Guest contributions:

04.22.13  Uncommon Leadership 

04.02.15  Switch and Shift  

05.13.15  Better Practice Team Performance

05.29.15  Better Practice Team Performance

07.08.15  Switch and Shift 

07.14.15  Better Practice Team Performance

10.05.15  Switch and Shift 

Stacey's Reading List...


"Tribe of Mentors" by Timothy Ferriss

"Shortcut" by John Pollack 

"Seeing What Others Don't" by Gary Klein

"Several Short Sentences About Writing" by Verlyn Klinkenborg

"The Birkman Method - Your Personality at Work" by Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell

"Creative Intelligence" by Bruce Nussbaum 

"Improv Wisdom" by Patricia Ryan Madson

"Training To Imagine" by Kat Koppett

"Quiet" by Susan Cain

"Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson

"A Whole New Mind" by Daniel H. Pink

"Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman 

"Rework" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson  

"The Leadership Pipeline" by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, James Noel  

"Life:  Selected Quotations" by Paulo Coelho 

"Deep Change" by Robert Quinn

"The Power of Full Engagement" by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz  

"The Way of the Shepherd" by Dr. Kevin Leman and William Pentak  

"Developing the Leader Within You" by John Maxwell  

"Mr. Peabody's Apples" by Madonna

"Orbiting the Giant Hairball" by Gordon MacKenzie




blog archive

Improve Thru Improv® | new experiences and fear



If there's one thing I know, it's that people are apprehensive about experiencing Applied Improvisation - at least initially. 

So I like what Seth Godin has to say about new experiences and fear:


"The only way to have the experience is to have the experience."






Recapturing the arts is vital in a STEM-focused world

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (November 27, 2017)

We are inundated with data.  So the first business question we typically ask is a hard science question:  What am I looking at here?  And to answer that question requires a STEM thinker (a data science approach).  But the deeper question about what it means attempts to make sense of the data, and that takes more of a STEAM thinker (where the A stands for Art) to answer. 

STEM education refers to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  STEAM simply makes room for Art in that educational mix.  Thought leaders such as Daniel Pink have boldly stated that “the MFA is the new MBA”, furthering the movement to recapture the value of the Arts in a STEM-focused world. 

Pink’s pivotal book (A Whole New Mind) suggested that forces in the world economy will shift society from left-brain thinking (linear, logical, analytical) to right-brain thinking (intuitive, creative, holistic) as the dominant thought pattern. In retrospect, that is precisely where we’ve landed today.  Think about the relevance of storytelling, our desire for product design, a resurgent demand for all things handcrafted, or how individuals are searching for greater meaning in their lives.

No longer are the arts being undervalued; quite the opposite.  And this merging of art thinking with STEM thinking is driving some unique business (integrated thinking) propositions.

Case in point – the marriage of business imperatives with Applied Improvisation* techniques.  The art of improvisation capitalizes on the creative process to help reframe how businesses interpret – and therefore leverage – their capabilities. 

The benefits of Applied Improvisation are far ranging, with the following merely a small sampling of how businesses are merging art with science. 

Using Applied Improvisation techniques helps businesses to: 

  • Increase divergent problem solving skills.  As the scene develops, and you have no idea what you will do next, you become much better at divergent problem solving (when there are multiple right answers).  Often times in business we get stuck looking for the one answer, when in fact there are several best answers. 
  • Drive creativity and innovation.  Innovation does best in environments where ideas simply flow.  There are moments of absolute brilliance that you stumble upon while you’re busy making theater out of thin air.  Embrace serendipity.
  • Understand exposure to risk.  There is no failure in improvisation, there’s just stuff that didn’t go the way you thought it would.  And that is brilliant!  Once the fear of failure is removed, so is the pressure. The stage provides a free pass to make mistakes with no repercussions.  Every error becomes endlessly diversified. 
  • Develop reframing skills.  Improvisation is the bridge – it allows for conversations about what is learned from the doing of the improvisation.  Reframing is a foundational skill because it is learning in one context that has application other, potentially unrelated, contexts.  In essence, learning drives learning. 
  • Challenge comfort zones People have comfort zones, and so do businesses.  By pushing through the scary unknown, the awkward vulnerability, and the fear of failure, you develop greater muscle around agility and thinking faster and faster on your feet. You become less fatigued by the constant demands of change.    
  • Drive team collaboration.  The improvisor’s goal is to make their scene partner look like a genius.  Every choice made on stage is for the betterment of the scene.  It is selfless.  Each actor begins to understand where and how they add value – they learn how to play to their strengths as well as the teams.  And businesses are only as strong as their teams.
  • Share compelling stories.  Storytelling is a nuanced art.  It is the packaged content of brand and voice.  And it is quite possibly the center of the human experience.  That is why organizations all over the world look to storytelling as the most promising tool for sustaining organizational culture. 

Art, science and business all seamlessly blended for the betterment of individuals, teams and organizations.  And to that I say, “full STEAM ahead”! 

* Explaining Applied Improvisation to the business world: There are principles and techniques (mindsets) that are used in improvisational theater that make it successful and very compelling to watch. Those same principles and techniques (mindsets) can be applied in non-theater settings to better understand human behavior, team dynamics, core leadership competencies, and business acumen.


Future-Proof Skill Building 

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (October 30, 2017) Part 2 in a 2 part series. 

In a previous column I wrote that planning for the future is not a precise science.  There will always be, inevitability, trouble predicting the unknown.  With that in mind, I shared a list of personal skills that have wide-ranging application regardless of what the future may bring. 

Those skills were:  awareness, thinking, sense-making, margin, capacity, agility, fluidity, savviness, paradoxal, orchestration, human-ness, presence, smarts, simplification, hope. 

While constructing a skills list is an over-simplified process, acquiring future-proof skills is anything but.  Developing these skills forces us to think beyond the more traditional forms of education or development and seek to augment our knowledge base in more unique and all-encompassing ways. 

Two schools of thought are driving professional development through more creative and crossbred methods.    

First, a pivotal book by author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) suggested that forces in the world economy would shift society from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking as the dominant thought pattern.  Pink summed it up nicely as:  “The MFA is the new MBA”. 

That conclusion startled many who harked the MBA as the holy grail.  A bold six-word insight allowed for a reimagining of the skills necessary for the future of work – and where to get those skills.  In short, it seemed to grant legitimacy to those who would study in the arts and humanities, or maybe even to anyone who would endeavor to be educated outside of traditional learning platforms.  The future seemed to require less mastery in a single discipline and far greater exposure to a variety of thought streams.

Second was the assertion that skills could be developed in a blended approach – such as the rapid rise in the interest of Applied Improvisation, where business thinking is merged with the performing arts.  Harvard Professor John Kao believes “…improvisation is probably one of the two or three cardinal skills for businesses to learn in the future”.  This thinking opened the door to hybrid approaches where the best skill development was realized through a marriage of disciplines.  It seems building skills of the future requires less of a deep dive and more of an exploration. 

If the aforementioned skills are on your radar, consider development through one or more of these approaches:

  • Immersion in the arts and humanities.  Study religion, politics, history, philosophy, art, music, photography, film, design, dance, theater, literature, language, creative writing.  The idea is to see the world and your place in it through a different lens. 
  • Building divergent competencies.  Take a class in Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Criminal Justice, Law, Human Resources, Journalism, Corporate Social Responsibility.  Learn to debate the toughest questions from multiple angles. 
  • Increased knowledge in the realm of behavioral understanding.  Take a few different personality assessments.  Understanding how you tick allows you to put yourself in the place of most potential.  Understanding how others tick drives human connectivity. 
  • Change your reading habits.  Read biography and memoirs for perspective, history for insight, kids books for metaphors.  There is no monopoly on wisdom. 
  • Leave the city limits.  Travel.  Change time zones, change continents, change your comfort zone.  There are endless lessons from experiencing different cultures and learning to assimilate.  Learn to replace judgment with curiosity.
  • Participate.  Join boards, organizations, volunteer.  It’s when it gets personal that it gets your attention.  And attention fuels inner growth. 
  • Leverage the internet.  Listen to TedTalks, sign up for a MasterClass, enroll in a MOOC (massive open online course).  Technology is a big part of the future and it has arrived. 
  • Take a sabbatical. If the world is hyper vigilant, what will you notice when you experience a state of calmly idle?    
  • Brave an improvisation class.  It’s the ideal place to learn the powerful competence of reframing – where a learning in one context has application in another, potentially unrelated context.  Transference of learning has universal application. 

And here’s a new twist.  What we’re currently learning about brain neuroplasticity will change the future landscape of professional development even more.  Science has discovered that the brain changes throughout life, which suggests that we have the potential for continual rewiring.  It appears as if the future belongs to those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn. 

And that changes everything.  Again. 


Building The Right Culture 

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (August 21, 2017)

I wonder how many people can say that they’ve ever had their dream job.  For me, it’s happened twice - the work that I do now and the last role that I had at Walmart Stores, Inc. before I retired.  From 2004 until 2008, I had the distinguished honor and absolute privilege of leading the Walton Institute, Walmart’s flagship culture program.  At the time I remember thinking it’s one thing to personally personify the culture of perhaps the world’s largest organization, but it’s a whole other thing to be the poster child for all things culture in Bentonville, AR, aka Walmart mecca.  Oh how I loved that role.  And as we used to say back in the day, I hope I made Sam Walton proud. 

But this is not about the glory days of Walmart, or musings from a nearly 20-year career, but rather about the very living and breathing organism of any organization:  the culture.

When people read my bio, I’m always asked the same two questions: 1) how does Applied Improvisation work in the business world (that’s a different topic for a different column), and 2) as Walmart’s culture queen – what really is company culture and how do you sustain it?    

I don’t know about the “culture queen” designation (however elegant that sounds), but I unequivocally do know a thing or two about building and sustaining organizational culture.  And sustaining culture is the easy part of the equation.  The short answer is that you focus on it.  The long answer is that you focus on it all the time.  Marketing guru Seth Godin refers to culture as “…a posture that lasts.  It’s fed by constant investment and care and corroded by shortcuts and inattention.” 

Building culture; that’s the tougher part of the equation because it feels like a paradox – contradicting pieces and parts merging to create an environment that ebbs and flows over the life of the organization.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch when it’s done well.  It’s a miserable existence when it’s done poorly.

After years of carrying the torch and fielding inquiries, this is my truest explanation of what culture is and how it’s done.  Great culture is steadfast to three or four core ideologies that are guided by a million tiny decisions every single day.  It’s highly orchestrated yet unbelievably fluid.  It’s hard and fast and rule-bound while remaining in a constant state of evolution.  It’s public and overarching and it’s private and nuanced.  It’s large and imposing but it’s also quiet and subtle.  It’s a mix of old school and new school, where tried and true meets fresh and fun - it’s your favorite Levi’s meets Fitbit.  The greatest of cultures will take your breath away…and give rise to your voice.

These types of cultures endure over time.  They always have.  The right kind of culture can make up for a great many things the organization may lack.  But if it’s not there, no matter what else there is, it’s not enough. 

Here’s a bit more texture to the overall culture conversation:  it’s not just what the culture is, it’s also the climate in which that culture operates.  Culture is how the organization gets work done; climate is what it feels like while you’re doing that work.  Both matter.

Compelling culture climates speak to your soul.  It aligns with who you are and what you believe in.  It is easy, uncomplicated, joyful, captivating.  It feels like your best definition of home – or home away from home.  These alluring climates bring out the best in you, which you in turn bring out the best in others.  You don’t work for the company; you matter to the company – and both of you feel that way.  You know all of this to be true in your heart and in your head.  It feels a little bit like love. 

How is all of this done you may ask, building and sustaining company culture and creating the right climate…?  The short answer is by focusing on it.  The long answer is by focusing on it all the time. 

If I’ve left anything out, it may be because the rest is hard to explain.  The right culture is personal.  A little bit like love.


Improve Thru Improv® | Client Testimonials 



“The Workmatters Institute is an intensive 16-week faith and leadership development course for a small cohort of young professionals. Improve Thru Improv is a crucial piece of our program. The experience does a fantastic job of building strong relationships across our cohort, and the principles of Improv relate directly to how these young leaders can better navigate the reality of their workplaces. We always leave this session with a creative spark, energized by the experience and the insightful conversations that follow. Whether it’s used primarily as team building, leadership development, or as a way to get fresh perspective on a complex problem, I’d highly recommend this platform.” 

Ben Kirksey | VP and General Manager | Workmatters


“For us, kicking off our executive leadership development program with an Improv workshop was a wonderful way to accomplish our two main goals: 1) Participants had fun and got to know each other in a different light. 2) They came away with an enhanced sense of self-awareness both as people and leaders. The relationships built and new insights into themselves laid a wonderful foundation from which to begin their journey through our leadership development program which has a heavy emphasis on emotional intelligence.”

Amy Ballard, MEd | HR Sr. Consultant, Org Dev | University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences


"Applied Improvisation took me by surprise. Hearing the word “improv” - I immediately think of a good time. That’s an understatement. Not only was it a GREAT time, I learned more about my personality as well as my colleagues and peers. It was challenging, but in the best way. It took something so simple and fun (yelling in someone’s face – yes that’s fun) and turned it into something valuable to live out everyday. It helped eliminate (okay… decrease) irrational fear. It taught me to relinquish control, speak confidently, say yes, and most importantly for me – be true to myself. Applied Improvisation sounds intimidating and fun at the same time, but it’s so much more than that. You have to experience it for yourself."

Claire (Meadors) Reed | Digital & Media Producer | Saatchi & Saatchi X


"The Next STEP leadership program is focused on creating fast, agile, and innovative decision makers that are equipped and confident to take risks and solve problems for our customers and stakeholders. So, you might wonder what does Improv have to do with that?

I met Stacey Mason in the summer of 2016 at a Birkman conference. She hosted a brief Improve Thru Improv® session that was fun and thought provoking. I learned something new about myself that day. Later that year we were developing curriculum for a front-line manager leadership program to be launched in 2017.  My exposure to Stacey and her Improv session flashed in my mind. The experiential learning was just what we needed to add to our program to stimulate a new way of thinking and behaving. 

With our goals in mind, Stacey delivered a half-day Improve Thru Improv® workshop. The Next STEP participants, who are members of the Energy Performance Contracting group at Schneider Electric, were challenged to make fast decisions and perform on the spot to enhance a scene and support their teammates. Taking this highly technical group of people out of their comfort zone and putting them on a stage was key in bringing out their creativity and exposing their self-limiting beliefs in a safe and fun environment. Using the concept of “Yes, and….” they were forced to quickly assess a situation, listen for understanding, decide how to add value, and then do something! It was amazing to see how smoothly the team aligned after several rounds of practice.  

The Improve Thru Improv® experience was fun and relevant to our mission to create fast, agile and innovative decision makers. The Improv concepts teach you to trust your instincts, be yourself, make decisions, support and align with a team, borrow the behaviors you need, and that it’s ok to make mistakes. The Next STEP participants are using their skills on the job to encourage new ideas and innovation by simply adding “Yes, and…” to their conversations."

Sidney Avlos | Manager of Strategic Initiatives | Schneider Electric