What do Sesame Street and improv have to do with design thinking?

I am hoping lots of people will participate in this one!  This could be cool.  Its got a long-winded wind-up, so hang in there and read to the end for me if you can.

Ok, so this is a question about the way knowledge and traditions evolve and the weird paths ideas take as they float in and out of public attention.  They come into our own individual worlds every so often.  I’m interested in the life of ideas as they grow outside of our own little lives.  I want to track this one idea.  Please help out if you can.  If I can find enough examples, I would love to do a series of posts on the life of memes.  So, I guess this is a kind of experiment I want to try thanks to the handy dandy internet.

For those who don’t keep track of these things (very understandable) a meme is the genetic unit of ideas.  Like genes, memes are what tell ideas what shape to take.  They allow ideas to exist across the empty space between person A and person B.  Like a game of telephone, the ideas mutate as they get from C to D and can get super weird by the time we get to Z.  Somehow, the mutations even out.  Somehow, just as genetics works with plants and animals, certain ideas survive and meme-sets stabilize.  Local rules to games like poker evolve into 5 card stud versus Texas Hold-em but “Poker” lives on.  I just want a better idea of how this works.  In this particular case, I’m thinking we are looking at the traditions of improv, storytelling, and a possible evolution/contribution to design thinking.

So, here’s the story.

Friday afternoon I participated in a conference call with Leadership +Design, adjusting plans for a teacher PD on design thinking for my school.  This morning I spent some time watching classic Sesame Street episodes with my son.

While watching the first season, episode six or seven, I think, one of the sketches has Grover trying to win the hand of a princess so she can turn him back into a person (the princess turns into a monster instead, classic!) and the feat Grover has to complete to win her hand (speaking of classic, this slay the dragon for the girl trope is a key component of mythology and old stories) and Grover has to play a game called “What Happens Next?”

In “What Happens Next?” Grover has to look at different pictures and figure out what comes next.  Of course, Grover gets all three right and wins.  Pretty simple exercise in anticipation.  Fun for all.  Good for young minds.

An example from the Sesame skit: The cat has gotten scared and the vase in the picture is falling towards to dog.  Grover correctly answers that the vase, water, and flowers will land on the dog.  That’s the idea.

In improv, actors start a scene and the MC claps to freeze the actors.  Once, the actors are frozen, the MC asks the audience clever questions to try and find an unexpected answer to what will happen next hoping for a clever and entertaining twist.  The MC restarts the scene and the players take the scene towards some version of what the audience suggested.  It can be hillarious, unexpected, tragic… Its a fun format.

Now, in design thinking, part of the exercise involves approaching even simple ideas from several directions.  The idea is to have multiple perspectives to allow for options.  Options then allow us choices.  When we have choices we can tailor a design or experience so that we can fit it to the needs of a particular individual, situation, or group.  In this way we can act upon empathy.  Instead of our current corporate reality that just hurls products and experiences out there in an authoritarian way that they think will earn the most money without options that improve the lives of consumers, this new approach to design offers us a way to tailor our creations to fit actual needs in more satisfying ways.  Business is about what sells.  School is not great for offering lots of choices and this could really help in that context.  Great idea.  America is built on the idea of lots of choices but the reality often falls short.  Best of all, design thinking allows students to get a little more skin in the game.  They can get more say about the shape and delivery of the education they are subjected to.

One of the major obstacles to teaching design thinking to teachers is to loosen people up, get them off the rails of their everyday thinking.  Teachers are supposed to be consistent so we can have an idea of what they want us to learn.  As the rep from Leadership +Design noted, this is often why great teachers often have this trait.  Teachers don’t have to be and should not be made of wood, however.  In fact, now that the world better understands brain diversity, some flexibility inside structure is absolutely necessary.  Its really hard to do, however.  Sir Ken Robinson can lecture entertainingly until the end of time but without methods to guide teachers along the path to change, we won’t make much progress.  So, that is another major benefit to design thinking, its a path that leads us closer to where we need to be in the big picture.

Leadership +Design wisely uses improv to get a cro-bar into our psyches to pry the rigidity a bit looser.  This post covers several idea sets and here is where all these threads come together.

My college improv troupe did a format called “What Happens Next?”  Burpee’s Seedy Impovisational Theatrical Company was formed in the early 80’s by college kids who had to have watched this Sesame episode.  But, I can’t prove it.  I think the bigger question about how ideas flow is a more interesting one, however (if you do know, however, do tell!)

My question is this:  Have you heard of a version of “What Happens Next?”  Where/what was the source?  Have you heard/done/known of improv being added to design thinking?  And, what are your insights about how this basic notion of creativity and anticipation makes its way through culture into your own life?  I welcome your thoughts!

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