Mini Workshop Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

Learning to lead adaptively through uncertainty. An applied improvisation workshop (#103)

Rowan Brookes 1 , Diana Renner 2 , Katy Craig 3
  1. Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
  2. Iconic Consulting, Not Knowing Lab, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
  3. Boettcher Foundation, Denver, CO, USA

Leadership takes place in adaptive environments where boundaries are continuously shifting, process is uncertain and outcomes are unknown (Heifetz & Laurie, 2002). People exercising leadership must possess a willingness to step into ambiguous situations, build skills to enable them to think on their feet, grapple with circumstances for which they are not fully prepared and take note of multiple things at once. They must, as Kanter (2002) writes, “be attuned to one another, taking cues from their peers and continuing in directions that others have started”.  Leaders also require an openness to failure and a willingness to resurrect oneself in the face of it, and a desire to create a culture where their teams are comfortable with and feel responsible to learn from failure (Edmondson, 2011).


We are facing numerous global challenges – resource security, climate change and infectious diseases – where science can play a critical role in providing solutions. Many of these global challenges represent environments that call for individuals to use their adaptive capacities (Heifetz et al., 2009). In recognition of the critical role that science has to play in responding to these challenges, the Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges (Honours) weaves leadership and entrepreneurship into a traditional science degree with the explicit intent of developing global citizens able to affect change on the global stage.


Using examples from this Bachelors degree, this workshop focuses on three experiential learning activities derived from improvisational theatre. We draw on experiential learning activities to promote opportunities for deeper and long-lasting sense making (Beard and Wilson, 2006).  We demonstrate how we encourage students to respond adaptively and give them a capacity to function across complex and ambiguous borders by thinking creatively, taking risks, being self-aware and embracing others’ contributions.  

Addressing the theme/s of the Conference (up to 200 words recommended)


Derived from improvisational theatre, the exercises in this experiential workshop emphasize: 1) taking action in the midst of uncertainty; 2) underscoring the importance of remain open to others’ contributions and multifaceted differences; 3) Staying agile in the face of unclear and shifting boundaries; 4) Being willing to learn and lead to realize global change. Drawn from the Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges (Honours) degree program, this session will highlight exercises to build adaptive leadership capacity in undergraduates to respond to global challenges representing complex and uncertain environments.