LARPing For Success: Improvisation As A Key Skill For The Future Of Work

By HEC Paris Insights, Contributor
The successful development of improvisational skills is premised on the building and nurturing of social structures through frequent interaction, something that the recent pandemic has disrupted. Shutterstock

When we began our research on how people develop improvisation skills nine years ago, little did we imagine how relevant it could be in this Covid-19 era. In 2021, dealing with the unexpected has become an urgent and daily challenge for companies, both large and small.

Some are improvising brilliantly. For example, one of Canada’s largest event staffing agencies, BBW International, transformed its 1,500 workers into Covid safety ambassadors. And, when in spring 2020, hospitals in Italy were in desperate demand for respirators and manufacturers could not provide them quickly enough, Issinova, an engineering startup based in Brescia, stepped up: they transformed their snorkeling masks into respirators and 3D-printed respirator valves. Meanwhile, the London-based real estate company Fast Forward Ventures improvised the startup, Go Fog It, to makes business spaces safer. It won them the UK’s Recovery & Rebuilding the Region Design Challenge last month.

But can the components of these successful improvisations be identified, taught and replicated to offer managers and employees decision-making processes to answer urgent problems? Our just-published research paper seems to indicate that, yes. The exhaustive study linked business with a game called Vampire: The Requiem and involved characters we call Shepherds, Wolves, Watchdogs and Sheep in Wolf Skin. Read on.

Improvising Through Live Action Role-playing

In these volatile and uncertain times, the “new normal” requires firms to improvise constantly. This means managers and their workforce need to enhance their improvisational skills to navigate the choppy uncharted waters of this pandemic-induced crisis. Being more alert, flexible, agile, and ready to act quickly and effectively even in the absence of a plan is no simple matter – but it can be a question of life-or-death for your firm.

Contrary to popular assumption, improvisation can be learnt and developed. Some non-traditional settings – such as jazz bands, movie crews, and culinary shows – can provide valuable insights into how individuals develop improvisation skills “on the task”.

Our 3-year-long ethnographic study focused on a game in which improvising is an essential component. Furthermore, it is analogous and is easily observable. The game is called LARP: Live Action Role-Playing. LARP is characterized by a loose narrative structure and rules – imagine a live version of Dungeons & Dragons. Participants play a specific character role while moving and acting in a physical space. They must continuously engage in improvisation to deal with the dynamic changes and the surprises generated by the plot and other players’ responses. Players have to make strategic decisions, negotiate resources, manage political alliances – all in the blink of an eye, with little opportunity for planning.

Improvisational Archetypes And Their Development Trajectories

We immersed ourselves in the setting and spent over two years observing and interviewing players to identify four main trajectories people followed in developing improvisation skills. These trajectories in development were shaped by whether individuals approached the game competitively or collaboratively, and by how this approach evolved over time. We organize these trajectories under four improvisation development archetypes (see Figure below).

Fig 1: Representation of the LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) game and its characters' improvisation skills development. HEC Paris

Shepherds tend to approach resources collaboratively, seeing them as a common good that should be nurtured and treated with care. Their improvisation development starts slowly, because of their careful use and nurturing of existing resources, but grows faster over time thanks to their embeddedness in the social fabric of the group.

Wolves are the opposite of Shepherds: they always approach resources competitively, seeing them as something they need to secure and use for themselves. Their initial development is faster because they use resources for themselves as much as possible, creating opportunities for their own use and leaving little for others. However, over time, this approach alienates them from the group, disrupting social structures and slowing down their development of improvisation skills.

The Winding Road Towards Developing Your Improvisation Skills

The two other archetypes underline that individuals’ approach to resources is not static, but evolves over time. Indeed, our results show individual orientations can shift over time. Watchdogs start competitive and turn collaborative over time. At the beginning, they want to prove themselves and thus use resources aggressively, accelerating their improvisation skills development. However, once they have built up their confidence and reputation, they start nurturing existing resources and building new ones. In other words, they become progressively “domesticated” into a collaborative approach. In doing so, they avoid the social rejection experienced by Wolves, and continue their fast development and building new resources. Watchdogs are those that reach the highest level of improvisation skills in a shorter period of time.

Improvisation Needs Face-to-face Interaction

Sheep in Wolf Skin initially approach resources collaboratively, but eventually their ambition takes the upper hand and transforms them into competitive players. This change of appearance engenders an extremely negative reaction from other group members, ripping apart the sheep-in-wolf-skin’s social fabric and thus severely slowing and even halting their improvisation development.

Our study shows that the path of improvisation development is not straight nor unique but can take different forms depending on how individuals approach their tasks. Managers who want to develop their teams' improvisation skills need to be aware of this diversity in approaches and pacing. They must find ways to balance collaboration and competition.

Our findings suggest that the successful development of improvisational skills is premised on the building and nurturing of social structures through frequent interaction, something that the recent pandemic has disrupted. While Zoom calls may be practical, our conclusions suggest they should not become a substitute for face-to-face interactions as they are likely to hurt the development of improvisation skills. However, by successfully integrating the challenging premises of improvisation, managers and employees can hopefully emulate the likes of Fast Forward Ventures, Issinova, and BBW International in overcoming the obstacles the global crisis is throwing up every day.

Pier Vittorio Mannuci is Assistant Professor at London Business School, Davide C. Orazi is Senior Lecturer at Monash Business School, Kristine de Valck is Associate Professor at HEC Paris, Daniel Brown is Chief Editor at HEC Paris.

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