details and at the same time have the most expansive world views. They are quick-on-their-feet, unflappable and in tune with their stakeholders and the marketplace. They make moves that help their teams achieve their objectives. They are the top performers in any organization, the best managers, the most resourceful employees, the culture-shapers. They play the game and make things happen. In short, GameChangers are masters of improvisation in business.
A couple of teachers named Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd developed improvisational theater games beginning in the 1930s in Chicago for a youth theater program sponsored by the WPA as part of FDR's New Deal. It was Spolin, in particular, who noted the profound impact on learning and communication that took place in the playing of games. Games, she observed, bring about the focus that frees players to transcend their fears, find agreement and collaborate intuitively. Games set the stage for breakthough behaviors and what she called 'spontaneous explosions' of creativity.
Spolin, the godmother of modern improv, put her observations in writing with her classic book, Improvisation for the Theater. Other teachers of the form, like the legendary Del Close, have further refined her techniques, which are taught today in improv theaters all over the world.
It is by a twist of genetics - Spolin's son, Paul Sills, co-founded Chicago's Second City Theater with Bernie Sahlins - that we've come to associate improvisation so strongly with comedy. At its roots, improvisation is still about learning and communication -- about enabling people with different bodies of knowledge and sets of skills, who have been shaped by different life experiences, to find common ground and collaborate effectively at the drop of a hat. Improvisation is the idea that a group of us working together can come up with stuff that none of us could have come up with on our own. It is this philosophy that has so much potential to unleash productivity and create new wealth in the Networked World.
Nobody gets to be as prominent on the national stage or as successful as Senators Clinton, McCain and Obama without doing some serious improvising along the way. They all know how to play a productive game. But only one of the candidates truly embodies the spirit of improvisation that dawned on Viola Spolin all those years ago, and that is Barack Obama.
Obama is the candidate who has, time and again, shown the audacity to toss aside the scripted narratives and hierarchical thinking of the past. He has an improviser's confidence that by working together as one, treating our differences as assets instead of liabilities, addressing our fears instead of turning away from them, we can generate new narratives and bring about prosperity that we cannot imagine as long as we insist on teaming up only with those whose points of view coincide with our own.
Here's an instance of what I'm talking about: Senator Obama was at a town meeting in Indiana a couple of weeks ago and tossed out a simple idea. "If I'm elected President," he said, "We're going to re-design the White House web site." (This is what you'd call in improv a brilliant initiation.) Obama explained that while it's cool that a visitor to the current site can take a virtual tour of the Lincoln Bedroom, the site has the potential to be more of a a resource for taxpayers - for instance to help them track legislation, find out who's sponsoring it, and bang their representatives an email right there on the spot if they choose. You know, a web site like the ones everyone but the U.S. Government has been building and using for years.
In improvisation, a single provocative idea -- "re-design a web site" - can define a game with immense themes and implications - "and while we're at it, let's overhaul every federal government web site to make their navigation more intuitive, their aesthetic more artful, their content designed to reveal instead of conceal the intentions of their owners."
GameChangers not only have the ability and courage to change the game, they let go of expectations about what the outcome of the game will be and focus on being productive in each and every moment, whether that means supporting their fellow players or making a bold move themselves. Like Senator Obama, they know that a new game invites energetic participation by new players with fresh ideas and perspectives. That's what it's going to take to get the U.S. economy and its unparalleled potential for global leadership in creativity and innovation cranking again.
Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers - Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His website is www.gamechangers.com.