“Speed,” write Doug Harward and Ken Taylor in Training Industry Magazine’s 2018 trends report, “is the heart of the learner experience.” With the fast pace of change happening in organizations, it’s becoming critical that we can design and adjust learning solutions quickly, and “training organizations that perform at a very high level are those that are deliberate in their approach to improving the speed of learning and performance change.”

Agile content development allows those organizations to create that change at the speed they need to. Instructional designers are taking a page out of the software developer’s book by prioritizing speed in creating and repurposing content. Agile design enables instructional designers to quickly create and edit templates, collaborate with colleagues, and make changes to content when needed.

In order for instructional designers to move at this speed and create the engaging content learners need to quickly acquire new skills, they must be creative and flexible. Trainers have adopted improvisational exercises to help employees develop communication and collaboration skills and to teach leaders and sales professionals adaptability. Harward and Taylor also suggest that it can effectively help instructional designers develop the creativity and flexibility they need to reduce design and development time for new courses.

What is Improv?

Second City Works, the business arm of Chicago’s improv theatre company, defines improvisation as “an art form developed from a need to enhance assimilation, empathy and collaboration” and which can help professionals develop “the ability to recognize where [they] are in any given moment,” “the flexibility to choose a new path,” “a willingness to collaborate on a solution,” and “the freedom to take a risk … and to learn from failure.”

Sound familiar? These are all skills that instructional designers need, especially in the era of agile development. Improv, says Clare Dygert, director of instructional design at SweetRush, “can be a really useful way for highly experienced instructional designers to ideate more fully and to be able to generate the largest number of ideas possible.” Then, their knowledge of adult learning and instructional design can help them select the ideas that will make the best content.

More Than Just Entertainment

Every design project comes with constraints, from budgetary and time constraints to technological and cultural constraints. Improvisational instructional designers, however, can look at those constraints as opportunities for creativity rather than limits. Dygert says she uses the sonnet as an example with her team. “A sonnet has very specific requirements. It has to be 14 lines, it has to be [in] iambic pentameter, but it’s one of the most versatile and creative forms of poetry, and beautiful poems have been written in spite of those constraints.” The sometimes nonsensical rules given to improv artists for skits can make those skits more entertaining. Similarly, by thinking creatively, instructional designers can use the guidelines they’re given to create more engaging and effective courses.

Dr. Dovi Weiss, chief scientist at Time To Know, stresses the importance of data in instructional design, especially agile design. He says the improv of instructional design is “scientific improvisation,” or improv based on the real-time data second-generation LMSs collect about learners. Make sure your authoring tool and your instructional designers are agile enough to understand learning data and then use it to change the training content to better meet learners’ needs.

“It’s moving from the big picture to the deep picture,” Weiss says. Just like comedians must understand their audience in order to know what will work on the stage, instructional designers must deeply understand their learners to know what will work and what won’t.

Improv also requires trust and collaboration, Dygert points out, both of which are key to working effectively on an instructional design team. “In the past, instructional designers were expected to work on their own. Get the information from the subject matter expert, and then just make it. [But] working in a silo, working by yourself, is not very helpful to becoming a creative person.”

Give instructional designers the opportunity to talk with people outside of their team to learn from them. Dygert uses activities in which employees work on teams with colleagues they don’t normally work with to solve design problems they don’t normally have to address. This way, they learn from each other and practice diverse skills in a “no-pressure” environment.

Another improv exercise that can help instructional designers become more creative is acting out the problem they’re solving from the point of view of the learner. For example, have an instructional designer play a sales rep who will be taking the sales course they’re developing, and ask them to explain in their own words the problems they’re experiencing in their role. This exercise can help instructional designers better understand their audience and come up with more creative ideas.

“I don’t think creativity is something that some people have and some people don’t have,” Dygert says. Instead, it’s a system made up of the discipline you’re working in and the people you’re working with. “It’s my job to make a rich environment for my team so that they can be as creative as they possibly can be.” Using improvisational exercises and principles, learning leaders can support their instructional designers to become more agile, more creative and more effective.