I sat down with Mike Bonifer, co-founder of GameChangers, and spoke with him about some of the really interesting things they do over there.

In the networked world, the most successful brands and business strategies are those that adapt most readily to the realities of an ever-changing economic environment. The ability to improvise is essential.

The conversation blew my mind, and I suspect it will have a big impact on you too.  We covered a variety of topics including how a business needs to adjust to the world of today, and yes, we also talked about online marketing…


David Gadarian (DG) What do you do?

Mike Bonifer (MB) I teach and write about improvisation for business, the uses of improvisation in particular to facilitate communication and learning.

(DG) How did you come into this?

(MB) It stems from two basic ideas, one personal, and the other more of a general observation about business.

Regarding the personal, I’ve always been a story teller, I love hearing them, I love telling them.  A lot of my career has been in the entertainment business – telling stories has always been what I do.  Some of my earliest memories are of seeing things that I felt were worth telling stories about.

On the more general side, everyone improvises already.  The best business people, especially entrepreneurs,  and people who are great at sales, and a lot of people I consider outstanding business leaders are outstanding improvisers.  The lexicon might not be there, and they may not call it improvisation, but that is what they are doing.  So, for example, when somebody like Steve jobs says  “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backward” that’s the improviser talking, that’s somebody who’s saying you can only make the best choice in each and every moment.  Looking back on it, you’ve created a narrative, you’ve created a story, and that’s what a story is.

Those are the observation I was able to make, and when you put them together, here we are.

(DG) Can you talk further about how a business transaction functions as a narrative?

(MB) I believe that we’re all participating in narratives, and the narrative is what shapes our lives, it allows us to form perceptions about the world, to see the world in a certain way, to make choices – everything from the films we see, the partners we marry, the religions we choose or choose not participate in, the books we read, the products we patronize are affected by our sense of narrative

I think that in the network environment, and this is where it gets compelling, which I first saw in the premiere of ‘Tron’ in 1982 (Mike worked on this picture), which first depicted the networked world in a mass media format, I believe that the nature of the narrative is fundamentally changing, and when the container changes, the shape of what is contained will change.

We can’t think of stories and narrative in the same way we have in the past, because they transpire in a different environment.  The environment is so radically different from the days when there were a finite number of channels through which narrative traveled.  A dozen different channels maybe, counting word of mouth.  And now it’s exponential – there are literally millions of channels through which narrative can travel.    So how do you redefine narrative in this environment?  How do you re-contextualize and yet maintain that sense of narrative, because narrative is not going away.  It’s still important.  Just because the nature has changed, it’s still important.  Arguably even more important than ever.  The fundamental difference is that you can no longer script a narrative in this environment, you have to improvise.

A scripted narrative erodes in no time.  I’m talking in particular now about brands and people who want to have an impact in this world, who want to be participants in this culture. You simply can’t script it.

This is what I saw about 7 or 8 years ago, when I began to investigate improvisation.  I saw a language that maybe I’d been looking for quite a long time.  It felt familiar to me, and in fact, I recognized it from as far back as my childhood growing up on a farm in Indiana.  Nobody is more improvisational in business than small farmers.  You are literally improvising day and night, and season to season and you can’t plan, you have to prepare and have the tools at hand to survive and thrive.  You have to posses the flexibility to adapt to mother nature and market forces.  So I grew up around improvisers, but we called them farmers.

(DG) You talk about improvisation in a completely different manner than what I believe most people are familiar with.  Can you elaborate?

(MB) There is big distinction between improvisation and improv, but both of these words have a common root.  I personally do not use the word improv in the GameChangers lexicon, it’s always improvisation. Improv is associated with comedy, and what we do at GameChangers is return to the roots of improvisation which are about communication, collaboration and learning in a multi-cultural environment.

What we think of as improvisation actually began in the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s.  There are a lot of parallels between the environment in which business operates today and the South Side of Chicago in the 1930’s, a complete melting pot, a crazy mix of cultures, people arriving into this environment for the first time and trying to make sense of it all.  And into all of this plopped a couple of school teachers who realized that through the playing of games something transcendent took place. What they called a shared focused appeared through the playing of games.

Everything that has happened since in improvisation has built on the shoulders of Viola Spolin and Neva Boyd.  We (GameChangers) kind of leap back over everything between now and 1959 when Second City was formed, and get back to what Spolin’s original intentions were.

(DG) With regards to marketing, how does improvisation play, specifically with regard to social marketing?

(MB) Again, it’s that sense of narrative – to what end are we doing it?  To what end are we telling people through foursquare where we are?  The way I look at it, social media is an enabler, but the big question is what does it enable? Just because we are enabled to interact in a more profound, more frequent and more dynamic way, it still doesn’t answer the question of what happens in those interactions.

The fact that there are now thousands of applications that enable individuals and organizations to unleash their content, their stories, their brands into the world does not really answer the question of how does it all compose, recompose, how does it all regenerate, how do we move away from a script and into a dynamic environment where narratives contextualize information to make sense of it all?

In a way it makes the need for narrative even greater because as the environment is changing everything in that environment has to change, and yet we still tend think of narratives as these structured preformatted things – a song, an album, a story. But really, let’s make a distinction that a story is a description of events that have already transpired , and narrative is happening in every single moment, on social media, in a million other channels, and of course let’s not forget reality.  New information is constantly being generated and with our sense of narrative how do we continually create concepts, whether it’s a brand or a young person building an identity for themelves?  It just follows that one has to improvise.  GameChangers offers a way for people and organizations to do that, and the analytical tools for measuring the effectiveness of improvised brand narratives.

(DG) How has the network environment changed business approaches?

(MB) The profound shift is that brands are not able to inject themselves into people’s lives any longer through disruption.  The next generation, the internet natives prefer brands that fit their individual lifestyles, not brands that try to script what a lifestyle should be.  What that means is that brands and products have to be invited to the conversation.  And so how do brands and products make themselves relevant to their customers?  In fact they need to change the definition of whom they transact with from consumers to customers.  Another word I don’t use is consumers.  The idea of consumption is a toxic one, whereas the idea of custom, customization and customers are all productive words.  That means that brands have to be willing to share the narrative.  Brands have to be invited into people’s lives and that can only happen through improvisation.  Through “yes anding”, you begin improvisation with the word “yes” and then you move the scene forward by “anding” it.  You add to what is already there.  The extent to which brands and products can co-create a reality which is both theirs and the customer’s, I believe is the extent to which they are going to succeed in this networked world of business.


For more on Mike and his team I highly recommend you check them at their site – GameChangers.com.  In addition to offering client services which help brands to discover their own narrative in this highly networked world Mike also leads seminars.  You can check out the GameChangers site for more on that.  For even more I suggest you pick up Mike’s book, also called GameChangers.