Is Improv the Key to Innovative Teams?

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Is Improv the Key to Innovative Teams?

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According to Webster's Dictionary the word improvise means
"to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously; to make, invent, or arrange offhand; to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand."
I actually prefer the definition of improvisation that Wikipedia provides though. According to Wikipedia, improvisation is
"the practice of acting and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of ones immediate environment. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive or technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain."
Wow, now that's a definition! But what I love about this definition is that it recognizes the link between the response to the immediate environment and the invention of new thought patterns. In short, it recognizes that improvisation and innovation are intimately linked.

Most people associate improv with acting or comedy. But, you don't have to be an actor or a comedian to apply improvisation to your work. In fact, I think there is more opportunity for improvisation in the professional world than most people think. Gary LaBranche of the Association Forum of Chicagoland says:
"Board meetings and committee meetings, dialogue with colleagues and other everyday situations give professionals plenty of opportunities for improvisational responses. Improv is all about adapting to constant change and unexpected situations, which is familiar territory for most professionals."
I think Gary's statement is right on the money. We have more opportunities to use improv as professionals than we realize. In fact, a few weeks ago, I wrote about Pixar and their use of improv in their creative process. Pixar boils down their use of improv to two essential principles:

  1. Accept every offer. You don’t know where that offer is going to go. But one thing is for sure: If you don’t accept that offer, it’s going nowhere! So you have a sure thing on one hand: a dead end. And you have possibility on the other.
  2. Make you partner look good. That means that everybody on your team is going to try to make you look good and vice versa. It’s about saying “Here’s where I’m starting. What can I do with this?”.
I think Pixar was able to break down their use of Improv into these two principles because of their long, shared experience with improv. I like these two essentials principles of improvisation for innovation, but wanted to expand on a few other principles for teams and organizations that are just starting to experiment or have never used improv before. So, to add to Pixar's principles, I would advise those new at improv think about these as well:

  1. Keep questioning what works. Good is the enemy of great. When something is really awful, we know we need to fix it, and we usually do. But when something is good, we settle. We don't necessarily think about how we can make it better. So, take a look at what you do everyday. Consider the things that are good and ask yourself or your team "Can this be better?"
  2. Be a risk taker and take chances. Sure, you can do things the way you've always done it. And you'll probably get predictable results and that might be good enough for you. But if you want to be innovative, you need to break through barriers, take risks, take chances. You may not always be successful when you take chances, but if you don't, you won't ever have the chance to really innovate. The most innovative companies and creative people have failed more than they have succeeded. But, when they did succeed, it's been with market-changing and world-changing innovations.
  3. Always be changed by what is said and what happens. Innovative people and innovative teams always uncover new information. But more than uncovering new information, they learn to react to that new information. Instead of locking up when change comes along, these innovative people let that change inspire new ideas and let what unfolds next guide them on. They welcome and thrive on change. And they allow themselves to be changed. They have the beginner's mind and are always able to learn and change.
  4. Create shared, dynamic plans and agendas. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry right? We've all heard that a thousand times before. So, why stick to a plan that is going awry? The answer...DON'T. Abandon them to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. That's right, ABANDON them. Let your plans and agendas emerge in real-time in response to what's right there in front of you.
  5. Be fully present and engaged. So, you get your team to abandon static, concrete plans. You've gotten out of planning and into being. But, this comes with a caveat. To do this, your team has to be completely engaged and have their attention completely focussed. You have to always be ready and able to ask the question "Yes and?". You have to be engaged and present to always be asking this question.
  6. Keep moving forward. When you're constantly in the flow of improv and innovation, you can't stop to analyze. It slows you down and stifles creativity. When something unexpected happens, take advantage of this new situation and move forward with it. If something goes wrong, learn the lesson and move forward. The whole idea is to keep moving forward. The road behind you is not the road that leads to innovation. Keep moving forward.
  7. Understand the good of the whole. When you personally understand what is good for the whole, you have a deeper understanding of when to hang back, when to grab the reigns and how to grab them, and how to support the other members of your team. When the whole team has this attitude and understanding, it creates a truly collaborative, improvisational environment.
  8. Lose control. We don't want anyone on our team to be the star or orchestrator. We want to make sure that no one gets into the "controlling mind". As soon as one person assumes control or seeks the spotlight, the creativity, improv, and innovation of the team suffers. We need to lose the control aspect of the team and allow everyone to respond to the moment.
  9. Self-organize. Creativity is naturally a self organizing system. Teams that allow themselves to explore and play find this self-organization with ease. The team may set some very basic guidelines of play, but once they do, their roles and organization emerge naturally and creativity flourishes. This type of self-organization allows all kinds of things to be possible.

From my own personal experience, the most innovative teams I've ever worked on embraced these basic principles of improv. In fact, a few years ago, I worked on a truly creative, innovative team. That team always asked the question "What else can we do with this?". We opened our minds to all possibilities. There were many times we said, "We've never done this before". Often, we had no idea how the idea would play out. But we always accepted the offer to see where it would go. Sometimes we failed. But, we learned and moved on. And, when we were successful, we produced some of the most innovative software the mapping world had ever seen. I don't think we ever tried to be improvisational or purposely forced these improv principles. It emerged naturally on a team full of incredible talent with no egos, and I think that made all the difference in the world.

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