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Sparking Innovation with Improv

Where does innovation come from? Everyone likes to think they’re innovative. For the few that don’t feel they are, it’s often the focus of what they’re striving for. At Improv Effects, we hear it all the time: “We want to be more innovative.”

How much does improvisation even tie into the process of innovation? More than you’d think, but not necessarily for the reason you’d think.

When considering where innovation comes from, it’s important to identify what innovation is. There may not be a scientifically identified innovation molecule, but we like the definition put forth by entrepreneur and Stanford professor Tina Seelig, who tackles both questions with the following definition:

  • Innovation is the application of creativity to solve a problem.

  • Creativity is the application of imagination.

  • Imagination is the ability to envision things that don’t exist.

While that theory may shed some light on the roots of innovation, it raises an equally baffling question: where does imagination come from? She’s got an answer, and it falls right in line with what improvisors do every time they rehearse or take the stage. It’s also a big part of what Improv Effects coaches in many of our workshops: engagement.

Finding the root of engagement is easy: it’s just spending the energy to share an idea, ask a question or start a conversation with another person. Easy, right?

Maybe not.

Engagement involves risk, vulnerability and uncertainty. It takes stepping out of our comfort zones. It doesn’t help that many of us have work spaces designed to keep others out, be it cubicles or closed offices. Engagement includes sharing ideas with people even when they may not be fully formed and supporting others when they do the same. It includes having coffee or lunch with someone that you don’t usually meet with even when there’s no defined outcome. It includes asking questions about other people’s interests and finding ways to relate to those interests or at least be curious about them.

A big part of what engagement does is disrupt the norm. People place such a premium on thinking outside the box, but repeat their same habits every day: talking to the same people, about the same things, in the same places.

This disruption is a big part of what sparks improvisors’ imaginations on stage. We can take the stage with plot fully developed in our heads, but when an audience suggestion is shouted out that has nothing to do with our plans, we have to quickly change gears and explore this new thought. Because improvisors don’t know what their scene partners are about to say, they have to be ready for the disruption. However - and here’s one of the great improv techniques for imagination by engagement - the disruption does not mean the original thought has to be completely abandoned. The scene can be informed by both ideas.

If one improvisor takes the stage with the idea that he or she is a farmer but, before getting a chance to initiate a scene based on that idea, their scene partner says, “Who would have thought a trip to the moon could be this much fun?” The performer planning on farming must obviously acknowledge the fact that they are on the moon. He or she could never say, “We’re not on the moon, we’re on a farm.” However, the performer could incorporate both ideas and say, “You know, a little vegetable patch right there and a couple of dairy cows and I can see making a life for ourselves here. We'll know when to pick our crops when we see the Harvest Earth!”

Now you’ve got a shared idea. No idea was rejected, and no one had to fully abandon their own ideas. In this example, the improvisor just found a way to make an immediate collaboration. And ultimately, isn’t a scene about a farm on the moon more interesting than one that’s just about a farm or a visit to the moon? The improvisors disrupted each others trains of thought enough to come up with a new, shared idea.

Get people engaged and their imaginations will be sparked. Support their imagination and you will get creativity. Find ways to tie their creativity into your objectives and you will get innovation.

Looking for more innovation in your organization’s culture. Try these approaches:

  • Invite people to brainstorm sessions that don’t traditional attend.

  • Find ways to get people to eat lunch with people they usually don’t eat with.

  • Promote a culture of support and encouragement. “No ideas are bad ideas, they’re just not fully formed ideas.”

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