Mannucci, Orazi & De Valck (2020). Developing Improvisation Skills: The Influence of Individual Orientations

Pier Vittorio Mannucci – Bocconi University, Department of Management and Technology
Davide C. Orazi – Monash University, Department of Marketing
Kristine de Valck – HEC Paris, Department of Marketing

Velvetina Lim – University College London, School of Management
Rohin Borpujari – London Business School

Article link:

1. LARP (live action role-playing) is a very unique setting for conducting research! How did you come about to use this setting for this paper? 

Pier: Basically, we started out like the Avengers assembling! When we first started out in academia, Davide initiated me to LARP-ing. We started brainstorming about how we should do something about LARP. I happened to be reading about improvisation, and we saw the potential to use LARP to ask how people improvised on a continuous basis. Unlike theatre and jazz which are typical non-organizational settings used in research, we were interested in the fact that LARP allowed you to check for improvisation on a continuous basis.

But back in the day, neither of was trained in qualitative methods, so our initial plan was to survey people instead. Then, in my first year as a PhD student, I took a research methods class with Kristine which was on qualitative methods. It was interesting as Kristine mentioned her work in another unusual setting about people in paintball communities. After the class, I immediately called Davide and said “Hey, I think we have a method for our project!” After taking another specialized class on qualitative research by Kristine, I went back to Kristine and asked how we should approach such an unusual setting, because we thought there would be difficulty in selling this setting to a management audience. She not only kindly offered advice, but also offered to come on board this project with us.

Davide: This setting has so much richness in interactions between participants. There were so many topics that we could write about, so we figured that we should start doing something to get things going. We just needed to find an angle, because this is one of those cases in which we were very passionate about a topic, but we did not really know how to shape it yet.

2. How did your framing / research question emerge through the process? Was improvisation always the focus of this paper?

Pier: The very first version of this paper was a presentation I had to make for the qualitative methods class I had with Kristine. It was focused more on the motivation for doing research in LARP because of the stigma associated with it. Particularly in Italy, where Davide and I started out LARP-ing, there was a lot of stigma around LARP-ing in general. At the beginning it was about the stigma, and it was about what motivates people to engage in something that is creative but stigmatized. There was this tension we had about using the creativity and improvisation angle or the stigmatization angle. But as you can see in this paper, we chose the creativity and improvisation direction. A completely different direction from our initial motivation, but it just goes to show how a project can change dramatically, especially when it is qualitative.

Kristine: For a long time, we wanted to tell another story. When we initially wrote this paper, we believed that the core of this paper was about the three types of improvisation. However, in the review process, we had to accept that that was not what reviewers found most interesting. Rather, what hooked them was the richness of the data talking about the individual orientations.

Davide: The reviewers at ASQ were amazing as they played a pivotal part here. They brought things out that we had in our data which we did not immediately think about. Here, the editorial team helped enormously in finding a different angle that we had not foreseen. Especially Reviewer Two! Thanks to the reviewers’ requests to do data mapping for each individual and expanding the four examples of the different trajectories for change in improvisational style and orientations over time, how we looked at structures had changed. That made a great difference because suddenly through that request, both the reviewers and our team could see the narrative much clearer.

3. It is really interesting how some of the authors were actively immersed in the setting by roleplaying as well. How did you balance the two demands — simultaneously being an independent observer and an involved player?

Davide: One way to do that is simply in the difference between participant and non-participant observation. When you are externally looking at what happens, you are in the role of the ethnographer observing what happens. When you come back from the field, you have written down your ethnographic field notes that in the future, you will revisit and code. But when you’re participating, you have to let yourself go, and even more so when you’re studying something like improvisation, because you also want to understand how that whole phenomena unfolds within yourself. When we were participant-observers, we were improvising. We were shifting from imitative to reactive in the narrative and probably our orientations at times would also change. In those cases, it is a little bit more difficult to separate and be more objective. This is because at one point, you are in a state of flow, trying to understand how the whole phenomena unfolds from an outsider perspective, and then you have to retrospectively disentangle your experience as a player from your subjective understanding of the phenomenon as a researcher. The best case scenario is probably if, in the same event, one person is doing participant observation and the other person is doing non-participant observation. I think we only managed that twice, when we were both in Italy, because I live in Australia and Pier lives in England. But in those instances, you can get additional insights.

Pier: I also became basically an assistant storyteller [in the LARP sessions] to help the other guy that was left alone, once Davide left for Australia. That allowed me to engage in the balance between the internal and external perspectives. As a storyteller, sometimes you play a character, which is participating, but most of the times you are being external and just watching. But I think the participant part is actually very important. As a participant you understand some dynamics that an external storyteller couldn’t. The amount of access we had also helped. When I said [to the other Italian research site] this is what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to say that LARPing is a very good setting to studying improvisation and the relationships, they were super happy to help us. They basically gave me free access. They said I could come and they would give me a character. Then, how much time I spend in character, out of character that will be up to me. They allowed me to interview people and people were very happy to share.

4. Following up on this topic further, I’m also curious about Kristine’s role in terms of being a critical observer, quoting the paper. Were you also able to play a bit of LARP to get a sense of it or you’re just totally looking at it externally?

Kristine: I never played LARP in my life and I don’t intend to. I didn’t do any of the data collection, nothing. Davide and Pier did all the collection by themselves, and I was there every once in a while. When you are so knowledgeable about the setting, as Davide and Pier are, everything seems logical. But this could sometimes be a drawback. When they tell the stories and tell me this is how it goes, I ask “But then how does that really work and what does it mean if people say that?” This is where I step in. You need to have that that mix of people that are critical, that have the insight to explain, that are outside enough (me) to ask the questions and say, “No, it isn’t obvious now. Is it really true that that is what’s going on? Is there more going on?” We had a good team there.

Davide: Yeah, we would have missed something. We would have missed a lot of things because me and Pier are into the phenomenon. We’d have a conversation that’s specific to the phenomenon and then suddenly Kristine would come out and say she has no idea what we’re talking about and so nobody else will. Having somebody outside of the phenomena is very fundamental.

Pier: Exactly, I would also only question about some very specific things to LARP. Having someone that is external to setting and also external to the participants is very important. There were times where knowing the participants personally made us hesitant to comment about how the players were truly behaving. But with Kristine, she was able to detach herself and have an outsiders’ view to clearly identify what is happening. However, even when being in the game as Davide and I was, it was also possible to maintain as an observer. For example, the players will still ask us to dress up even if we’re not actively participating as characters. So, there is still an element of being in the game, such as being characters like the storyteller where we could take notes and be in the game at the same time. Ultimately though, having Kristine completely external to the data collection process was more beneficial, because it let us have the triangulation of expertise.

5. We found it insightful as to how you integrated what seems like three distinct dimensions–structural features, individual orientations, and types of improvisation behaviors–into a coherent narrative. How did you conceptualize / balance the importance of each dimension when you were building your theoretical model?

Pier: So first came the typologies [of improvisation behavior]. To us, that was the core for a long time. From the typology, we found that not everyone goes through the three stages, so that was when the development angle came in. The structures were always there, because it is a well-known topic in improvisation—the importance of structures. We thought that we had insight into a more recursive relationship between the improvisation type and the structure, compared to what the improvisation literature usually talks about. That’s why we found this an interesting angle and we started coding for that, because you saw this recursiveness happening a lot. As we further developed this paper, reviewers rightfully asked the question as to why people do not get to the three stages at the same speed. That’s how the idea came about of trying to look at how they approach the game. That was the initial thing, before we got to “orientation”. So it’s again a messy trial and error process.

Kristine: It was extremely useful that we could triangulate based on observations, interviews with informants themselves and assessment by others, where each one of them in and of itself would have not been enough because there would have been issues with it, right? People that make statements about someone else—you can say okay that would have never gotten through. And what people say about themselves—okay that’s all retrospective so that would have not been enough. Observations? We could have been wrong, we could have missed things because we were not always there. There’s many players at the same time and we could have missed things right so each one of them in and of themselves would not have been enough. But because we had all three [sources of data] it helped us push further in our interpretation.

6. We loved that you were able to use your LARP experiences to formally study a phenomenon applicable to organizations. Do you have any advice to PhD students on combining their personal interests and passions with their research?

Kristine: This is something that I would advise any PhD student to try to do. In qualitative research, it is so important that you find a field setting that interests you. We chose this field because Davide and Pier were involved in it, and this means we had high quality access to high quality LARP data. Even thinking back to my own dissertation, I wanted to study online communities such as new discussion forums. How did people influence each other on discussion forums? That was my broad question, and then I had to find a field. My thesis supervisor suggested at that time to check out discussion forums where computer hobbyists talked about their computers. And I thought, “No, I cannot imagine reading discussion forums about how computer geeks give each other advice, because I was not interested in that topic. But I like cooking!” So I found online communities about cooking instead. Beyond just doing this for research, it was nice to just spend time there to read about these things, even when you don’t yet know what your question is.

Pier: I totally echo what Kristine said. You have three people here that share the view where you have to find the setting that is interesting, because if you look at our research we all three do it. It’s also important as it keeps our interest in the project. At the beginning of a project, you’re always super excited. But then over time, with multiple revisions, you can get very tired of the process. Having a research question that is interesting within a setting that you like helps a lot because it keeps you motivated. For example, in archival research, coding can be a very boring process. For me, as a movie aficionado, coding something that I like however keeps me interested and that gets me going. For example, I may have found out during coding of movie directors and their work that a specific director did a movie which I didn’t know about, and it helps me learn something which I like.

7. Last question. Based on your experience in this paper, what would be one piece of advice you would give to PhD students?

Kristine: Never give up. Even after nine years of revising and rewrites, you can still publish in a top journal. If you believe in your setting, in your story, there is something in there waiting to happen.

Davide: Work on things you love. You will go through so much pain and through so much effort, and there will be countless opportunities that you will give up as a result. If you work on something that you really love, if you power through, you will be able to see if you have a rich data set and a topic that you’re really interested in.

Pier: I would say to be methodologically curious. Currently, I think the field is asking of students to have more methodological variety. In this project, Davide and I dived into qualitative work without knowing anything about it because we were curious. It helps to start off from a place of curiosity, where you see a method and then think about how it can be applied to your research. It also opens up your mind for future endeavors where you don’t frame everything in the same way as you now have more than one methodology. Rather, you see a question and think about what is the best method to address it. If we had stuck to the methodologies that we knew, this project wouldn’t have existed because we wouldn’t have been able to do something like what we did with survey methods, experiments, or archival data, which are the methods that Davide and I would have used.

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