How Improvisation Can Drive Innovation


The word strikes both excitement and fear in the hearts of the leaders with whom I work. I have good news – true innovation is grounded in everyday behaviors, and improvisation is your guide.

Improvisers arrive onstage without a script yet must create entire one-act plays on the fly. It sounds terrifying, yet improv has clear guidelines that allows troupes to be collaborative and innovative in the moment. And I’ve spent years teaching Fortune 100 clients how to implement those behaviors to drive innovation in their teams.

Tip #1: Say “Yes, and!”

The reason an improv troupe can create scenes out of thin air is because of our foundational principle, “Yes, and.” No matter what I would contribute onstage, my troupe would immediately do two things: agree with me (“yes”) and add onto my idea (“and”). So if I declared, “I’m a Warrior Queen!” a fellow improviser would say, “Yes, you are my Warrior Queen, and I’m your shield bearer!” and so the scene was off.

This behavior is critical to innovative teams because it allows all ideas to be heard. We worked with an insurance company that realized great ideas from their call centers weren’t bubbling up. Many of those front line professionals had unusual ideas about how to serve customers better and more quickly. Unfortunately, whenever they tried to introduce those ideas, they received negative responses from their managers. Once a person hears “No,” they are statistically less likely to ever contribute again. The alarm bell really went off when one frustrated employee took her idea to a competitor. It saved the competitor between 2-10 cents per call, which over thousands of calls is a significant improvement. The idea had been formed in my client’s call center, but because the employee received no support, she left, taking her innovative idea with her.

The key to “Yes, and” is that it encourages contribution. Some managers are afraid it means they have to accept anything their team says. On the contrary, “yes, and” is about saying, “Yes, I hear you. And let’s discuss this idea and please continue to contribute.” Many scenes on the improv stage are dumped if they end up not being funny or working, but at least we tried them out. The same thing happens in corporate teams. An environment of acceptance, discussion and addition allows tiny ideas to be vetted, rather than trashed before we even know if they’ll work.

Tip #2: Creativity is actually driven by Constraint

There’s a misconception that creativity can only happen in wide open spaces with no boundaries and no rules. And even though most people believe that improvisation is a free-for-all, it is actually bound by clear guidelines and constrained by lack of props or scripts. The very issues of improv actually allow performers to be more creative in the moment. A perfect example of a highly constrained situation that led to an incredibly innovative solution occurred in 1970. Apollo 13 had a great blast-off, but an explosion created a terrible test of survival for the crew.

The engineers on the ground had serious constraints: They could only work with the equipment on the shuttle, as it was in space and there was no time or means to reach the astronauts, and there was a limited amount of time before the carbon dioxide built up and killed the crew.

The engineers on the ground actually figured out how to take the square air filters from the command module and make them work in the round receivers of the lunar module. Although they were constrained by time and materials, they didn’t allow old thinking to get in their way. They literally made a square peg fit a round hole and saved the lives of every astronaut on that lunar module. It was a combination of creativity, constraint and execution.

“Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — …creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.” Dave Gray

For more tips and stories, join us at IABC Heritage conference this fall! @IABCHRCONF

Founder & CEO,
ImprovEdge LLC

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