Episode 14: The Potential for What? Podcast with Max Dickens

The role of improv in unlocking creativity and trust with Max Dickens – The Potential for What? Podcast

Welcome to The Potential For What? Podcast, where we explore how improv can unlock creativity and trust.

This week Max Dickens, author and founder of Hoopla Improv, is joined by Claire Koryczan (Senior Consultant at Let’s Talk Talent) to have a conversation about the concept of potential and how it can be identified and realised in various different dimensions including oneself, others and a team.

The conversation also touches on the dynamics of virtual teamwork and the significance of being open to unexpected opportunities.

In today’s episode, we talk about:

  • 🎭 The role of improv in unlocking creativity and trust 
  • 💪 The importance of recognising and leveraging people’s strengths
  • 🌸 Creating a supportive environment for the potential to emerge
  • 💡 The value of being present in the moment, reframing attitudes, and trusting one’s instincts to tap into potential

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Transcript of Episode 14: The Potential for What? Podcast with Max Dickens

Jo Taylor  00:04

Welcome to the Potential For What podcast. On this podcast we explore how a range of business leaders unlock the potential in people. We’ll hear how they’ve done it, find out what’s worked, what hasn’t and why this is so important in getting and keeping great people. Most businesses focus on the here and now – that is: all about performance. But at Let’s Talk Talent we like to think differently, as we fundamentally believe everyone has potential. The question is for what? So let’s explore that together. I’m your host Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent, a talent management and organisational development consultancy based in London, the UK. I have a request: if you value this show, if you enjoy these stories, or find this wisdom or inspiration useful, please subscribe to the Potential for What podcasts to listen to future episodes.

Claire Koryczan  00:56

Hello, and a sunshine welcome to the Let’s Talk Talent podcast: Potential for What, and also to our lovely listeners and also to our awesome guest today. Max Dickins.

Max Dickins  01:09

Hello. Thanks for having me.

Claire Koryczan  01:10

It’s great to have you here, Max. Now, I loved seeing the interview that you did with Tyra Banks talking about limitless potential, which is something that you do in your business, Hoopla Improv. And actually, that’s how I met you, maybe a decade ago now. And since then it’s been brilliant to see your potential skyrocket over those years. Not only are you the founder of Hoopla Improv, you’re also the author of two brilliant books, some of my all time favourites. Improvise, which is packed full of insights on improv and how to get the best out of yourself, your teams and your organisation and your most recent book, Billy No Mates, which is all about men and friendships. And not only that, throughout your career you’ve been a professional radio presenter, stand up comedian, actor, presenter and playwright. And it’s with this broad experience that actually I couldn’t be more excited to get to speak to you today about potential and really to discover how this plays out in the work that you do. And also in your philosophy, for helping people and businesses to achieve extraordinary results. And before we kick off, for those of you who might not know me, I’m Claire Koryczan, and there’s nothing that I love more than unlocking potential too, in teams, businesses and people. And so I’m super excited to be able to explore this topic with Max for our listeners today. So welcome, Max.

Max Dickins  02:41

Well, what an intro, thank you so much. I might get that on a loop and just play it to myself when I fall asleep at night. Just to zhuzh me up.

Claire Koryczan  02:51

Fantastic. So I’d love to kick off by asking you: how would you define potential?

Max Dickins  02:58

So potential, I think, is latent talent, ideas and energy. And I think about potential in sort of four quadrants, which we might have time to explore. Potential of the moment you’re in, potential of yourself, of other people, and of the team. Now from my background in improvisation running a school of theatre, I think there’s lots of latent potential in each of those parts of the quadrant that we try and unlock in our sessions. And I think it’s hopefully a useful frame to explore this idea of potential.

Claire Koryczan  03:33

That’s fantastic. I love looking at it from those four dimensions. And also, when you’re working with teams and organisations around unlocking a latent talent, how do you actually go about spotting potential in those different dimensions?

Max Dickins  03:47

A big part of it, I think, is having people notice when they’re doing things that are good and when they’re doing things in their own voice. And maybe it’s quite an artsy way of thinking about it: ‘voice’. But I think we know when someone sounds like themselves, and when they sound like themself at their best. Often it’s easy to see that as an observer, as a coach than it is to be in it yourself. I’m certainly… it’s certainly true of me. It’s always been very helpful to have –  whether it’d be a direct… a colleague or whoever – to point out something to me. Identifying talent is often about swapping contexts. So someone who’s not doing so well in one context, shift them into another one or a different role, they end up doing brilliantly well. That’s something we often have to do at Hoopla. Hoopla’s not a big organisation, right? So we have to shop areas of the talent market where not a lot of people shop. And so what we try and do is to say, you know, no one is looking at you for a role like this because maybe they’re slightly terrified of the freedom that they’re going to have to give you, but also maybe you’re talent that whispers not shouts right? So often we’ll have people who amaze us in how they develop, but it’s because we’ve put them into a context which maybe other people wouldn’t give them.

Claire Koryczan  05:05

Yeah. And that is a lovely answer to the question around: Potential for What? Because you’re not necessarily starting from that frame, are you, that reference point. You are creating an environment that explores, and I guess in the way of improv that helps you to tap into those different parts of you and bring those things out in a really interesting and dynamic way.

Max Dickins  05:28

Yeah, I mean, we have a very simple idea when we’re talking about stage improv. So if you listen to this and don’t know much about improv, you might have heard of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the TV show, you might have seen a show in a comedy club, seen it on TV, perhaps somewhere at the Edinburgh Festival. But in our shows, we talk about heads, hearts and pirates, right? So for a show to work well, for a troupe, a group of people performing together to have an effective performance, you’ve got to have a head, so someone who’s super good at linking it all logically, you’ve got to have some heart, someone who’s maybe finding the nub of the story, and you’ve got to have a pirate – somebody who jumps in and just does slightly mad stuff to keep everything with a bit of edge. Now, there’ll be some people who you watch improvise, and you go, wow, they’re great pirates – but they haven’t got the head and the heart bit. So they need the other people. So we think a lot of it about strengths and about combinations. Because if it was just a load of pirates, it would be a bad show. If it’s just a load of heads, bad show: load of hearts…

Claire Koryczan  06:29

Yeah. And what a great platform to be able to actually give it language and articulate it in that way, in terms of those characters, or the head, the heart, the pirates, so that people can identify with those things. And I also think what’s really interesting about that is how that then plays out in the team dynamics. And you must be able to, in the work that you do Max, be able to spot immediately, or begin to start to see where those characters are playing out and what the mix is within team dynamics.

Max Dickins  07:00

Yeah, absolutely. So that’s probably one of the parts of the quadrant potential that we maybe talk about is “of the team”. So we talk a lot in improv about “group mind”. So group mind is essentially, when you’ve got a group of people together on the stage, when they’re working well together, they can create things that would be impossible for the individuals to come up with alone. And we don’t just mean the kind of cliche “teamwork makes the dream work”. What I mean is that it’s qualitatively different. Things emerge, that would have been impossible without the disparate elements coming together. And it’s amazing how complexity emerges without any direction. Because there’s no plan, there’s no script, obviously, so how does this stuff emerge? Kind of in the science world, they talk about emergence, right, which is complex things happen without seemingly any organisation to it. So if you watch a flock of starlings in their murmurations, doing these amazing swarms, I mean, they’re not talking about it before, getting around a blackboard and going, “lads, how are we going to do it?” It just happens. But what they’re doing is they’re abiding by some simple rules. Same on stage, we talk about very simple principles in improv. Listen, with a willingness to be changed. Accept and build off contributions. Treat mistakes as gifts. Three simple rules, perhaps. If everyone in the group abides by it, then you find that the output of the group can be unbelievably complex and interesting. But it’s because we’re abiding by these things, and we talk a lot about, in terms of the group dynamic and bringing potential together in a team, that we’re not trying to do it all ourselves. So one of the gurus of improv is a guy called Del Close from Chicago, he’s passed away now, but he’s kind of a legend. And he said: “your job is not to bring a cathedral, it’s to bring a brick”. So brick by brick, together, we’ll build the cathedral. So we talk a lot about: you don’t have to solve the problem, you just have to bring a little bit of the solution.

Claire Koryczan  08:53

Yeah. Love that. And also just looking at that framework around those simple rules, but also thinking about whether that happens more naturally, when you’re in person. And if you can – I’m using your “Yes, and?” – and if it’s possible to also recreate the same in a hybrid working environment? Do you find that within that dynamic, just sort of hearing you talk Max kind of got me thinking about: I’d love to be able to create an environment where you can bring all of these things in and really help to unlock potential. Is it more effective to do it in person? Can you still get that same level of potential unlocked when you’re doing it virtually?

Max Dickins  09:34

I think it depends on the sort of problems you’re trying to solve. If you’re trying to solve a creative problem, it’s better to be face to face. There’s quite a lot of research around that now. But in terms of establishing relationships, a lot of these basic things abide whether you’re online or face to face. Often we are throwing some of these basic parts of our human skillset out the window because we do engage with people through screens differently, and not in the best way that we could. It’s bizarre, we kind of dehumanise people, even when we know them – we just behave worse, often.

Claire Koryczan  10:12

It can be challenging, but it also can be liberating as well. Because you know, by nature of the screen, you’ve got a much more equal footing in terms of the rectangular square that people are engaging through, means that actually it can be a level playing field, even though there are different levels of seniority. And I can imagine that that’s also quite interesting when you think about potential because it gives a level playing field around all of those things. I want to just flip this on its head and think about what gets in the way of potential. And how is improv a way of really helping people to connect with their truth, you know, to trust themselves to tap into that creative, fluid part of themselves, where they can show up in a way that does help them unlock their potential.

Max Dickins  11:02

It’s a really good rich question. I think the first thing to do is to reframe your attitude to the moment. We really bias, I think, towards plans and preparation. What we’re missing there is actually honouring a lot of potential in the moment. Now, what does this actually look like in real life? If you’re having a conversation, whatever context, take a sales conversation, or even you’re talking to a direct – someone you manage, and it’s trying to establish relationship, there’s so much happening in the moment, which offers you so many gifts for connection, or the flip side of it, rocks in the road to block it, that if you’re obsessed with the message you’ve come in with, or how you’re expecting it to happen, there’s so much you’re not going to capitalise on. So I think changing how you see the moment as rather than it just being full of unexpected things, it’s going to be really difficult… what’s going to happen? It’s much more: why don’t I frame this differently, which is “the moment is going to give me so many opportunities, and I’m excited by that”. So one of the biggest things about an improv skill set or doing some classes is you realise you’ve got everything you need already, if you honour what’s in that moment, and you actually notice it. But to note that you have to break out of habit, break out of your head. But then how do we get that trust? Because so much of it is, I think, being able to perform to your highest intelligence in that moment, rather than way below it, which is what we can do if we clam up. So trust comes from experience, I think, but experience being in that moment and trusting that you’ll find something, and you can get it from improv or you can get it just through practice in real life. Just sit in the moment and let yourself take that risk. And you’ll realise 9 times out of 10, you’ll find something really valuable. But one idea we have in improv, is that: “be obvious”. Now that might sound like a bit of a surrender, be obvious, but what we mean by obvious is “what’s your honest reaction to a situation?”. And often there’s a real gift in that. So what might obvious be? So it might be an obvious thing that you immediately associate with the thing that’s been said, or that’s happened. It might be your emotional reaction, which you just confess, it might be an idea that you associate with what’s happened, and then you say it, then suddenly, there’s not a lot of pressure on you. You’re not trying to say something perfect and brilliant. Just trust your obvious. And then from there, from the being acutely aware of the feedback, you can find a way through it. So so much of it is about presence, changing your attitude to the moment, and letting yourself “be obvious”.

Claire Koryczan  13:42

Thanks, Max, that’s a really interesting way of exploring all of that. So I coach a lot of clients who often will be of the “think to talk” way of processing information rather than the “talk to think” where you’re processing your thoughts as you’re talking. And often that can be much easier for somebody to use more improvisation in terms of just feeling comfortable with showing up in that way. But those people who are more of the “think to talk”, which often tend to be clients who I’m speaking to, get worried or anxious about just putting themselves out there if they haven’t really formulated their thoughts and ideas before they speak. So I really like this idea of trusting your obvious.

Max Dickins  14:26

I think it’s all right for communication, and for creativity, to be messy. And if we think they should be linear and a straight line, and there shouldn’t be any waste or any mistakes, then that really blocks us off and we become disconnected from that potential within us, I think. So often what the work we do is trying to take people out of environments where logic has become entirely dominant. Emotional impulses become deadened by habit, and often some fairly anodyne cultures, and trying to bring them back to that sense of themselves. So they can actually even be connected or listen to it. And you just see the juice come into them and just something in their eyes changes. There’s an amazing word I’ve read the other day called duende, which is Spanish. You see duende in flamenco dancers where something almost comes from their core, the pit of their stomach, when they connect to this ‘thing’. And it’s like whoah, that duende we all have somewhere – can we reconnect back to that? If that’s not too fluffy a way of putting it, but I’ve used the word duende now…

Claire Koryczan  15:35

Fantastic. And as you were saying that Max, what was coming to me was just this feeling of liberation. And actually how freeing that is for the mindset in terms of the thought processes and the contribution and the value that one is able to bring, and ultimately unlocking that potential. And so in creating that sort of liberation, moving people from being in that beta brainwave that doing doing d-d-d-d-d- you know, always on to the next thing, on to the next thing – and helping them to tap into a more alpha, slightly slower brainwave that enables their creativity, and the joining of the dots, and all of those lovely things that actually mean that we can tap into that executive functioning part of our brain and really contribute in meaningful ways that help us unlock our potential. So what do you know now, about potential – after over a decade of working in this space – that you didn’t know before, Max?

Max Dickins  16:36

That naivety is a really valuable thing to have. Because naive people don’t know what they should do or what they can do. They just go and try it. And when you’re younger, generally, you bring a sense of naivety. Another thing I read the other day: Martin Amis, the novelist, says: you get a destination mood as an adult, if you’re not careful. You meet these people and they’re permanently on some sort of vibe – it’s permanently cynical, or whatever. I think that comes to an extent with age naturally. But for me, what I’ve learned is the times that I felt I’ve realised my potential and I’m proudest of, are the times I have been a bit naive and gone: yeah, why not? I can do this. And that’s something I try to reconnect to, and remember to keep taking risks and to try stuff that seems like: well, why should you do that? Like, why would you ever be able to do that? Well, because why not!

Claire Koryczan  17:35

Yeah. And that really speaks to encouraging that beginner’s mindset, doesn’t it? Where we’re actually unlearning those habits, those behaviours, those things that are just automatic autopilot for us on a day to day basis. And actually, you know, looking at it through different eyes. I’m sure our listeners will be thinking: how can I find out more about Max, I’d love to know more about the work that you do. Where can listeners find you? Where’s the best place?

Max Dickins  18:04

Sure. So the improv book is Improvise: how to use the secrets of improv to achieve extraordinary results at work. If you want to do a class and you’re listening to this, hooplaimpro.com, or drop me a line on any social media and I’ll sort you out with a free drop-in. Just come and have a go at it, and if you like it, do some more – it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. So you can find me there. My website is maxdickins.com as well.

Claire Koryczan  18:28

Brilliant. Thank you, Max. Now there’s two more questions I would love to ask you as we’re coming to the end of our conversation today, which is: what’s the proudest moment of your career so far? And what’s your favourite podcast or book – and you’re not allowed to recommend your own book – that you would recommend to others to unlock their potential.

Max Dickins  18:52

I know the moments that made me proudest are when I get emails from people, or Facebook messages from people I’ve never met, often in other countries, saying that they’ve read something I’ve written and it’s made a big difference to them. Or, I’ve got a book out about friendship at the moment, and you get messages saying: oh, I hadn’t seen so-and-so for 15 years – I read a bit of your book, and I text them and now we’re having dinner next week. And you’re like: “Oh!” Often it’s weird in a world where it’s unbelievably connected now, but sometimes you feel like: am I in a complete abyss? Because you know, especially the moment I do a lot of virtual work. And it feels like: oh, and especially when you write books, you’re like: is anyone even reading this? To get those messages, you go: oh, it has been really worth it. So those are probably the times where I get proudest. A book I’d recommend is Truth in Comedy by that guy Del Close who I mentioned earlier. Now it’s a really slim book, so you don’t have to spend ages on it. It’s one thing you can dip in and out of. And even if you’ve got no interest in comedy, or no interest in improvisation at all, it is full of these little nuggets of wisdom that are suddenly, like the best metaphor. Suddenly you go like: oh, yes, I see that every day. But here’s one of them: one sentence from it. He says: “If we treat each other as if we’re geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage”. Now replace “on stage” for “in life/at work” I think that applies everywhere. Are you seeing the people you talk to as the poet, the artist, the genius that they are? Or are we missing that because when we assume it’s there, it’s amazing the potential will find.

Claire Koryczan  20:41

And that’s wonderful, because that flips potential right round the other side, in terms of seeing the best, the potential, in others. Fantastic Max, and what a great way to end today’s podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your journey, your nuggets of wisdom and the models and the methods and your philosophy around potential. It’s been absolutely brilliant to speak to you.

Max Dickins  21:07

Thank you, it’s been good to think about the word ‘potential’ and connecting it to my own works, has made me think a lot so I’ve appreciated the opportunity.

Jo Taylor  21:17

Thanks for listening to the Potential for What podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end. And for that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We hope you enjoyed this episode. And if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic. As always, you can head over to letstalktalent.co.uk/podcasts to check out all the links and resources in the show notes, and to sign up to our email list.