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Improvisation – PhD Thesis

In Short…

Before I drive you crazy with academic stuff, click on the mindmap below to see on one page (and 2 videos) what improv can do for you.

What's in Improv for You ?

In General...

Theatrical improvisation ("improv") is a form of stagecraft in which a group acts on a story that is constructed and staged in the moment, as and when it is played. The core competence of improvisers is collaborative creativity: they are able to build together, in the moment, an original and interesting story in response to a series of constraints. The protagonists, as they start to act, have divergent visions of what story to build: this is the initial conflict on which creativity will flourish. The mechanisms at play as improvisers join their distinct imaginary worlds as one, are the ingredients of any team innovation effort: real listening and constructiveness, trust, adaptability, motivation, team spirit, distributed responsibility…

In the professional context, co-creation is more and more desired, and needed. But in many cases, the environment and the people are not ready for a real participatory process to take place. Collaborative creativity efforts will be under-efficient, and will fall back on one or more of autocratic processes, boring meetings, fake brainstormings or negotiation. But even negotiation is not enough to design great solutions. Compromise (loose-loose) is the enemy of consensus (win-win). Fortunately, improvisers can teach us how to replace negotiation by co-creation.

How ? It is quite simple. Improvisers have developed i) a simple framework of rules to guide their practice and ii) a lot of practical exercises to learn to play by these rules. We can reuse both in a quite straightforward manner to help any team and its members/leaders in need to enhance their collaborative creativity. 

In Requirements Engineering (my thesis)...

Innovation and collaboration lie together at the heart many companies' strategy. This is particularly true for ICT (Information and Communication Technologies), as shown in the CIO barometer 2011 [1], a survey of 80 Chief IT Officers of companies with over 1000 employees around Europe. In contrast, the keywords innov-, creativ-, collaborat- in the title of main ICT scientific conferences leads to a somewhat ridiculous number of hits. Although these topics are hot in industry, research is thus clearly behind schedule. Notable exceptions can be found in the Requirements Engineering (RE) literature, where authors have shown how the early phases of software design are key enablers for creativity, and how requirements engineers must act as facilitators for a collaborative process [3, 4].

On the other hand, writing the requirements for a new piece of software shares a great deal with designing general-purpose user products. Consequently, we have a lot to learn from the Design domain, and we have indeed done so in the past, for example by adopting user-centered design techniques. Recently, the Design community is shifting from product design to experience design [5]. Rather than focusing on a product, designers think of the whole user experience when using the product. This reinforces the need for scenario-based, experience oriented, cheap, rapid, prototyping techniques [6]. Research in these directions is however still scarce.

Engineers are thus lacking techniques and, more importantly, skills, for integrating creativity and experienced-based design in their developments. My research project proposes to assess how techniques taken from the artistic domain, and in particular improvisational theatre (improv), can be used to support innovative, collaborative and experience-based design of software. In particular, I will focus on the following objectives:

  1. Develop and assess an improv-based training technique for collaborative creativity skills. The Requirements Engineer should be trained as a facilitator, and the rest of the SE community as participants of a collaborative creative process. Improv has a great potential here as it is considered an excellent metaphor for group creative work in general [7] and can be used as a collaborative learning-by-playing experience, which is absolutely necessary in this context.
  2. Investigate how improv can be used as an experience-based design technique in RE. The capacity of improv to generate scenario in a rapid, cheap, precise, embodied, collaborative way makes it a potentially great tool for this purpose.

This project is part of a larger research project funded by regional authorities where we explore how these techniques can be applied to build more sustainable systems. Indeed, innovation and collaboration are of utmost necessity to reach sustainability objectives. We need innovation to reconsider our usage and development habits, and think outside of the box, to be sustainable. Moreover, sustainability has a social dimension, striving to resettle the human back at the centre, with his key capabilities such as creativity and collaboration. This is in line with the ideas of experience-based design, where the human retrieves its full complexity rather than being considered a simple product consumer.

Initial research includes experiments where improv was used as training for Requirements Engineers and agile development teams in many companies (WWF, Fnac, Euroclear, IBA, Swift…), leading to a very positive feedback from participants. We also started a collaboration with Pr. Neil Maiden from City University (London), leading in particular to an IEEE software publication [8] and the organization of an invited mini-tutorial at the IEEE RE conference [9]. Other partners include small innovative IT services companies such as Euranova, providing test-beds in challenging IT environments, and bigger players such as Rolls Royce, with whom we have started to develop a framework for understanding creativity [10].

[1] CSC, “Baromètre CIOs 2011.” .
[3] L. Nguyen and G. Shanks, “A framework for understanding creativity in requirements engineering,” Information and Software Technology, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 655-662, Mar. 2009.
[4] N. Maiden, S. Jones, K. Karlsen, R. Neill, K. Zachos, and A. Milne, “Requirements Engineering as Creative Problem Solving: A Research Agenda for Idea Finding,” in Requirements Engineering, IEEE International Conference on, Sydney, Australia, 2010, vol. 0, pp. 57-66.
[5] M. Hassenzahl, “Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons,” Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics, vol. 3, pp. 1-95, Jan. 2010.
[6] K. Nakakoji, “Interactivity, continuity, sketching, and experience (keynote abstract),” in Proceedings of the 33rd International Conference on Software Engineering, New York, NY, USA, 2011, pp. 621–621.
[7] R. K. Sawyer, Group Creativity: Music, Theater, Collaboration. LEA, 2009.
[8] M. Mahaux and N. Maiden, “Theater Improvisers Know the Requirements Game,” IEEE software, vol. 25, no. 5, pp. 68–69, 2008.
[9] M. Mahaux, N. A. M. Maiden, and P. Heymans, “Making it all up: getting on the act to improvise creative requirements,” in Proceedings of the 18th IEEE conference on Requirements engineering, Sydney, Australia, 2010.
[10] M. Mahaux, A. Mavin, and P. Heymans, “Choose Your Creativity: Why creativity means different things to different people,” in Proceedings of the 12th International Working conference on Requirements engineering: Foundation for Software Quality, REFSQ'12, Essen, Germany, 2012.

2 Responses

  1. [...] le travail de mon collègue Martin. Il conduit une recherche doctorale sur l’utilisation de l’improvisation théatrale pour la collaboration et la créativité dans les phases initiales du développement logiciel (ingénierie des [...]

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