01/03/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How a Team of Rivals Collaborates

A lot has been made of Team Obama's casting of the key roles in the new administration. There is astonishment aplenty out there that he's put together a team of such strong personalities and former rivals. This is so different, after all, from the Bush doctrine of punishing one's rivals, often preemptively. William Gates, a Bush-Cheney appointee at Defense, stays. Clinton is in. Hillary, that is. Bill wants in. How can the Clintons be managed? the pundits wonder. Rahm Emanuel's feisty 'Ari Gold' style contrasts so completely with Obama's friendly cool. How's all that going to work out? How can people who naturally have their own agendas and their own strong and well-argued points of view achieve the consensus needed to move forward on new policy?

The principles of improvisation devised in the 1930s in the same Hyde Park neighborhood where the Obamas live until January 21 of next year, provide the key. Those principles were principally shaped by a couple of teachers, Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd, whose objective was to help young people on Chicago's Southside who came from vastly different cultural backgrounds communicate with one another in ways that transcended their languages and their cultures. If you think about it, it's not unlike the challenges faced by Obama, or any chief executive of any large organization today: Whether it is terrorism, the economy or innovation, how can groups of madly independent souls, especially the Gen-Ex and Gen-Why players, connect, communicate and pull together toward common goals?

Improvisation is essentially a process that allows players who represent different points of view to work toward a shared objective. When improvisation is applied to comedy--not Spolin and Boyd's intention for the form, by the way, that was Spolin's son, Paul Sills' idea--the different points of view are positioned as amusing conflicts. An agorophobe has a claustrophobic roommate. Overprotective parent and risk-taking child. For more sober scenarios like those addressed by the founding teachers and by Obama's team today, the same techniques apply. By creating a focus for a scene, what Spolin called 'the game,' that is independent of subjective points of view, improvisers engender what Spolin called 'The Group Mind'. The Group Mind allows for different points of view, but always in service of a greater good, i.e. the successful conduct of the game.

The group's focus on the game creates a kind of subconscious web of connectivity between members of the group. This web weaves different world views into unified action. It's how athletes who won't even talk to each other on the sidelines can perform beautifully together in a game. The focus on the game creates the connection. For Obama's team of rivals, the 'game' might be something like, 'Void Al Qaeda' or 'Bring Innovation to Detroit.'

The web of connectivity envelops the game. Our feelings about the group transform from 'otherness' into 'oneness'. This is who I am and This is who they are become This is who we are when we play this game and then, profoundly, This is who we are.
- GameChangers--Improvisation for Business in the Networked World

It's important to note, as Obama did this week in explaining his casting choices, that 'group think' is not the same as the Group Mind. Group think is what got Detroit in trouble in the first place, and what got the U.S. into Iraq. Group think leads to rubber-stamping, playing politics, hidden agendas, competition over ideology, ass-kissing, going with prevailing tide of opinion, and worst of all, ego-driven behaviors--all of which an improviser like Obama resists fiercely, because the group mind offers no learning, no new ideas. The Group Mind, by contrast:

...allows for wildly different opinions, characters and contributions to a scene. The connectedness of the Group Mind has nothing to do with commonality of ideas. By honoring the unique contributions of all its members, the team seeks singularity as a group. The improvisational team allows for no end of diversity and individuality. The Group Mind honors our uniqueness.
- GameChangers--Improvisation for Business in the Networked World

This is how a team of rivals collaborates. And it's why we should all be bullish on improvisation.