Soft Skills Development at Innovative Non-Profit

When the newest cadre of students at The Grooming Project were slated for Soft Skills development, I was asked to bring mindfulness training to the group.

We started the session with the mindfulness activities Moment to Arrive, Head/Heart/Gut check-in, and SBNRR (Siberian Northern Railroad AKA Stop, Breathe, Notice, Reflect, Respond). When these are done at the start of work or throughout the day, they bring presence and non-reactivity to the moment and/or potentially challenging situation.

One of the longest activities was mindful listening. The participants saw the impact of not being listened to as well as being listened to. It was noticed that we most often pay attention to the conversation in our heads instead  of the person speaking.

One person noticed the profound affect on her life that not being listened to had. Another person said it was “wonderful” being heard.

The group saw that having a client (or loved one) be heard is a gift, and a perfect way to build positive professional and personal relationships.

I asked each person to write down the impact the workshop had on them. Some of their responses are below.

“My feelings have changed as far as sometimes it is so important, very important, to be heard, as well as listen, and just caring about other people’s voices.” ~ Valerie C.

“I now know that I need to be listened to just as the next person needs me to listen – relationship-wise!!” ~ Keyla

“I now feel reflective of situations in my personal life where people have been frustrated by me not listening when I felt like I was but looked distracted (I call myself a multitasker). I also better understand myself and my gut response to these situations is to walk away or shut down with that person and it does not help the situation.” ~not indicated

“I feel like I could walk into any situation good or bad and tell myself I got this and can handle the situation in an appropriate way.” ~Kayla S.

“I can handle stressful situation better. I feel like I was heard and understood. I feel like I can deal with customers better.” ~Megan


ReversED is an event The Lean Lab, an incubator for innovative solutions in education, creates. Five local school system leaders pitched their problems: Participants collaborated to design the solutions….. in 24 hours!

New teams were formed by problem/solution.

Sometimes the teams were made up entirely of people who didn’t know each other.

Strategically Playful organized creativity energizers and group mind activators for teams and individuals who could benefit from playful challenges.

One activity we facilitated developed “group mind” –  a sensitivity to everyone in the group.

The video above shows what can happen during one of those exercises.


It’s All a Mistake

According to Seth Godin, “it’s all a mistake child-419440_640

“…until it works.

“That’s what innovation is. Mistakes, experiments, mis-steps.

“Until it works.

“The process isn’t to avoid the things that don’t work. Because that means avoiding the things that might not work…

“Instead, our job is to eagerly embrace the mistakes on the road to the impact that we seek.”

I wonder what life would be like if our parents taught us this, or we learned it in school.

Failure would be like a very informative, helpful friend: “go another direction, there’s nothing here for you…..”

The reasons to feel shame might diminish significantly. Avoiding risk taking wouldn’t make sense – you’d be missing out on knowing what works and what doesn’t.

You might feel – and be – encouraged to risk failing earlier, and knowing that it’s an option, to prepare yourself and maybe others. Maybe we wouldn’t need to hide so much.

“Weight Training” at Beta Blox, a Startup Incubator

Improv-2-fThe Beta Blox startup incubator is a training ground for entrepreneurs as they unleash their new businesses to market.

Always on the look out for resources to make a difference to those in his incubator, Wes Bergmann, principle at Beta Blox, decided to try an emerging training in Kansas City that leverages skills developed in improv. During a several year period of focused professional development, Bergmann experienced a noticeable benefit from the many improv workshops he took.

He knew entrepreneurs could achieve more success with the improved “thinking on your feet” skills that he’d experienced (and seen others develop) in the improv training.


Productive Thought and Genius

Einstein thought “Combinatory Play” was the secret of genius and the essential feature in productive thought.

“Combinatory Play,” he says, comes about as a result of the collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks we amass — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other ideas — and then combine and recombine. The process occurs  mostly unconsciously, and results in something “new.”

We build an infrastructure of  “own” “original” ideas.



An estimated 5,000 people explored South MS in Lawrence, KS in August to participate in activities, presentations, hands-on workshops and exhibits designed to spark creativity at school, in the home and the workplace.

Among the Nerdy Derby, robots, drones, pirates and about a million of other activities and presentations, Strategically Playful created collaborative art experiences for all ages.

One aspect challenged kids to be generously kind art critics on anonymous art.


Find out about next year’s festival of creativity on Facebook.


Team Bonding

The morning of the first day of the 2015 Lean Lab Fellowship program, Strategically Playful organized activities designed to convert stress to positive energy, create a sense of connectedness, and enliven creativity.Lean Lab fellows June 2015

The fellows were beginning a four and a half week Incubator Fellowship. They will be guided through a rapid process of innovation for a specific problem or challenge in education they have identified. The most viable of these solutions are then invited to join the 201 Incubator Fellowship program where their initiatives are piloted in local Kansas City schools.

Their skills in creativity and innovation will be critical as they build their solutions.

Often stress and fear of failure prevent risk taking and kill the willingness to take risks and try new things, all of which are essential for innovation.


Nerdy Overnight Website Challenge


Every year, The Nerdery creates the Overnight Website Challenge for “nerds” to “give their time, talent, and weekend” to build new websites and back-end systems to support area non-profits.

Project teams work 24 consecutive hours, on newly formed teams….. on new projects.

Needless to say, those conditions can cause stress.

I created late-night energizing breaks for teams to reconnect, relieve stress and boost their mood.

Nerd Russell Dempsey said, “The session helped our team perk up and get motivated to work together again. I noticed that the activities broke down the walls everyone naturally puts up, and after the session people started acting like a community instead of individual villages behind walls.”


Improv Training and Creative Development

Neuroscientist Charles Limb conducted a study several years ago out of Johns Hopkins University to measure the creative process in the brain. In his TED talk, he describes the experiment he designed that measured the brain activity of jazz pianists. He used an fMRI machine while they improvised on a MIDI keyboard. He monitored two parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC).

To define the parameters of the study: the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with self-expression (it’s like a mental narrator that keeps tabs on the story of your life) and the DLPFC is associated with impulse control (it edits your thoughts and words, and makes you think twice before yelling at your boss).


Improv Course at MIT

Top tier business schools such as Stanford, MIT, Duke and UCLA are teaching improv as a method to increase collaboration, creativity and risk taking.
In a recent interview on NPR, Daena Giradella, MIT Sloan Lecturer, Leadership Center, talks about success, failure, taking risks and “Yes and…”

Often our fear of failure and doing the wrong thing zaps our ability to be present and project confidence, which is what is required of leaders. By developing muscles to deal with fear, the ability to succeed is expanded.

The course work is experiential and is designed to make the impact of failure be less and less important in a person’s decision making process.


Using Applied Improv at for Innovation

When began transitioning from a general search and Q & A service into a mobile focused business in 2012, they incorporated improvised play (Applied Improv) into their weekly routines.


Every Friday afternoon the entire organization utilizes improvised play and exercises to infuse innovation and creativity into their everyday corporate culture, says Lisa Kavanaugh, Chief Product and Technology Officer at in this interview.

After reading a book by Tina Fey, their CEO wanted the organization to utilize improv based tools and exercises at work. He made it clear he was not expecting activities like those in the famous improv show Who’s Line is it Anyway.

Instead, it was borrowing from the pillars of improv and applying them to their business setting to stimulate innovation through a new way of thinking.

Some key tenants of improv are that everything that’s shared is accepted, embraced and celebrated; that you do this in the moment, and that you collaborate with others to build on those ideas.


Failures, Unexpected Outcomes and Attitudes

“If you are afraid of failure, you won’t try anything new,” says Tina Seelig, Executive Director of Stanford University’s Technology Ventures Program.

Because creativity is essentially problem solving in new, novel and relevant ways, fear of failure impedes creativity.


At the other end of the spectrum is play, which minimizes consequence, is fun, is purposeful, is action oriented and players have a positive mindset.


Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, thinks playfulness helps them get to better creative solutions, helps them do their jobs better, and helps them feel better when they do them. Matt Weinstein at Play Fair says “If you’re having fun at work, the stress level goes way down, there’s an increase in morale and creativity, and customer satisfaction goes way up. ….because people like to do business with people who like to do business.”


A mantra at IDEO is “fail often to succeed sooner.”


Team Forming at Lean Lab

Lean LabThe Lean Lab is a new start-up non-profit in Kansas City, igniting innovation and reform and making education better in Kansas City. They envision deeply connected communities where all kids have access to excellent educational opportunities.

The doors officially opened in June with a full staff dedicated to understanding barriers and ready to make breakthrough differences.


Startup Games

The 2014 volunteers of the Kansas City Startup Games

When several entrepreneurs, located in several different cities, imagined that networking and connecting could be fun, Startup Games began to come to life.

Startups need connections, as clients, workers and/or friends. While most networking events allow for the exchange of business information, Startup Games were created to facilitate connections based on sharing enjoyable  experiences, creating projects together,  team activity, and fun. (more…)

How to Live your Most Creative Life

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Tony Award-winning actor lettsTracy Letts (author of “Osage County”) shares his top ten ways to become the most creative self in this video. His ideas here are a bit …creative, so probably don’t listen at work (unless you work by yourself, at home, alone).


Ultimately his tactics are methods to get out of your own way (“allow what already exists to be”) and allowing creativity to exist.(Interesting: this is exactly what David Kelley, founder of IDEO, says is the key to unlocking creativity.)



Maker Faire

The KC Maker Faire is always a fantastic image3place to experience and share creativity.

In 2015 I developed a special bubble solution which allowed people to blow bubbles inside bubbles, and then invited anyone who wanted to create these new bubble formations.

Last year we ran several sessions which first introduced people to their creative skills, then we collaborated on stories, poems and drawings.

There was a wide variety of ages participating, from ages 7 to their grandparents age.

We knew stretching creativity skills first would make the collaborations more interesting, and possibly provide new inspiration for whatever people were making, cooking, developing, building or planning.

The creation process was chaotic and fun and strict time limits forced everyone to reduce their self-edits.

We did drawings where everyone was given 20 seconds at a time to contribute to the artwork. Everyone rotated through multiple times until we had a completed piece. This worked really well because all ages could contribute.



We create fun experiential and developmental opportunities, as well as entertainment experiences. While the activities are based on your group’s specifics, participants’ muscles are generally built in agility, listening, creativity, risk taking, collaboration, communication, and playfulness: all of which benefit participants in all areas of work and life.


Everything we do is orchestrated by trained professionals who love what they do and want to bring it to your group.


Sessions can be scheduled once, at regular intervals, at your location or arranged off-site.  Because they are muscle builders, it is useful to incorporate them into a regular schedule. They can be in one-on-one sessions, small, medium, and large sized groups.


Spark Sessions
Usually around an hour, these sessions could be tailored to be:

  • an energizing creativity builder.
  • a fun way to team build, connect and collaborate with co-workers. And laugh.
  • shake up patterns of thought and lighten up.
  • the best lunch hour, maybe, ever.


Development Sessions

Two or four hour sessions developed around a specific theme, particularly:


  • Creative Problem Solving
    Creativity is problem solving and is a muscle that develops well outside the pressures of “doing good work.” Exercises specifically help to develop more ideas faster, limiting self-critique, taking more risks and taking action.
  • Collaboration
    A playful environment where small risks are taken, failures are celebrated, creative participation is evoked, everyone is welcomed, voices are heard, and laughter ensues.
  • Agility
    Skills to adapt to a rapidly changing world include taking risks, failing, starting over, saying yes to and enjoying the ups and downs, listening and adapting.
  • Public Speaking
    Skill development for professional speakers and leaders beyond the initial presentation: listening, responsiveness, thinking on your feet, taking risks, flexibility, confidence, lightening up. Treat unexpected events with confidence.


Entertainment, Events & Meetings

Fun, customized entertainment options for your corporate or organization are surprisingly affordable. Imagine entertainment, related to your industry, where your group is laughing and contributing to the show. Interaction is an option often chosen because when people participate, the show because special and unique to that to that to ‘s will get entertainment at a rate that people often find surprisingly affordable.

Our clients are offered, as options: 

  • Customized shows inspired by your industry, company or product
  • Interactive shows that engage and delight
  • A variety of actors, improvisors, organizers and stage crew

Your event is designed based on the experience you want to create. Contact us to discuss how we might delight your group.

Thriving in a World that’s Changing Fast

Seth Godin’s thoughts on changing your mind speaks to the inevitability of needing to change and adapt to new information, and the need for skills in being responsive.

He says “It took me about five minutes to change my mind, after eighteen months of being wrong. I still remember how it felt to feel that flip switch in my head.”  That flip, the ability, when confronted with a world that doesn’t match the world in your head, to say, “wait, maybe I was wrong.” We’re not good at that.


When the depth, breadth and scope of change are uncertain, an organization often needs not pre-determined plans but flexible improvisation, an article published by MIT’s Leadership Center states.


Professor Wanda J. Orlikowski believes that improvisation skills in business create an agile, successful business. Her tips for success are all based on the benefits of implementing improvisation at work:

  • Plan to improvise – sometimes you can anticipate change, and if you can do that, you should plan to address that change in a flexible way
  • Adapt when you cannot foresee – as business rules are changing, adapt and test on a smaller, departmental scale before making company-wide changes
  • Create a learning environment – encourage communication between your employees in different locations and departments, push everyone to learn from each other
  • Encourage flexibility – to allow for improvisation, CEOs need to release some control and allow employees to experiment
  • Improvise today for success tomorrow – create a culture of experimentation and improvisation even when you’re not experiencing extreme change in practice for when you do need to change


About Strategically Playful at Work

Leanlab3 0 11 17-31-f.jpgWe are professional facilitators, improvisors, educators, actors  and seasoned business people. We create awesome experiences with activities and entertainment at your location or off site retreats, meetings and conventions.


Programs include:

  • Team Fun Having
  • Activating Creativity
  • Team Forming
  • Network Building for Entrepreneurs
  • Team Bonding
  • Group Energizers
  • Community Co-Creations
  • Improv for Business
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurial Soft Skills
  • Presentation Preparation


Spark Sessions

People come away from these sessions feeling energized, newly positive, and enlivened. The activities gently challenge participants to use their brains in somewhat different ways, sparking new experiences, insights, creativity and fun.


The focus of the activities are customized to best suit the participants.


During these sessions, each participant listens to others as well as contributes to the group experience. People are invited to step to the edge of their comfort zone, and play there. All contributions are celebrated: there is no failure.


Development Sessions

These are most often two or four hour sessions developed around a specific skill set. Particular areas of interest and expertise in our group are the following:

Guy Laughing

Creative Development
Creativity is a problem solving muscle. It develops best outside the pressures of “doing only excellent work.” Activities and exercises are specifically to facilitate the development of more ideas faster, limiting self-critique, taking more risks and taking action.


Collaboration and Team Building
A playful environment is created for groups where voices are heard, everyone contributes and everything is celebrated. Activities are designed so that everyone participates and gets the impact of their participation. It’s fun, laughter will ensue, and people will get group interaction in a new way after this session.


In a rapidly changing world, skills like listening and considering new information, taking action and risking how you look, thinking on your feet, and coming up with new and relevant solutions quickly are highly valued. It’s these skills we focus on in the Agility sessions. These sessions are appropriate for leaders, managers, workers in technology, and almost everyone.


About Strategically Playful at Work

We are professional facilitators, improvisors, educators, actors  and seasoned business

Team Bonding at Lean Lab, Kansas City

Team Bonding at Lean Lab, Kansas City

people. We create awesome experiences with activities and entertainment at your location or off site retreats, meetings and conventions.


Programs include:

  • Team Fun Having
  • Activating Creativity
  • Team Forming
  • Network Building for Entrepreneurs
  • Team Bonding
  • Group Energizers
  • Community Co-Creations
  • Improv for Business
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurial Soft Skills
  • Presentation Preparation