Mekayla 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.