I often use improv theater techniques in my workshops on creativity and innovation. They are little plays in which people have to spontaneously handle unexpected situations in front of an audience. Usually delegates approach these challenges with some caution but after a little training and practice they find them entertaining and liberating. The methods can be amusing icebreakers. But they also serve a deeper and more rewarding purpose – they challenge our assumptions about the unexpected.
Throughout life we learn to treat the unexpected with care. This might be based on something deep within our primitive ancestry. In ancient times something that was unknown or unusual might have been dangerous so the safest option was to view it with caution. Our natural instinct is to repel the outsider, to reject unorthodoxy and to repulse unexpected ideas. Improv challenges all of this. It teaches us to welcome the unknown and to turn it to our advantage. In an improv theater exercise we learn not to reject or question a crazy notion that is thrown at us but to take it on board, go with the idea, build on it and pass it on.
For example, say you are in a two-man improv interview. The other person may start with a random statement such as, ‘I see your pet gorilla is causing trouble again.’ You could close down the conversation by replying,’ No it isn’t.’ Or, ‘I don’t have a gorilla.’ However you quickly learn that is better to take the idea and build on it by saying something like,’ I know, he drinks too much cider.’ Or, ‘I warned him not to join the Milwall supporters club.’ These kinds of responses give your partner something new and useful to build on. The conversation can then go into all kinds of bizarre and amusing directions.
Some people misunderstand improv. They have seen some programs on TV where clever comedians use improv to deliver terrific witticisms. It seems that improv is all about being funny. But it is not. Improv is about being spontaneous. It is about being imaginative. It is about taking the unexpected and then doing something unexpected with it. Very often this leads to humor and hilarious situations. But they are by-products. The key thing is being open to crazy ideas and building on them. And funnily enough this is exactly what is needed if we are going to make our enterprises more creative and more agile.
Stodgy, conventional organizations have an atmosphere that instinctively rejects anything counter-cultural. Radical ideas are robustly opposed. People fall into what de Bono calls the intelligence trap; the smarter you are the easier it is to find fault with new ideas. Improv helps expose and rebut this approach.
Truly innovative organizations develop a culture where anybody can challenge anything. New ideas are welcomed. Crazy ideas are not rejected – they are used as starting points for ‘What if?’ discussions that lead to radical new concepts. If you want to change the culture in your business to support rather than reject creativity then improv is a good place to start.
Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.