Nine months ago I started doing improv - think Whose Line Is It Anyway? style comedy. While my goal was just to have some fun, I realised after a few weeks that I would also learn a massive amount along the way.
While I am not an improv Jedi or innovation guru, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from the former and how I think they apply to the latter. Specifically, I’ll focus here on the generative value of positivity and the importance of not trying to be funny. From each of these two improv lessons I will then move to innovation lessons - on good brainstorming and accepting failure.
The importance of positivity (and its impact on good brainstorming)
The first questions I get when I tell people I do improv are:
“So, is it really all spur of the moment?”
“I mean, surely you have some of it planned, right?”
The honest answer is that when we perform nothing is planned.
Good improv is about listening to your fellow players*, hearing the cues they give you and building a shared reality. Think of it like playing with a four year old. If they say “We are going to kill the evil dragon” and you respond “No, we are sitting on a bus in South London,” then you will end the story. Instead, a better response is “Yes, I am so glad I’ve got this new suit of armour and that you’ve been practicing your magic spells.”
By building on the four year old's initial idea, you are able to create stories beyond saving the kingdom. Most importantly you will create ideas that neither you nor the four year old could have imagined independently. Saying, “yes” and then building on the ideas of others is infinitely generative. Spirits are high, creativity is fostered, the impossible is considered and ideas are created.
The connection to innovation is obvious; innovation needs new ideas. For me, this requires putting aside value judgements and practicalities such as budgets and time constraints, for a moment. The time to evaluate ideas will come soon, but as with improv, good idea generation begins in positive, open, and inclusive settings.
The importance of not trying to be funny (or being open to failure)
In an ironic twist, the only way to create funny improv is to not focus on being funny. In fact, often before a show we do a warm up where our specific goal is to be as boring as possible. Improv is a form of comedy and so the implicit goal is to be funny, but to be funny we must be realistic and find the natural humour rather than forcing it (e.g. through cringe worthy one liners).
By having permission to not be funny, we are able to explore the current moment – be it life as a beekeeper exploring a budding romance, as a penguin stranded on an Arctic iceberg, or as Anne the struggling musical theatre actress with a horrible voice!
In each of these scenes that I recently found myself in, I was distinctly not funny. In the love scene I was vulnerable, as a penguin I was lonely, and as an Anne the singer I felt genuine pain as my passion was met with rejection at an audition. But in each of these scenes there was great laughter and enjoyment and this came from the humanity of the scene that the audience could relate to.
"Good idea generation begins in positive, open, and inclusive settings"
Don’t let me fool you. It is HARD to go on stage for an audience that has paid to have a fun time and believe the mantra “you don’t have to be funny, I don’t have to be funny, we don’t have to be funny” (something we often chant before going on stage). But, the truth is that not every improv sketch is funny in the same way that not every idea for a new social enterprise is worth pursuing.
In short, the transferable lesson is that if you want to ultimately win (e.g. be funny) you must be willing to fail (e.g. not be funny) and know when to cut the scene and move to the next one. Now I know that failing as an innovator is harder than failing in a quick scene performed in a near-empty pub.**
But I say, oh well, let’s get on stage, always say “yes” and celebrate the successes that come when we aren’t afraid of failure.
*”Player” is the impov term for “actor.” This is not to be confused with urban usage such as “Hate the playa, not the game.”
**My next performance will be with “Maverick Imrpov – A cast of mostly expats in varying stages of the immigration process who get together to listen to music and share stories. Scenes ensue.” We will be at The Miller in London Bridge on 29 July 2014 and are prepared to make you laugh or not, as the case may be.
Improv credit: Hoopla! Impro - big thanks to Steve and Edgar!
Photo credit: bryce_edwards on Flickr CC