Posted July 29th 2010 at 2:26 pm by
in Collaborating like a Designer

Cultivating Group Mind

Design That Matters: Meld MindsMekayla Beaver, Tim Prestero, and Neil Cantor meld their minds while considering the Design that Matters Kinkajou projector for nighttime adult literacy.  Photo by Dave Gandy of Design That Matters.

Designers love exploring the unknown and our enthusiasm for the process is contagious. Excitement shared between group members can lead to something incredibly magical and beneficial called group mind.  In individualistic American culture, this term often takes on a negative connotation implying everyone thinking alike and following each other over a perilous cliff like lemmings. However, when I refer to group mind, I am referencing an experience where members of a group are able to bring their own unique individuality and meld with each other to become more than the sum of their parts. In this magical mode, groups generate ideas and open new pathways they would never have come up with on their own.

Truth in Comedy, the improv comedy bible by Charna Halpern, Del Close, and Kim Johnson, is the most fabulous resource anyone has ever invented for learning about group mind and many other concepts for getting a group to gel and be creative. For those that are unfamiliar, improv comedy is a form of theater where a group of actors spontaneously create a scene often based on a theme suggested by the audience or a simple set of rules. Improv comedy is on Saturday Night Live, Whose Line is it Anyway?, or the ImprovOlympic theater in Chicago. This is how the authors of Truth in Comedy describe group mind:

After an improviser learns to trust and follow his own inner voice, he begins to do the same with his fellow players’ inner voices. Once he puts his own ego out of the way, he stops judging the ideas of others – instead, he considers them brilliant, and eagerly follows them!  When a team of improvisers pays close attention to each other, hearing and remembering everything, and respecting all that they hear, a group mind forms. The goal of this phenomenon is to connect the information created out of the group ideas – and it’s easily capable of brilliance. Audiences have witnessed the group mind linking up to a universal intelligence, enabling them to perform fantastic, sometimes unbelievable feats. It only happens when the group members are finely attuned to each other.” (92-93)

One of the best, concrete techniques for cultivating group mind is the “yes, & …” approach as described in the book:

Conflict is about as necessary as the Mad Scientist’s daughter in a science fiction film. It’s an arbitrary convention that need not be respected… At the Improv Olympic, the principle of agreement is taken even further by the ‘Yes, & …’ approach. “Yes, & …” rule simply means that whenever two actors are on stage, they agree with each other to the Nth degree. If one asks the other a question, the other must respond positively, and then provide additional information, no matter how small: “Yes, you’re right, and I also think we should …”. Answering “No” leads nowhere in a scene… This is a very relaxing way in which to work. A player knows that anything he says on stage will be immediately accepted by his fellow player, and treated as if it were the most scintillating idea ever offered to mankind. His partner then adds on to his idea, and moment by moment, the two of them have created a scene the neither of them had planned… Each new initiation furthers the last one, and the scene progresses. The acceptance of each other’s ideas brings the players together, and engenders a “group mind.” Denying the reality that is created on stage ends the progression of the scene, and destroys any chance of achieving a group consciousness.” (45-46)

As Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live says, “Had I not been involved in the ImprovOlympic with Charna Halpern and Del Close, I would now be a bat-wielding fur poacher. I’m a better man because of this training. Stronger-faster-taller. Read! Enjoy! Learn!” Believe me, it’s true.

Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, creating new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Elizabeth’s passion to create a positive social impact through design have led her to facilitate more than 20 design thinking workshops and speaking engagements. Prior to DtM, Elizabeth worked for eight years as a product designer at IDEO.

7 responses to “Cultivating Group Mind”

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    Elizabeth, I love this post! I spent a year doing improv comedy in New York because I found that learning how to do it right made me a better collaborator. In urban planning you so often have to take into account multiple viewpoints and perspectives. The ‘yes, and…’ approach, which is so much more constructive that looking at the downside to things, really has the impact of bringing out more ideas and more possibilities. It’s so much better than thinking about the downside and the pitfalls in any given project.

    Tell me: do you have an example of how you used improv in a specific design project?

  2. Aditi Mehta says:

    I really love this photo!

  3. Laura says:

    I love the “yes, and” approach to difficult conversations. It’s amazing how powerful it is to stop saying “but” and acknowledge the validity of what the other person is saying. I think this translates in a really interesting way to professional conversations– how much more productive is collaborating versus countering!

  4. Aseem Inam says:

    I taught a highly experimental and extremely effective urban design studio for graduate students at MIT in spring 2009 using comedy improvisation as a form of creative collaboration and flexible practice.

    I brought to bear three areas of experience in developing the studio: training and performances in comedy improv in Hollywood, deep experiences in global urban design practice, and scholarly research that tests theoretical ideas through experimental pedagogies.

    In the studio, we followed a dialectical process between improv exercises and design exercises. The students embraced the comedy wholeheartedly, developing skills in collaborative creativity–such as working as a horizontal network rather than a vertical hierarchy, building on each other’s ideas, understanding the relationship between structure and spontaneity, learning to be truly experimental by being comfortable with failure and building on it, and nimble modes of thinking and action–i.e. adaptive practice. The students developed a project for an actual site near Chinatown in Boston, and interacted with local officials and community groups.

    The students generated highly creative urban design strategies that were also sensitive to the context and adaptive over time. They learnt to negotiate–often with great passion–the process of generating, debating, and deciding on which courses of action to pursue. They also learnt to value the strengths of each other’s contributions, instead of the common tendency to self-edit and judge others. They constantly articulated the relationship between improv and design through reflective essays and group discussions. The students found the studio to be extremely valuable–the fun comedy exercises, the provocative discussions, and the truly original brainstorming as individuals and as a group.

    From my own improv and design experience, I find it to be the most powerful form of group creativity. For example, after just a few short weeks, I publicly performed improv with a group of strangers in front of a sold-out audience in Hollywood and everyone had a great time, especially the performers! In design practice, first-hand experience with improv helps break down barriers between professionals, reduces self-consciousness in putting forth out-of-the-box ideas, and most of all, is an excellent way to learn to think and act in the moment in a world that is constantly and rapidly changing.

    There has been so much interest generated in this studio that I have written an article for the Journal of Education of the Built Environment, which has been peer-reviewed and will be published later this year. I also intend to build further on this experience and continue to fine-tune the idea of “comedy improv as urban design methodology” for pedagogy and practice.

    The best part of it all? It can be a lot of fun!

  5. Elizabeth Johansen says:

    Dear Alexa, Aditi, Laura, and Aseem,

    Thank you all so much for your generous comments. It is fabulously interesting to hear of different ways people have employed tenants of improv comedy in their work lives. I have found the “yes and…” concept to be particularly powerful.

    The “yes and…” approach is very relevant specifically in the context of brainstorming. As you set aside that no-judgment time to share ideas and thoughts, encouraging each other by both acknowledging an idea or thought with a “yes” and building on it with additional thoughts of your own “and” helps everyone feel included and boosts creativity by encouraging you to explore avenues they may not have previously explored due to your open mind.

    In general, in a team setting, I like to show my enthusiasm for the various contributions that others make by literally using the word “yes” quite often. During the fall of 2008, Harvard researcher Daniel Wilson videotaped the team dynamics of a project I was leading to contribute to his body of research on how people learn at work. My teammates expressed that the felt particularly free to share their ideas and felt energized by the work and the dynamic. One aspect Daniel pulled out of his videotape analysis was my ridiculously high use of the word “yes”. At that point I realized that I had internalized the “yes and…” approach I had learned in an improv comedy class in college and had great success with it!

  6. Thank you for your wonderful blog about my book TRUTH IN COMEDY. We do corporate classes if anyone is interested. Im so glad my work has been helpful to you.


    Charna Halpern

  7. Elizabeth Johansen says:

    Dear Charna,

    I can’t believe you found this blog post! Thank you so much for your comment. A corporate class could be brilliant, especially as a consultant/client bonding experience. I will now go back to worshiping you via my small office shrine, and you may hear from Design that Matters soon for a class!

    All my best,


  8. Cultivating a “Group Mind” « Design Changes says:

    […] Elizabeth Johansen is the Director of Product Development at Design that Matters, a company that creates new products and services for the poor in developing countries. Johansen is passionate about creating positive social impact through design through an exercise she calls cultivating “the group mind”. […]