One way to help team members learn the principles of innovation in a hands-on, memorable way is through improvisation. Theatrical improvisation techniques share many of the same principles as innovation. In both cases, teams work without a script, taking suggestions from the audience (“customers”) to create something of value.
Let’s explore some of the parallels between innovation and improvisation, along with tips for how you can use improv techniques with your team.
First, at the heart of improvisation is a concept called the “Yes and” rule. The value of “yes and” is in building upon the actions of others, rather than attacking or tearing them down with a “no” or “yes BUT” denial. The “yes and” response to a suggestion is one of acceptance, even if not agreement, to play with the idea and test it out. People’s input and contributions are heard, acknowledged, and built upon. As Tom Yorton, president of Second City Communications (a division of the Second City comedy theater company that launched comedians like Tina Fey, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert) put it, “Whatever you say, I affirm and build on that. You can create interesting scenes and characters that way. You can also create an entire business model.”
How can you help your team understand the “Yes and” principle? One exercise is the “plan a vacation” role-play. In this exercise, the team’s goal is to plan a vacation together. Ask for a volunteer to be the lead planner. The lead planner’s task will be to offer suggestions on vacation locations or activities. The group will have 5 minutes. At each minute, you will say, “that’s one minute,” “that’s two minutes,” “that’s 3 minutes,” and so forth. Ask the lead planner to leave the room for a moment. Instruct the remaining team members to negate or block each suggestion the leader makes, saying “no” or “yes but” or the like — basically negating any suggestion as unworkable or uninteresting. They are to block any suggestion until you say “that’s 3 minutes.” After that, the next idea the lead planner makes should be accepted positively and built upon, with everyone adding to the idea. At the end of the 5 minutes, debrief and ask everyone how they felt during the exercise. Typically, the first three minutes are marked by rising tension in the room, even though all but the leader know what they’re doing. During the last 2 minutes, there’s visible relief in the room, more open body language and friendly smiles. This exercise visibly demonstrates how the atmosphere and energy in the room shift when people build on ideas rather than criticize them.
A second tenant of improvisation is awareness or attentiveness. Good improvisers need to be good listeners in order to build a scene together. In innovation, the skill of empathetic listening to customers shares this commonality.
Third, improvisation thrives on making connections. Actors pay attention, link, and reincorporate concepts. A player recycles a thought or action; that is, he or she ties one part of the scene to an earlier element presented before. In business, innovation thrives on new connections between customers’ needs and the organization’s competencies.
To play out the principles of attentiveness and connections, have the group compose a “story” in which one person at a time offers a word, the next person adds a second word, the third person a third word, and so on, in a way that builds a sentence or two that tells a story. The most satisfying stories are those that re-use or tie back to a word (such as “elephant” or “car” or whatever was said) that was said earlier.
Finally, improvisation involves taking risks. You don’t know whether an idea will pan out, but you test-drive it and see where it leads. The “show, don’t tell” rule of improv encourages actors to engage in the scene rather than just talking about it. Improv values physicality — turning goals or ideas of the scene into physical activity. Similarly, experimentation and prototyping are vital to innovation projects.
In summary, the spirit of cooperation and co-creation that infuses improv can fuel innovation projects as well, as research by Mary Crossan, Professor of Strategic Management at the Richard Ivey School of Business and director of the Leading Cross-Enterprise Leadership(™) Research Centre has shown. “Improvisation has a positive effect on team innovation when combined with team and contextual moderating factors,” she writes in Improvisation and Innovative Performance in Teams (Organizational Science, May/June 2005). That is, teams need to practice together. The good news is that Crossan’s results demonstrate that improvisational skills can be learned through training. Team members learn to listen, to make effective contributions, and to work together toward a shared goal while having fun and supporting each other in the process.