The known unknowns of an improv session

I admit that I tend to over plan improv sessions. It’s not really an intended strategy. It’s not because I don’t want to integrate the spontaneous into a course structure, nor because i’m afraid to go with the unplanned, which, is usually what happens. It’s because letting participants know a little of what they are going to expect can at least make them feel better about embracing the unexpected since it will happen.

For this reason you could look at the structures proposed for any improv session as amorphous; as a mockup of what the experience might be like . This is true to form with what our expectations should be of digital media work environments anyway. You are going in with the full expectation of completing tasks, following the pre-planned structure of a sprint, and having some objectives. Yet, you never know how it’s going to go when you start to interact with others, when you encounter problems you have to solve, when you make unexpected discoveries that wow you and your team, when the power goes off, when you forget to eat, when you realize it’s 8pm and you’re still working, when someone pisses you off no matter how well you work, when you feel like what you’re doing is shit, when you know it’s just work and there’s a whole other world out there.

You might even gain a new perspective on the unknowns that manifest during the mockup we refer to as a project pipeline. To manage yourself, your team members and the project itself in an era where rapid prototypical development, fluctuating market changes and customers loyal to the free are common, requires that we develop a more agile perspective for our own sanity and survival. That’s why professionals and scholars alike might agree with Ward and Chapman’s (2003) who argue that a “focus on ‘uncertainty’ rather than risk could enhance project risk management, providing an important difference in perspective, including, but not limited to, an enhanced focus on opportunity management” (p. 97).

To practice exercises that intentionally challenge us to respond quickly to unexpected offers may, in part, transform the way in which we perceive risk itself; no longer to be taken solely as a threat on the SWOT, as some external and invisible monster threatening to destroy our work, but in some situations an opportunity for change. Just look at how Godzilla has shifted from threat to opportunity depending on the cinematic lens.

The precise feeling of not really knowing what will happen is not only worth exploring in a concentrated way, it’s worthy of figuring out how you deal with the unexpected, and with the known unknowns. And don’t worry, the term was coined way before Rumsfeld…in 1955 by Luft and Ingham. Coincidentally, the idea of known unknowns also appeared in a report by BC mining in 1979.

Known unknowns result from phenomena which are recognized, but poorly understood. On the other hand, unknown unknowns are phenomena which cannot be expected because there has been no prior experience or theoretical basis for expecting the phenomena.

One question an improv session may stimulate is “What opportunities present themselves to us when we let go of always wanting to know?” To actually enter a room with others all prepared for specific intentional exercises but knowing in our heart that we might just do other things, will build agility and resilience. That’s because we might also realize that those unknown things we unexpectedly do, are completely dependent on how the individuals respond to the material, to one another and to their own ability to go with the flow.

If you’ve never taken an improv session of any kind then pretend that the plan you’ve been given will remain as it is. Then come to the session. Surprise yourself and be surprised by others. Reflect on the experience and perhaps in that reflection, you will come to understand that no matter what transpires in an improv session, the simple fact that we have this opportunity now, in this setting , to practice what the magic of the unknown might teach us, is in itself, strategic. On the other hand, the outcome may well remain an elusive unknown unknown.


What are the known unknowns in your digital media work environment and how do you contend with them?

Known References

Luft, J., & Ingham, H. (1955). The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness, proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: University of California.

Ward, S., & Chapman, C. (2003). Transforming project risk management into project uncertainty management. International journal of project management21(2), 97-105.

“Statement of Evidence of E. D’Appolonia, D’Appolonia Consulting Engineers, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”. 1979. Phase V: Waste Disposal. Proceedings of the British Columbia Royal Commission of Inquiry into Uranium Mining. ISBN 0-7718-8198-3. 0005037606