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Improv: Change Your Mind

What would you say if I told you there’s genius in you?  What if I told you that there’s genius in everyone you work with?

You may doubt it.  I believe it.  My experience bears out my belief.

Imagine there’s a Ferrari in your driveway.  You drive it every day, but you firmly believe that only first gear works.  It can only do about 20 miles-per-hour.  You’re convinced this is true.

You’d never shift out of first gear.  You’d never drive faster than twenty.  You’d even be jealous of the neighbor’s Hyundai and its incredible capabilities as it easily passed you doing forty.

Now imagine your business, your company, with a fully functioning Ferrari engine under the hood. What if every person on the team brought five gears of confident genius to the party?  Communications would flow.  Innovation would soar.  Employees would thrive, and morale would be high.  Clients would say, “wow,” and return again and again.

We’ve convinced ourselves that the Ferrari in the driveway is actually a golf-cart.

“I can’t improvise.”  “I’m not creative.”  “I’m not quick enough.”  I hear these things at the start of almost every theater improv course we teach.

It’s flat-out false.

You are a creative genius.  How do I know?  Well, you’re reading, from which I deduce that you are the proud owner of a working brain, and the human brain is the most powerful computer on earth.  For every bit of data that goes in, an association (creatively constructed by your pre-conscious mind) comes out.  The only thing that distinguishes the “creative” among us from those who aren’t is that the “creative” among us give our attention to those associations and bring them into conscious thought while the “un-creative” haven’t learned to value those associations, to bring them forward in the mind, and to express them.

Creativity is not a fleeting, ephemeral quality reserved for the lucky few. Creativity is a habit and a skill.  And like any habit or skill, it can be developed and honed.  Creativity can be applied to any problem, in any situation, to any relationship.  Creativity is the life-blood of any business, and the disease which squelches it is “NO.”

“No” starts internally.  Too often, we tell our own creative impulse, “no,” before it’s even been allowed the full attention of our conscious mind.  “No, that’s not a very good idea.”  “No, that’s stupid.”  “No, I can’t say that.” “No, that won’t work.”  “No, that’s too risky.”

By saying “no” to our creative impulses before they’ve even taken a breath, we train ourselves that the engine of creativity inherent in us all is useless and should be squashed before it’s allowed to make fools of us.  We train our conscious mind to ignore it.

Then we start to judge the creative machine in others as well.  We hear a game-changing idea from someone else, and we say the same things: “No, that’s not a very good idea.”  “No, that’s stupid.”  “No, you can’t say that.” “No, that won’t work.”  “No, that’s too risky.”  And by summarily rejecting the ideas of others before their ideas are allowed to breathe, we train them as well to ignore their creativity, or at least to keep their ideas to themselves.

“No,” for many of us, is a deeply ingrained habit.  We don’t even know that we’re doing it.  We don’t know that we’re doing it to ourselves, and we don’t know that we’re doing it to others.

“Yes,” by contrast, is the engine of creativity.  Say, “yes,” a few times to your creative impulses, and your pre-conscious association-making mind will love it.  Having been rewarded with yes, your mind will ramp up the pace and the volume of the ideas it supplies.  You’ll have fresh ideas flooding through you.  Say, “yes,” a few times to the ideas of others, and they’ll reward your acceptance with even more ideas.

Theater Improv is great “yes” training.  That makes it great business training as well.

A central tenet of Theater Improv is an idea called, “yes, and.”  YES, I accept your input as valuable and relevant.  AND, I will expand upon it with my own perspective – inspired by your input.  It is an incredible, spontaneous feedback-loop of collaborative creativity.

How does this work in a business setting? The other day, I was in a Red Robin restaurant and saw a promotion advertised on the wall: When the Seahawks score from the red zone on game-day, everyone there gets a free burger if they come back in on Tuesday.  I imagine the marketing conversation went something like this.

“Let’s do a promotion to drive more business our way from Seahawks fans.”

“Great idea.  Let’s build somehow on the suspense of the game.”

“Ok. When the Seahawks score, we give out free burgers.”

“That’s a lot of burgers.”

“When they score from the red-zone.”

“Perfect, but we want people to come back, even when it’s not game day.”

“We give them a voucher for a free burger, but they have to come back to get the burger itself.”

You can see “yes, and” at work here, with each idea accepted and refined or elaborated upon.  Of course, I don’t know if there was a room full of people discussing this marketing campaign like this, but the conversation happened – even if it was one person having the conversation in her own mind.

This is a great marketing idea, certain to bring Seahawks fans in the door on game-day, and it will encourage them to return to cash in their vouchers (and spend money besides on drinks and meals for their families).  But the conversation could easily have gone another way.

“When the Seahawks score, we give out free burgers.”

“Yeah, right.  We’ve got a bar full of people watching the game, say thirty people, and the Seahawks score six times.  That’s one hundred eighty burgers, six per person.  Those customers are now full to the point of being sick.  They haven’t bought any food.  And we’re losing money.  Forget it.”

“Yes, and” is a business tool that creates possibility.  It hones good ideas into great ones.  It ignites genius.

But that’s not all it does.  In order to effectively operate the tool of “yes, and,” you’ve got to be actively, attentively listening to others – in every situation – from the perspective that what they have to say has value and merit.  Imagine doing business with a company where every time you spoke, expressed a desire, voiced a concern, asked for a consideration—every time—you were met with the attitude that what you were saying had value and merit.  There are companies that hold this idea sacred: Nordstrom for instance. Sure, they carry excellent products.  But it’s the experience of being valued as a person, not simply as a dollar, that keeps people coming back to shop there.  Nordstrom’s team is known for it.  They value human interaction.  They receive even customer complaints as opportunities to improve relationships and their company.

Many of us have trouble maintaining that posture consistently.  We take criticism personally.  Fear of the unknown makes innovative ideas scary.  Improv training is like going to the gym to build the muscles of embracing possibility and capitalizing on potential.  It literally changes your mind.  The more you practice “yes, and,” the easier and the more automatic it becomes.

Neuroscientists say, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.”  This means that every time I hear a thought, and my response is “yes, and,” the neurons that create that response become physically connected to the neurons that recognize a suggestion.  It becomes easier and easier, not only to say “yes” to the ideas of others, but to your own ideas as well.  Your mind is changed at a cellular level.

“Yes, and” is the single most powerful tool that I have as a theater director, as a teacher, as a manager and supervisor, and as an entrepreneur.  And I’m not alone in that opinion.  The best business schools in the country (Harvard, Duke, Columbia, MIT and many more) have added Theater Improv training to their MBA programs.

Consider adding Theater Improv training to your professional development arsenal.  Spark lucrative innovation. Build teams that operate like clockwork.  Harvest the full potential of your people.  Develop agile, intuitive leadership.  Train for quick, purposeful, in-the-moment thinking.

“The capacity to creatively improvise is an important factor that differentiates successful companies — or teams — from those that are not successful.”

          John Kao, Harvard Business School Professor;  Innovation Advisor


“It was as if the three-hour improv session finally, after many years, broke something in my brain loose. I gave the best presentation I have ever given and felt very ‘present’ and in control as I gave it.”

          William Gordon III, President and CEO, Tetragenetics Inc.


“After [improv training], I could keep up with the rest of my team, and I suddenly felt so much more alive than I had in years.”

         Amy Marquez, senior user experience designer to fortune 500 companies

Play Your Way to Innovation

Encourage and stimulate creativity and innovation. Get the edge on your competition. Keep up your interest and passion for work. Retain employees who love their work. Excite your clients, increase referral business, and create a buzz.

This will be an article about cultivating a culture of creativity and innovation in business (and elsewhere). But first, a context.

Many of our clients come to us because their companies have become stagnant, and they’re wanting to shake things up. One client, the Artistic Director of a small theater company, said, “We’re doing ok, but we need to be doing better than that. We’re basically doing the same things we’ve been doing, but we need to be doing the things we haven’t been doing. I just don’t know what those things are yet.”

If they’re honest, we’ve found that a lot of business leaders – in the arts and beyond – can relate to this conundrum. Businesses find a model for success. They execute that model. They achieve success in whatever way they’ve defined it for themselves. And then that model becomes a security blanket or a life raft. They know they need to make a change, but they cannot see around the status quo to the solution.

Whether the broken or ailing status quo is a model for product production, for providing customer service, for marketing or for something else, the life raft often starts taking on water as soon as it has done its initial job. In other words, the initial idea works great for a while, but then the market shifts and the company’s relevance and/or its vibrancy begins to wane. Competitors may make a better mousetrap and crowd us out of the market, or our own company and its leadership may begin to get bored with doing today what we were doing yesterday. How many times have we all heard the common refrain, “Same s#*t, different day?”

Stagnancy in any business leads to:

  • Failure to capture a bigger market share
  • Loss of market share
  • Loss of productivity
  • Client retention problems
  • Talent/staff retention problems

And now, to pull this article out of a power dive, I arrive at the destination promised: Creativity and Innovation. No matter the initial reason business leaders come to me, many soon ask for help with freeing up creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation lead to:

  • Excitement in the company and the marketplace
  • Increased market share
  • Growth of the market through viral sharing that brings new people to your sector/category
  • Increased motivation and productivity
  • Client referrals
  • Personal fulfillment and satisfaction within the company
  • Talent/Staff retention and ease of recruitment

And the burning question in all your minds… How do we get some of that? How can we be more creative as entrepreneurs? And how can we get more creativity and innovation out of those who work with us?

Before I tell you, answer me this – Do you punish failure? If your employees take risks to try something new in good faith, and their risks result in failure, are they encouraged to keep trying new things, or are they ridiculed, chastised or sanctioned? Or, do you instead, if your team takes measured and calculated risks that don’t pay off, thank them for taking the risks, engage them in learning the lessons that failure inevitably offers, and reward them for their efforts by extending your trust again in the form of responsibility? The latter will bring you great results – failures, yes, but also great successes. They key is to fail in these initiatives quickly, learn and regroup quickly, and try something new. Nothing quells creativity and innovation like the fear of failure. It is rumored that a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail thousands of times on his way to inventing the light bulb. His famous response, “I never failed. I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that fear of failure dampens creativity. But this will surprise you. Incentives for creativity and innovation also dampen creativity. When offered rewards for innovation, adults, and even the greatest innovators in the world (children) suffer a marked decrease in “out of the box” thinking. Attention goes to the reward instead of to the creative process.

The engine of the creative process is play. Google, perhaps the most innovative company in operation (notice how many applications they have in beta testing) has learned this lesson well. Its employees are asked to attend to their regularly scheduled tasks for 80% of their work time. The other 20% of their time (called 20% time) is given to employee pet projects. When someone believes that they’ve got something worth taking to the market, they share it – without fear of negative repercussions if it should flop. More companies would do well to emulate Google in this.

And what of the solo entrepreneur? The same goes for you. Give yourself permission to take risks and fail. You already know that you’re resilient in the face of failure, or you’d have given up entrepreneurship long ago. Set aside time every week for exploring strange new ideas.

What Google calls “twenty percent time,” I call “Star Trek Time” – time in which your mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

I could go on about creativity and innovation for page after page, but I will leave you with one suggestion for priming the creative pump.

Brainstorming is a concept with which you’re all surely familiar. The team identifies a problem and throws ideas for possible solutions onto a board without regard to the viability or quality of the idea. Everything that comes into the mind goes onto the board.

Stanford School of Business professor, Jennifer Aaker, suggests turning the brainstorming session on its ear. Brainstorm and record ideas as usual. Then double the number of ideas by listing also the inverse of each idea the team came up with. For example, if one idea on the board is to, “appeal to a broader market by lowering prices,” then add to the list of ideas to, “pursue a narrower market with increased prices.” If an idea is to, “make a sweeter beverage in a larger size,” include also the idea to, “produce a smaller, less-sweet beverage.”

The results, according to Aaker (and my experience bares this out), is better than simply having twice the number of ideas. In the standard model of brainstorming, the ideas created fall on a bell-shaped curve of quality – a few terrible ideas, a few excellent ideas, and mostly mediocre ideas. When the inverse of those ideas is taken, the resulting ideas fall on a kind of inverse bell curve – many more terrible ideas, a few mediocre ideas, and surprisingly many excellent and exceptional ideas.

Start to breed a culture of creativity and innovation in your business today. Identify some problems specifically that you’d like to overcome, and dive in to the potential of play, freedom, fun and opportunity to solve those problems in ways you cannot now predict.

Want to supersize the potential for creativity and the unexpected? Think about bringing the improv team of The Yes Works to your company.