Improve Through Improv

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Today I am preparing to take my son to the Destination Imagination global competition in Knoxville, TN. Destination Imagination (DI), is an educational nonprofit dedicated to teaching students the creative process and empowering them with the skills needed to succeed in an ever-changing world. Quite the mission statement! DI poses different challenges to kids and asks them to solve them using either technical, engineering, fine arts, improvisation (improv), or service learning. I am lucky enough to coach a talented group of teenage boys on their improv challenge. I have learned some of my best leadership and innovation lessons through DI – lessons that apply directly to business. Forty-three percent of business executives that participated in a 2014 PwC study agreed that innovation is a “competitive necessity” for their organization. PwC also found that 93 percent of business executives believe that organic growth through innovation will drive the largest proportion of their revenue growth. Yet how many of us are spending 43% of our time innovating? Are 93% of your leaders empowering your teams to innovate new solutions? We can improve our innovation by taking a few tips from the practice of improvisation, including using “yes and”, go all in, and trust the team.

“Yes and…” This is also called the ‘Don’t deny’ rule. It means that you should always say yes. If the person you’re working with has an idea, build upon what they have created instead of responding with no, but, or we can’t.  In the world of improv that means that if your scene partner starts the scene by saying you are on a trip to Mars, then you must embrace that you are heading to Mars. Denying their statement discredits your partner and creates tension in your scene. Your next line might be, “Yes and I am so glad I brought my dog Fido with us for this adventure!” So let’s replace this with a workplace scenario. Let’s say you were planning a meeting today to discuss the team budget, and one of your employees says that they need another contractor to meet a critical project deadline. A “yes and” response would be, “Ok, let’s evaluate how to add another resource and how to stay on budget.” This acknowledges their reality, respects their idea, and opens a new dialogue. “Yes and” is an incredibly simple but powerful practice that welcomes new ideas and collective problem solving.

Go all in. Improv is about being in the moment. You can’t worry about looking silly, or thinking about the next funny line you want to work into the plot. If Fido is going to Mars with us, then I may need to become a dog. Or a martian. Or both. The only way I will know is to get out of my head and to jump all the way into whatever is unfolding in the moment. Imagine sitting in a board room and hearing a valuable insight from a colleague while you are in the midst of a presentation. What would happen if you put the clicker down and gave him/her the floor? You might not complete your PowerPoint, but you might generate a new collaboration opportunity because you broke free of structured roles and responded to a new idea.

Trust the team. In my son’s improv challenge they have to plan and perform 3 three minute skits in three different genres, with three different main characters, using a prompt they get three seconds before they begin. I will admit sometimes I panic that they will forget an element or stress about their time management. Then I watch them and I am humbled again at their ability to focus on what is happening, not what might happen. How powerful! Imagine turning your team loose on a big project and saying these are the three big outcomes we have to get to. How you do it is up to you, and I trust that you will make the right decisions along the way.   What if instead asking for status reports we generated innovation insights from our team, asking them what they are learning and what else is possible?

I realize life – and business- is not a stage. We do need some structure and process to make innovation sustainable. Companies can’t just innovate ideas, they also need innovation strategies to align, prioritize, and focus efforts around them. However on the continuum of structured and improvisational, most organizations- and leadership practices- focus on tried and true approaches as opposed to fail fast testing.  My challenge to you is to ask yourself where can I try a “yes and”, go all in, or trust the team?  In the words of football coach Pete Carroll,  “Improvisation (is the) natural expression of the best we can possibly be. It comes out because there is no boundary to hold us back. That’s the mentality that I’m trying to create, recreate and hold on to forever.”

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