A couple of years ago, I decided to take an improv class to have some fun activities to bring to my training events and to get better at thinking on the fly. I also wanted to have fun – I’d gotten a sample of improv at a leadership-development event and I wanted more.
The first thing you learn in any improv class is foundational to having fun, riffing off each other with hilarity, and putting on a successful show where everyone brings their absolute best. Any guess what it might be? In a word, trust. Our instructor was a co-owner and improv actor at a successful Seattle venue, and would not move forward until everyone agreed and understood that this is a “yes, and” format. In other words, he said, we keep the energy moving in one direction, building on what the last person said and going forward. No one was allowed to stop the flow by saying, “What? that doesn’t make sense!” or “No, that doesn’t work.” We simply kept the flow and energy moving by allowing whatever came before to spark a new thought or idea in us and speak it. We linked them together by saying “yes, and…” at the beginning of each new thread of thought.
This kind of thinking out loud makes many of us nervous, but once you have an understanding that everyone is in the same boat – pulling together to get as many laughs and have as much fun as possible, you lose your self consciousness and just go with it. I completely surprised myself at the end of the first night. We were asked to give a one-minute monologue on a random word pulled from an iPhone app. I never knew I could be that funny and enjoy myself in front of an audience. What elevated me, a novice, to experience that in the first class?
My fellow classmates and I bonded and agreed to be supportive of each other and keep that flow going no matter what. It was an absolute blast. See this clip from an ABC show based on improv, Whose Line is it Anyway: https://youtu.be/q-GbYeAz8qk
What does this have to do with strengths and innovation? Everything. In our certification process at Strengths Strategy, where I mentor coaches in training, the foundation is eerily similar: create a space of non judgement, be willing to experiment and support each other. We look at what is working and build upon that. We don’t spend a lot of time looking back at mistakes or weaknesses — we know that people do enough of that on their own. When we do look at weaker areas, it is with the understanding that not everybody brings every strength – and that is okay, we rely on our network, or our team to bring the strengths we don’t necessarily have. That is part of what makes us stronger as a team.
The same foundational piece is a requirement to create an environment, a culture, where innovation thrives. There must be trust and an attitude of non judgement. People must have the psychological safety to take risks and know they won’t be ridiculed for a bad idea. In fact, it us understood that there will be bad ideas on the way to excellent ideas. Failure is seen as a natural part of the creative process. In design school, we were required to turn in 100 thumbnail drawings for any design project because we knew the first dozen or so would be like getting the rust out of our pipes—trite, cliche, overdone and obvious. We accepted that. By the time I would get to about sketch number 20, I began seeing some really interesting and unique ideas.
I believe the gap that exists now in our organizations and teams is that people think only a select few are “creative” or innovative. They are the ones with the title of art director, creative director and so on. It is time to evolve past this outdated stereotype. We are all designed to be creative, we just do it differently, according to our natural strengths.
When everyone is seen as bringing unique value and the possibility for a breakthrough idea, then we begin to be nimble and innovation becomes a more natural process for the entire organization. We hear a lot about disruptive innovation. The disruption called for now is this understanding that everyone has access to great ideas and to create an environment where they feel supported and even invited—challenged—to come to the party where ideas are exchanged.
At first, people outside the so-called creative arena will feel self conscious thinking out loud, sharing raw thoughts and material with their colleagues. But just like in an evening of improv, we can adapt to that quickly and it multiplies exponentially our ability to expand and improve whatever service or product we make. The bonus is that as we do that, we become more authentic in the way we interact and relationships between colleagues get stronger. We see ourselves and each other in a new light. It all starts with expanding trust so that people are willing to step outside their comfort zone and be seen. The time to do this is now—we have everything to gain.