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The VUCA Sessions: Navigating and Embracing Chaos

On January 22,  Lisa Marie Corley and Teddi Fishman visited Beer and Napkins at the Liability Tap Room in Greenville, to share some activities based on improv comedy. The theme of the evening was  “navigating and embracing chaos,” chosen to align with the VUCA Sessions framework. In this post, Teddi answers a series of questions about the purpose and value of those activities: 

Q: Embrace chaos? We came to talk and drink beer! Why purposefully take us out of our comfort zones?
A:  While there are lots of specific reasons—ranging from simply breaking the ice in social settings to interrupting and resetting dysfunctional workplace communication patterns–the “meta” purpose of exercises like these is to take our brains off of auto-pilot and “goose” them into thinking thoughts and making choices they wouldn’t normally entertain.

Q: Goosing brains? Seems like that would be uncomfortable–and possibly an HR violation. Why would people want to do that?

A: Think about your commute to work. You’ve done it hundreds of times, so you don’t have to think much about the choices along the way. Turn here. Exit there. Same route, same highway, but very little thought or even perception.

Now imagine that one day, a tree falls across the road, and you can’t get onto the highway. Imagine your phone can’t tell you what to do. All of a sudden, you’re in uncharted territory, where each intersection is a choice. You see—maybe for the first time—what has been around you, just out of sight, all along. Even more importantly, you’re engaged. You have to make decisions, and each one is new.  Every choice is an active choice. It’s an exercise for your brain. It has to do new work to get you where you want to go. New discoveries can be made.

Q. So now our brains have been goosed, and you’ve made them work out. How does that prepare us for a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity? My brain is tired and just wants to collapse on the couch!

A: Our brains DO want to sit on the couch. They conserve energy constantly by falling into habits and patterns that, for the most part, serve us when the status quo is what we want. But when things are volatile, uncertain, complex ambiguous, or when the status quo just isn’t working as desired, the tendency to follow habits and patterns makes it harder to adapt and change. Going back to the road example—if you go the way you’ve always gone, you’re going to keep getting to the same place. Sometimes a tree in the road is exactly what you need.

Q: OK, it makes sense that we would keep doing what we do until there is a reason to do something differently, but why improv? Isn’t that just for nerds and the poorly adjusted?

A: Wait. What? No! Or, maybe! But the serious answer to this question is twofold—one practical reason and one more conceptual. The practical reason is that when we put ourselves in situations where we have to make quick decisions that are bounded by constraints, our brains go into overdrive, and grab whatever they can—even the unfamiliar. The activities force participants to be fully present in the moment because there is no planning ahead—you don’t know what will be coming next.  That works different “brain muscles” than the ones we typically use. Our usual filters—filters we don’t even necessarily know we have—don’t have time to engage. Without time to ask ourselves “will this sound smart?” or “is this what will make my boss think I’m ready for a promotion?” we generate responses and ideas that can surprise and delight. More importantly, though, having gone down an unfamiliar path opens up future possibilities for exploration.

Conceptually, improv is based on a set of principles that drive and facilitate not only creativity but also positive communication patterns. The foundation of improv is “yes, and.” That means that when you are presented with an offer—an idea—you bypass skepticism and other defensive “walls.” Your job, instead, is to take the offer and build upon it. For the purpose of the exercise, whatever has been said is valid and your role is to make it better. The exercise we did in which we built a word-at-a-time sentence is that in its simplest form. Each participant accepts the words that have come before, then adds something, in hopes of contributing to a sentence that will eventually succeed. No one person can control it; the group has collective responsibility for the outcome. It sounds simple, but consider the difference between that and your most recent office meeting. Did it seem like folks were inclined to accept or at least entertain the contributions of others, and then build on it toward collaborative greatness? A little yes-and-ing can go a long way!

Q: So you goosed us, worked us out, got our brains off their couches, and made them “yes, and.”  With friends, and with beer, it went fine, but even there, there were some tense moments. Surely it doesn’t always work. What if people fail?

One of the best things about improv is its resilience.  While it’s true that not everything succeeds, it’s also almost impossible to ruin it. (Trust me. I’ve tried.) When it goes well, it goes well and it’s great. When it doesn’t—well, sometimes that can be even funnier. But even when it doesn’t go well, and it isn’t funny, you can step back, see what can be learned, and nothing breaks. You can try again. In fact, some of the very best lessons are those that come from failure—which is a lesson in and of itself. There’s pretty much no safer space in which to fail than in a friendly, non-theatrical improv game. The rules of each game are the “tree in the road” that is the catalyst to thinking differently.

Q. OK, I guess I’ll consent to a bit of goosing if it helps me prepare for success in a VUCA world. But how do I take what we did at Beer and Napkins and translate it into what I do in other settings?

A. Well, that answer largely depends on what you do with it. Like any other practice, changing the way you think takes . . . practice. The more you habituate your brain to thinking differently, the more it will change, and also, the more comfortable changing will become.  The kinds of change people generally want most, however, take more than a few exercises, and more than one brain. What we did were the first steps—steps to help people get out of their comfortable patterns and feel safe to take the initial plunge. The amount of change you want to effect will determine what kind and how much additional work you’ll need to do. Just want a little brain reboot? Play a game or two! Want to revitalize your working group? Maybe take an afternoon workshop. Need to turn around a whole workplace culture? That’s a sustained effort, but it can be done.

Q. Wait. Are you saying that a few improv games can turn around a whole culture?
A. Not by themselves. Any workplace culture that can be “fixed” by a few games is a culture that’s pretty healthy to start with, but improv games are not the only thing we have in our bag of tricks. Large-scale cultural change takes a more comprehensive approach that starts with identifying goals and values, looking at systems, processes, and incentives, and helps develop leaders from within the culture to guide and manage positive change—a bit much for a night at Liability Brewing. We had just enough time for a brief introduction, but in the short amount of time we spent together, participants allowed themselves to be vulnerable, tried some (slightly scary) unfamiliar activities and explored some new ways of thinking. We saw creativity, collaborative thinking, collegiality and yes, a little chaos—and still lived to tell the tale! It was a good start and also a reminder that living in a VUCA world can be fun.

Note from Lisa and Teddi: Thank you for inviting us, for taking chances, and letting us be your tree.

You can reach Teddi and Lisa on their LinkedIn pages.

NewFarm: Exploring the World of AgroInnovation

New-Farm-2016-Eventbrite-LogoWe’ve come a long way in the farming process. With a mix of new technology, innovative thinking, and a collaborative community the New Farm is plowing a new path in providing fresh, healthy, and local alternatives to a growing Upstate.

Beer and Napkins and Carolina Bauernhaus Ales will be hosting this AgroInnovation event at Carolina Bauernhaus Ale Brewery in Anderson on March 8, 2016 at 6:30pm 


Eventbrite - NewFarm: Exploring AgroInnovation

We will hear from Brad Thomas attorney at South Carolina Attorneys at Law on SC Craft Beer and entrepreneurial developments.  We will then have three presentations on the NewFarm

We will finish the event with an interactive idea session to share your thoughts on growing sustainable agriculture in the upstate.

A choice of beer flight and craft beer and food will be provided.

More about our Speakers…

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Happy Holidays from Beer and Napkins!

First we want to wish each of you a happy and relaxing holiday season!

What can we say for 2015 other than WOW! What a journey this year has been! We were very fortunate to have met and interacted with so many talented people in the Upstate. We realize there is so much going on around the area it is tough job keeping up with the changes. We hope we have enlightened you on some of the emerging topics this year. We covered a lot of ground with the explorations of craft beer, maker’s technology, environmental issues, biotech industry, and women leading in entrepreneurship and business. Our aim in 2016 is to continue focus on brewing ideas through the building of knowledge communities in informal environments. Included in our plans are expansion of collaborations, Communities of Growths (CoGs), and events with more creative experiences directed at personal and entrepreneurial growth.

We wish you a wonderful holiday season full of imagination and dreams. Please remember to stop by one of your favorite local breweries and pubs with your colleagues and friends. Share your dreams and ideas. Maybe you can doodle them on one of those trusted cocktail napkins and share with the Beer and Napkins family in 2016. We look forward to seeing you all!


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Community, Ideas, and Jobs: The Impact of Craft Beer in the Upstate

It’s been a few years since I realized the importance of the emerging craft beer industry. I knew something was up in my 2009 blog post Take a Step Forward with a Step Back, however I didn’t fully realize how locally important the industry would be in building community, innovation, and economic development in the upstate.

Brook Bristow , Executive Director of the South Carolina Brewers Guild shared with me the staggering economic impact of the South Carolina craft beer industry,  “The latest economic numbers indicated that South Carolina sees about a $254M economic impact from craft beer, with about 3,000 jobs directly attributable to it. With the new survey results and the additional taproom sales from existing breweries, that number should now sit around $275M.”  Greenville News has also spotlighted  the boom in Beer tourism in Carolinas.


Photo courtesy of Anders Adermark https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmbellman/

On a personal note, our Beer and Napkins organization has benefited significantly from the community and third place that the craft beer industry has provided.  From Growler Haus in Anderson, Community Tap, and Brewery 85 in Greenville, we have met amazing people and groups who are continually brewing ideas.  A great example is from one of our first pitch sessions from David Thorton and Even Skjervold of SouthYeast Labs,   a company that locally sources brewer’s yeast for use in beer, wine, mead, cider and liquor.   Additionally the numerous home-brewing organization such as Just Brew It Anderson and Clemson Brew Crew have been a breeding ground for a number of innovations and business ideas.   Examples such as these are just a drop in the barrel of companies and organizations starting and thriving due to the community and ideas this industry is providing.

We at Beer and Napkins feel that the SC craft beer industry is not just self-serving  but provides the social lubricant  and ecosystem for continued innovation in South Carolina. We are very appreciative of the local brewers, brewpubs, and the advocacy of Brook and the SC Brewer’s Guild. Beer and Napkins is thankful to be part of this evolution.

On March the 19th we will celebrate  the industries’ journey with our BeerStory event. Brook will be our featured presenter and we will also hear storypitches and samples from three  local start-up breweries Carolina Bauernhaus Ales, Birds Fly South Ale Project, and 13 Stripes.

Please join us at Openworks March 19th at 6:30pm for a taste and inspiration. Signup here to get your tickets BeerStory: Evolution of SC Beer

We will be using #BandN_BeerStory and #scbeer during this event