Improvisation for innovation

I just finished facilitating my interactive class on Teaming for Innovation at Stanford Continuing Studies.  As is true for all my programs on innovation, the opening activity is an improv game I use to have people introduce themselves.  The reaction is always the same: rolling eyes or blank stares.  I want them to do WHAT?  Ah, the fear of looking foolish is such a powerful inhibitor for most of us.  Learning point 1:  it’s okay to look foolish and make mistakes  Learning point 2:  childlike play is a great way to tap into our creative energy. (Check out my earlier post:  Green leaves don’t have to be green).  Inevitably, once they engage in the activity, they thoroughly enjoy it; you can feel the positive energy in the room.  The next time I ask them to engage in an improv game, there’s little if any resistance.

Lately, the connection between improv and innovation has shown up in a variety of ways.  Someone sent me a link to a blog post on jazz improvisation and innovation.  This week’s SVII program was “Improvising Inventors” featuring 3 people who have had to improvise to get their ideas implemented.  And this morning I had a great discussion with Kathy Klotz-Guest on the ways improvisation activities can be used to enhance corporate creativity and self-confidence (more on this at a later time).

There are key principles of improv that are directly applicable to teamwork for innovation.  They include:

  1. Be fully present.  Trying to anticipate what will happen is not just a waste of energy but a deterrent to seeing what’s really there.  Get out of your head and experience what’s happening in the moment. This can be broadened to mean let go of assumptions.
  2. Mistakes are just unexpected actions or consequences, not failures.  Embrace them to see how you can stretch yourself, see something in a new light, or simply learn for the future.  Among the innovators  I’ve interviewed for my book on gender and innovation, having something not work is never perceived as a failure but rather as a step to discovering something else.
  3. Whatever happens- keep moving.  Rather than freezing up as we tend to do, stay in motion so you find your way forward.
  4. Build on proposed ideas, don’t kill them.  In improv, the concept is “Yes, and…”.  We are all well-trained in how to criticize what others say or do.   Brainstorming sessions often turn into an exercise in futility as people keep negating ideas that are presented with “that will never work” or “we tried that before” or…..  In improv, it’s about accepting offers and expanding on them.  Look to find ways to make ideas work rather than killing them prematurely.
  5. Play is serious work.   Contrary to popular belief, play is not the opposite of work but an important component of it.

If you want to be more innovative, take some improvisation classes.  Will you feel uncomfortable?  Probably.  And that’s a good thing because it means you’re growing.  Enjoy!