It was also my 39th birthday which means I have one more thing in common with comedian, improviser and Spicks & Specks host Adam Hills … our age. Thanks to Adam Hills (and the audience at his Mess Around gig), my 39th birthday has been my most memorable so far.
Apart from our age, Adam Hills and I share something else in common … a belief.
Throughout his Mess Around gig, Adam repeated his belief that ‘normal’ people (you and me) are way more interesting than the celebrities we adore in the media. So, his shows are more about ‘us’ than him. He used the time to have a conversation with ‘us’ (the audience) and unearthed our stories – which ended being rich, diverse and funny. He connected audience members together and created a space to work together on something. After 2 or 3 of these shows, a social movement has been created around 1 man’s effort to raise money for a charity … all this momentum and action created from nothing but a story and a belief that everyone has can contribute. Most would say that their contribution is ‘ordinary’, but combined the ordinary can lead to something special. More on that story later.
In my work with groups, I facilitate conversations between people. Some with small groups and some with large groups over a number of days. My belief is that the conversations and relationships between participants who attend workshops (or between delegates at conferences) are way more interesting than individual ‘keynote speakers’ or ‘panel members’ that we so often see on the conference circuit. Traditional conferences who worship ‘experts’ seem to have forgotten that we are a social species – where conversation and relationships are the foundation for any form of action. Even many of us (the non-experts) have fooled ourselves into the same ‘celebrity’ or ‘expert’ worship.
Viv McWaters has written about the same here … Johnnie Moore here … Chris Corrigan here … and I wrote about it here when describing the Aireys Inlet Open Mic Music Festival.
Back to Saturday night’s Mess Around …
If you want to follow the full story of the ‘movement’ that has emerged from Adam’s Mess Around in Melbourne, read his blog posts here. If you want a snapshot of the story in the form of a 1 minute sales pith to donate money, watch this video (and thanks to my wife Ingrid who put this together on her Mac) …
But first, the story so far: I have decided that throughout this Festival I will do my best to make a mild-mannered IT Manager I found in my opening night’s audience as famous as possible. I want Chris Hughes to be more famous than Shiloh Jolie Pitt.
Chris only agreed to go through with it if we raised money for a charity that gives physical therapy to people with cystic fibrosis – The Simon Rhoden Foundation. At last count (bearing in mind it is only four days into the festival) we have raised over $2000. If we hit $20000 Chris will perform a strip in Federation Square on the final night of the Festival. Other audience members have offered lycra, a barbeque and to MC the strip.
So how does one man generate so much commitment to action AND whilst everyone is having a riotously good time? Most clients I work with only dream of seeing so many ‘transactions’ emerge from a ‘workshop’ full of strangers. But would they employ a ‘mess around’ approach to run their workshops? Here’s Adam’s description of his Mess Around series …
“Adam loves ad-libbing with the crowd. So much so that this year he’s throwing the script out the window and devoting an hour-and-a-bit to simply messing around. No script, no plan, no idea. Literally anything could happen – and if you’ve been to a Hilsy show before, you know it probably will. NO TWO SHOWS THE SAME!” Melbourne Comedy Festival website
And reference statements include …
“His interaction witht he audience proved so fruitful that they were reluctant to release him back on to the stage. 5*” The Scotsman
“An Adam Hills show is always a festival highlight … with real weight, wit and purpose behind his contagious positivity.” Chortle (UK)
Would you employ this ‘Mess Around’ approach to an upcoming workshop where you want agreed and sustainable actions and outcomes?
Ok, so I hear you saying that the context of your workshop if totally different … I understand that – people are doing ‘serious’ work and your workshop is not a performance. You are right, many things change when we shift from a Comedy Festival gig to a workshop where the stakes are high. However, many things also remain the same – people are people and relationships are still the glue that connect us into sustainable action. Here’s what I think we can learn from Adam’s Mess Around approach.
As I have already said, everyone has a story to tell. In a complex world, we need more connections between people, more spaces for more conversations and less listening to experts (we still need some of this like at TED). We need to harvest stories from our employees and conference delegates and learn from them.
We need less scripts and way less plans and time spent doing strategies. Instead, we need to get ourselves ‘prepared’ for dealing with the unexpected and uncertainty. (Viv gives a real example of being prepared here).
Weik and Sutcliffe in their book ‘Managing the Unexpected‘ also highlight some characteristics of High Reliability Organisations (organisations that have a track record of remaining resilient when the unexpected happens) For me, these characteristics share a remarkable resemblance to the principles of Improvisational Theatre and the approach Adam takes to ‘messing around’.
Wanna Save the World?
If you want to ‘save the world’, you can read about how Improv can be used to help at the Applied Improvisation Network site. Belina posted this very question and many responses have come through so far. Read about it here.
In Sum …
From where I sit, 1 thing is clear. Conversations and relationships between people and groups are the platform for collective action. Complex issues like ”adapting to climate change” are messy and complex. They are unpredictable and context specific. As a community/society we need news ways of working and being together. We need to ‘let go’ of control and learn to be more comfortable in the ‘mess’. I believe that applying Improv, and the ‘Adam Hills’ approach, is one way of getting more traction.
Over the weekend, myself and Marty Maher and a bunch of other volunteers stage the 3rd annual Aireys Inlet Open Mic Music Festival. Apart from being an absolutely outrageous success, it was loads of fun and we designed and staged it all without a Steering Committee (yaaay) … or a detailed strategic plan for that matter!
Marty has grown and nurtured this event from a seed … an idea that Marty had (and he has lot’s of them). The core of that idea assumes that there are loads of musicians out there desperate to strut their stuff and play music on stage in front of a festive crowd. It’s not about big-noting … it’s about sharing their own material.
Music venues are hard to find these days. Music events with a great stage, great sound and an attentive audience are even rarer! So, this event fills that gap in the market. Most music festivals are predominately the realm of the ‘professional’, or at least the domain of the consummate ‘amateur’. This event is space where any ‘passionate amateur’ can register, show-up and play.
No Steering Committee!
Marty detests being on committees and working groups … so do I. This event came together because Marty, myself and few others were willing to take responsibility for getting things done. We are passionate about the idea and, through many conversations and catchups over coffee, we got things done (I cannot remember having any official meetings, no personality clashes, no grievances and not one written agenda). Critically, we trust each other and therefore we build on each other’s ideas. We say ‘yes’ and we rarely block each other. There were some things about this year’s festival (such as the huge stages at the Bark Hut and Skate Parks) that I was scared of – instead of blocking I trusted Marty’s vision. My new green-contribution was a ‘trial’ shuttle bus to run between venues and out to nearby townships. Marty could have blocked this idea … instead he said ‘yes’ and allowed me to take full responsibility for making it happen. Saying ‘yes’ to each other when designing an event like this leads to trust, creativity and adventure!
The Core Idea
From the beginning, Marty has repeated what this festival is about to everyone … “It’s simple! It’s all about the music!” he would say. This core idea is our filter for what we accept and block as the offers come in from each other and from outside.
“How about we have poetry readings and book reviews?” someone offered. Nope! That’s outside of the core idea.
“A shuttle bus to move the masses between stages?” Yep! That’s all about getting punters to the music!
Being prepared rather than having a plan
I’d being kidding myself if I said we had no plan for this event. Of course we did. But, the plan was designed to be changed at a moment’s notice. The other approach we took was to make the whole event as ‘lightweight’ as possible. We systematically stripped away the superfluous and the stuff that wasn’t needed. We were left with the core design elements needed to make it work. Spaces that were safe, a stage, shelter, a sound systems and an engineer to run them. Local business were able to provide food and drink which took another logistical nightmare off our hands.
When we sketched the overall design of this year’s event, many steering committees would have insisted on a detailed analysis of risk and contingency plans in case things failed. Well, we did the former and ensured we put safety first and got all the right planning permits etc … (big thanks to Jim Lawson at the Surf Coast Shire for help here!). Once that was out of the way, our mindset and plan was simple – create the right spaces, buy in the people and skills required and create a compelling invitation.
The Shuttle Bus
Cars and people don’t mix. Cars make noise and pollute. Cars and music don’t mix either. This year I trialled a 12 seater Shuttle Bus. With a squadron of 6 volunteer bus drivers, we marked out a simple route between the venues and out to Fairhaven and Moggs Creek.
We spread the word to ‘get on the bus’ and created bus stop signs. We had no idea if people would use it?
Use it they did! In their droves, people boarded the bus and dispensed with their car. It also created another space in which people could mix and chat. Next year, the fleet of buses will expand (to 2) and I have plans to bring in a large fleet bicycles as well.
The unintended benefit in the bus was the feedback we we got from bus drivers. Because they were talking with people and observing what was going on around the whole town, we had the ability to respond to things quickly. The unexpected will always happen at an event of this scale … you need to find ways of ‘noticing’ what is going up and down!
Getting the musicians was simple. We will provide a great stage, the best sound and an audience … in other words, we’ll do everything we can to make you look good! Within weeks Marty had 120 registered acts. And by the way … 120 acts showed up and played!
Getting the audience made us nervous. In years 1 and 2, our numbers and message built slowly. We attracted enough music lovers to make last year’s event successful and the vibe was great. How many would come in 2010 was purely guesswork.
Marty did a great job with the traditional media, Jason Coulton (Boojum) created our great website for free and I handled the Twitter and Facebook stuff. In the week leading up to the event, word-of-mouth was buzzing.
Once I get the official figures, I let you know.
The ‘Keynote’ Performer
Part of Marty’s plan was to advertise a ‘mystery special guest’. For weeks we kept the secret and then slowly we ‘leaked’ clues to the grapevine – like cabinet leaks budget information to the media! It’s amazing the buzz this little strategy created … but we had to deliver.
Enter Colin Hay! Lead singer and songwriter for Men at Work and one of Australia’s greatest ever bands from the 80’s.
Colin agreed to show up and play a 40 minute set. He liked the spirit of the festival and his performance with his band was everything and more. Colin was part of something pretty special and I reckon he and his band sensed it when they arrived. Thanks Colin!
Showcasing the spaces Aireys Inlet has to offer
Aireys Inlet is blessed with some of the most beautiful parks and vistas anywhere. Marty was keen to showcase the best spaces Aireys has to offer. So, this year we erected 2 large marquees at the Bark Hut park and the Skate Park. We added a stage and a kick-ass PA system run by a professional sound engineer. Here’s the view from the Skate Park Marquee …
The Gift Economy
The Open Mic doesn’t cost the ‘punters’ to attend and it doesn’t pay performers to play. Everyone participates under the banner of ‘The Gift Economy’!
We have copped criticism from some quarters on this. I spend hours every week reading and writing blog posts and this has become a key part of my business. Many of my clients (both past and potentials) read what I have to say. My blog is all part of who I am. The time and ideas that I give away, come back to me in spades.
Performers that ‘show up’ at festival like the Aireys Open Mic may not earn any money, but their brand shines as a result.
The ‘Stats’ worth mentioning – “Not everything than can be counted, counts” A. Einstein
6 to 7000 people attended – from all over the region and Melbourne
1200 people at the evening session Sat night
1000 people at the Sunday pm session
Over 150 bums on bus seats
The Aireys Hotel ran out of glasses by 10.30pm on Sat night … and later they ran out of beer!
120 acts registered … 120 solos/duo’s/bands showed up and played
The feedback from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive like this email …
“It was a truly community event. Because you committed to a high-quality sound/stage system, the open mic performers felt looked after – this is pretty rare in the open mic world I believe. The stages were brilliantly situated, and Geoff’s bus initiative was a great success.
I appreciate the many hours you must have put in behind the scenes to make this happen.
I’ll prize many moment from this festival – getting a harmonica lesson from one of the best players I’ve ever heard, seeing Tim and band make it up as they went along and *still* wow the crowd, being within spitting distance of Colin Hay and his stellar band, seeing astonishing talent like Dylan Hammond and the Giullano Project playing for free. And just hanging around the pub on Sunday afternoon with a bunch of great locals and visitors.
Sense of Community
Even though our catch-cry is “It’s all about the music” … this festival (like any event that brings people together) is all about people and relationships. Music brings diverse groups of people together like nothing else. When you bring people together around a social object (in this the social object is live music) … conversations happen and relationships get stronger. Events like the Open Mic bring community together and give it a lift. Apart from being exhausted on Monday morning, most people were still ‘buzzing’ and feeling proud about what happened last weekend.
Peter Marshall has gone out of his way to share images from this year’s Open Mic. Thanks Peter and here’s a link to the stream – http://www.petermarshallphotography.com/0-AireysInlet-OpenMic-Festival-20100313-14/index.html
We also set up a Posterous Blog so that anyone could email in photos. Here’s some more snaps – http://aireysopenmic.posterous.com/?page=1
I’m on a roll! My last few posts have been inspired by my reading and reflections on Impro. Like any parent, I want my kids to thrive, be passionate and happy. I’d also like my kids to learn to improvise … or maybe slow down the un-learning process that happens as kids start to fear failure, judgement and criticism.
I was playing with my eldest son last weekend … we were building structures with shapes. I noticed that Griff wasn’t happy with the end result. We were building structures slowly and we were ‘judging’ the building process with each move. The game felt stilted and lacked flow … it wasn’t much fun.
So, I threw in a ‘constraint’ of time. I said … “No stalling … no going back … build as quick as possible … don’t think about it … if it falls over we start again!”
Wow! What a shift. We started to flow and we started to build quickly on each other’s offers. There was laughter and fun and we spent a whole hour building and re building … then Griff ran and grabbed the camera and started photographing our little masterpieces.
So What? When I observe group making decisions and working as a team, they often become stuck. Part of my role as facilitator is to help groups do their best thinking. In the past 12 months, I have been introducing the concept of ‘creative limits’. Limitations enhance creativity and flow for groups. Time limits help them to get on with it and reduce judgments of themselves and others. Limiting the number of words they can use to describe something can help them to find the ‘essence’ or ‘core’ of their idea and communicate more effectively. People who work in design understand how to use ‘creative limits’ to improve their work.
Here’s some links that I found useful over the past week …
Russ Schoen Says YesAnd! leads to a new product idea – try saying ‘yes’ for a day and resist that urge of blocking offers that other make … amazing results as a parent when you ‘let-go’ of your own plans and ‘go with’ the offers that our kids make
After a Sype call with Dave Pollard (about letting-go and complexity), he sent me this video link that demonstrates the art of Impro … in a musical sense
Jeff Howe (Wired) on “user generated” content and crowdsourcing – really interesting stuff … the rise of Wikipedia-like tools is the new thing and I like this quote:
“A large group of diverse individuals will come up with better and more robust forecasts and make more intelligent decisions than even the most skilled decision maker” James Sourowiecki. The Wisdom of Crowds.
Jeff’s technical definition of “Crowdsourcing” is this …
“When a company takes a job that was once performed by employees and outsources it to a large, UNDEFINED (crucial word) group of people through the form of an OPEN CALL. Or more simply … when you need something done you turn to the potential 1.3 billion people globally with an internet connection and say ‘Can you do this?’. and that in a nutshell is Crowdsourcing.”
Here’s 4 more online, visual communication tools I am playing with at the moment …
“The ride itself is amazing as Parsons actually gets tubed on this 64ft monster, you think the wave has claimed him and he comes out of the whitewater. On the same day he had taken a massive wipeout on an earlier wave and came back to take this wave.”
No need to describe this online tool with words … pictures will do nicely. I’ll be using this tomorrow at a workshop I am facilitating. The question will be … words that describe what you love about the Natural Envronment.
Ok, I got to the bottom of the illness … bacterial infection in the sinuses that needed a good dose of antibiotics. Now feeling human again and ‘just’ capable of posting this.
Thanks to Kara (my Sister in law) for cheering me up with an “Elf-Me” video clip. My kids saw and made me do one of our own. So here’s a chance to introduce my family to you … Ingrid, Griffin, Lachlan, Hamish and me down at the barn!
(Remember Ben Zander’s Rule #6 … don’t take yourself seriously)