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why improvisation is not a toolbox

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

"Join this course and you'll take away a box of tools you can apply immediately to your team’s or clients' challenges!" This is what I used to say to people who inquired into my (applied) improvisation work.

The toolbox metaphor is prominent in training and development communities. A trainer's toolbox can be imagined as an array of methodologies, activities and interventions that help a client reach their desired goals or outcomes.

this photo shows a toolbox with a light bulb inside
Photo by Mart Production on Pexels

By evoking familiar expectations of mechanistic and measurable engineering solutions for ‘creative’ problem solving, the metaphor has itself become a tool which opens the door for creative people who wish to enter and succeed in the industrial workplace.

By using the language of the business world, an improvisation course becomes a training in communication, presentation skills, and out-of-the-box thinking. The games and activities we play become tips, tricks and tools to hone said skills.

Through its versatility, (applied) improvisation is becoming the ultimate Swiss Army Knife in a creative trainer's toolbox. And who could argue against the utility of one of those?

This photo shows a closed swiss army knife
Photo by Alejandro Piñero Amerio on Unsplash

In this blog series we'll look at different aspects of the toolbox metaphor and its possible side-effects. These range from mildly annoying and avoidable to deeply ingrained systemic issues that self-perpetuate and cannot be "fixed" in the industrial sense of the word.

I will propose that the toolbox metaphor is inaccurate and part of an unhelpful epistemology for thinking about improvisation practices, as it promotes an instrumentalist, materialist and reductionist worldview that is counter to the practice of improvisation itself.

Although I see the irony of using a toolbox to promote out-of-the-box thinking, I'd like to suggest we create more holistic ways of speaking about improvisation.

This image shows a person from the waist up, dressed in a smart shirt, with their head in a cardboard box.
Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

While I present each obstacle to improvisational sense-making in individual blog posts, it is important to not view them as separate, but rather as an aggregate of related, interlinked and interdependent concerns.

In looking for alternatives, we will leave the familiar world of linear development and change-making, and start to tend to the realm of infinite possibility and flexibility accessible through improvising.

This may be uncomfortable reading for some and liberating for others. I am curious how these ideas resonate with you!

Let's go!

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