A tale of two forests

The first forest

Picture yourself in a big forest that stretches away as far as the eye can see.

Above you, giant trees with big trunks and exotic leaves harbour fruits of all kinds, and a host of lichens, ferns and mosses. The branches sway with the movement of monkeys and birds and there’s a sound like gentle rain as leaves and seeds fall to the floor.

Closer to the ground insects beyond number crawl and buzz around the plants on the forest floor. In the soil there are complex webs of bacteria, microorganisms and fungi threading their way through the tangle of ancient tree roots, passing water, minerals and messages between themselves.

You inhale deeply and smell the soil, you feel the coolness of the air breathed out by the trees, and hear the sounds swaying, rustling and moving of countless plants and animals in every direction.

Now imagine a hard winter is coming to the forest. And it is coming early.

The network of fungi in the soil sense the change in temperature from a long way off, at the edge of the forest. Their instant response is to send messages to the trees through through their contact with their roots, soon the message passes through the entire ‘wood wide web’.

The trees draw in the sugars from their leaves, change colour and fall, creating a warm protecting blanket for the world of microorganisms, tree roots and fungi. The small mammals and birds move to places with the best shelter and microclimate, and the bears and other hibernating animals fill their bellies on the rich berries and nuts that are perfectly ripe and nutritious.

When the cold weather bites, everything is just the way it should be.

Forest number two

Now imagine another forest where the largest tree in the forest has been appointed the boss. 

Again, winter is setting in hard and early.

So the boss tree tells everyone “Hold on – don’t do anything because you might get it wrong!” The boss and the trees around the boss – let’s call them the executive committee – need to come up with a plan. 

So a message is sent from the boss tree to gather information on who is where, who’s has what resources, what skills and values are present (which proves hard), who is in a symbiotic relationship, and who eats whom – a census if you will. 

Slowly but surely the information comes back in, and by now it’s been filtered down to a summary level and translated into ‘tree’. The executive committee get to work processing the data and outline a strategy with vision, policies, diagrams and a detailed action plan and timings. 

The first stage of the plan is an extensive ‘re-org’ and is announced with a comms campaign called “Winter is coming!” which starts long after winter has begun. The plants and animals greet this with a fair amount of huffing and puffing but eventually they fall into line.

And by the time the time all the vision, and structure and instructions have reached the last worm, the last insect, the last bear, the last bacterium a hard winter has passed, spring has come, and much has been lost.


‘In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.’
Charles Darwin

In the first forest we see interactions happening at scale with speed and efficiency. To the trained improviser, this patterns is very familiar.

The whole of natural and living world is one big improvisational ‘Yes, and.’

You might refer to call this emergence, self-organisation, distributed networks, complex-adaptive systems, evolution, generative and regenerative practice, agility, nimbleness. We like the term improvisation because it’s a learnable and extendable craft/process for honest engagement in spontaneous interaction that contains all the essential skills, behaviours, ideas and principles found in the first forest.

Darwin saw the connection with improvisation and evolution and so did ancient the Chinese sages Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, who advocated living in a state of balance, and relational flow with nature, a spontaenous engagement with what is. The Chinese word commonly translated as ‘nature’ is ‘ziran’ which more accurately means spontaneous, of-itself-so, or that which is occurring of its own accord – a.k.a it’s all one big improvisational ‘Yes, and’.

We find it hugely valuable to design learning experiences and facilitate workshops, away days etc where groups get to experience a more improvisational approach to interacting. We often share a few principles of improvisation such as the improvisers calling card of accept-build-commit through activities that brings these ways of working to life. We encourage individuals to have more agency and create opportunities for groups to genuinely sense, adapt and respond to change.

In essence this is bringing the first forest into the training space so people can see it, feel it, discover the surprising potential and possibilities for self-organisation.

Here’s the rub

Improvisation (or emergence) comes down to being in responsive relationship. That means being responsive to feedback loops at different scales. We are always in relationship with ourselves, with others, with the causes we support, and with the natural and living world around us.

But in many of these relationships our response is often a non-response, or non-adaptive. The reasons for this are too complex to explore here. Suffice to say that to have a shot at becoming like the first forest we need individual responsiveness and agency guided by shared intent, and common purpose encapsulated in phrase ‘think globally: act locally’.

Think global, act local

Is there cause for hope?

We think so.

Thinking globally is getting much clearer and commonplace. Acting locally is the big target.

Or we might say ‘think globally, improvise locally’ to highlight the relational nature of that action.

In our work with individuals and groups using the craft/process of improvisation and as situational facilitators we see people reclaiming their agency, rebuilding trust with their impulses, reconnecting to shared intent, recovering courage through collective presence, rewilding their connection with the living world and life itself, re-enchanting their vision of humanity and our generative possibilities for generations to come.

And as part of a growing band of playful practitioners working across the globe we help to amplify the adoption of the capacity to improvise at scale and speed, we see cause for hope. Our main tools are the skills, principles, behaviours and flexible structures of improvisation and story, and these compliment many other valuable approaches to change.

OK so how does improvisation actually fit in?

Let’s take a definition of improvisation from Rick Rubin in ‘The Creative Act: A Way of Being’. He says:

“Do what you can
with what you have.
Nothing more is needed.”

OK so he didn’t describe that as a definition of improvisation but that’s what it is. Improvisation is a craft that allows individuals and groups to sense and adapt and respond. It’s what we do when we cook, clean, garden, do DIY, dance, make love, chat and do all the things that happen now with only a loose script or structure, and feel more guided by a desired outcome than a standard operating procedure.

Far from being the last resort of the unprepared amateur it sits atop Bloom’s taxonomy as a real-time application of the whole coterie of human thinking/feeling skills:

It comes as no surprise to me that improvise is a verb that’s missing from this version published by Fractus Learning. It’s an invisible skillset with a big impact.

Learning the skills improvisers use on stage in a non-performance context helps to enhance the core skills of improvisation that are needed to balance freedom and structure at different levels of interaction, different levels of relationship.

These core skills include listening and being present, being willing to share control, daring to be obvious, making your partner look good, trusting your impulses.

And lest we get too serious which is never a good idea. Taking a more improvisational approach to life and work feels human, creative and alive in the here & now.

Let’s amplify what’s working

And the great news here is that we’re already improvisers. It’s what we do from birth onwards. You weren’t handed a script at birth (although your parents and school gave you lessons in how to act…)

Anyone who works with other people knows that they have to improvise moment-by-moment. A rigid plan simply doesn’t work. Anyone who has ever cooked, danced, made music, or had a conversation (to name just a few things) know that adjusting in the moment is essential. Life happens in real-time. We have constraints and limitations for what good looks like but we don’t follow a set formula to get there.

We already have a lifetime’s worth of skills and capabilities here. We talk with each other in an improvisational way and we live our lives that way too – deciding where to live, who to live with, how to eat, how to dress and so much more.

Our ability to improvise is alive and well.

And even better, it makes us feel alive and well.

We can take this human meta-skill and expand and enhance it. And we can do so playfully.

It follows our natural inclinations and gives us more access to our innate resources of calm, curiosity, compassion and creativity.

It brings us more fully into relationship with ourselves, each other, the world, other living intelligences and life itself.

And that’s good news is that when we look to enhance this capacity there are 1,000s of incredible exercises developed by improvisers and applied improvisation trainers that isolate and strengthen all the essential parts. As Kat Koppett says, Improv is the Gym. Some of these exercises are lively and produce laughter, others are very soulful, patient, reflective and produce a considered response.

Somehow this often comes a surprise. Improvisation is seen as a trip to crazytown and only suitable for no holds barred brainstorming. But that really does it a disservice. All relationships are both active and receptive. So improvisation as a human art of exploring relationships also has active and receptive aspects. These apply at different scales – from local to global.

Practicing the craft of improvisation can help us move:

From passivity to presence
From caring to courage
From anxiety to agency
From friction to flow
From predict, fix and control to sense, adapt and respond

And the joy of it is that it makes extraordinary things possible. Like an improvised scene, improvised jazz and dance, a full-length improvised play, or a forest.

If we can liberate this potential ‘think global: improvise local’ at scale we can solve anything with efficiency and speed.

A path to hope?

Academic citations of the term improvisation are on a hockey stick curve. This train is leaving the station. 

Bringing it back to nature

Nature isn’t going to learn a new way, she already has a complex-adaptive pattern that generates growth, complexity, beauty and abundance. It’s us who need to learn her way of full engagement and spontaneous adaptation.

We’re already doing that. Search the internet for improvisation and you’ll see it’s happening everywhere, in many flavours from contact dance, to improv comedy, to improvised theatre of the heart, to improvised jazz, to agile software development, to social media content, to decentralised autonomous organisations (DAO), blockchain, distributed teamwork and so much more.

There’s a pattern here. A weak signal that the revolution will be improvised. And that signal is growing in amplitude all the time.

So if we want to be more like the first forest we have to be able to improvise well.

Let’s switch the conversation from “Improvisation, what is that?”

To asking “How can we improvise well?”

Photo by Adonyi Gábor on Unsplash

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