A recent New York Times article, “In Pursuit of the Perfect Brainstorm,”discussed the power of lateral thinking techniques in brainstorming. Think about all the products and services created with these methods! This piece illustrates precisely what improvisers already know – that improvisation leads to more creative problem-solving and better results.
By improvisation, we don’t mean theatrical performance. Improvisation means being adaptable and reacting to ideas and realities as they change. It means being able to invert assumptions about the way things should or can be done. By thinking differently, we shift the lens through which we see both challenges and solutions. The ability to improvise is about making new things up as things change – there is no such thing as stability when it comes to strategy.
Brainstorming techniques that leverage improvisation create a powerful collaborative dynamic for getting the best ideas “out there” for further development. These types of exercises are built on the premise of “Yes, and” – a concept that is the cornerstone of improvisational theater. In business, this fundamental idea means accepting another’s idea and building on top of that idea by taking it further in a collaborative, “social” way where everyone co-creates – just as scenes are created in theater.
Think about it this way: most brainstorming approaches aren’t as productive or result in as many great ideas as they could because they follow a linear approach. By contrast, improvisational techniques rely on non-linear, random associations that tap into lateral thinking – engaging the best of the right brain, the creative brain, as well. The resulting ideas are often concepts that the left brain – the “logic” brain alone – would never have considered. The right brain likes to invert assumptions and examine “what if” scenarios. Of course, improvisation is fun. That’s important. While it’s not the end goal, fun is a conduit for creative engagement. You know it as flow-time. Do you know anyone that hates being creative or doesn’t have fun doing it? Exactly.
No brainstorming session ends with every idea being commercially viable; yet, non-linear “improvisational” perspectives generate ideas that don’t surface through traditional facilitated means. That’s the beauty of using “improvised” options – to generate better outcomes. Creative techniques such as SCAMPER, for example, start by suspending assumptions about products and what people need in order to see new things. And, by rearranging and modifying existing products, we can often create new breakthrough ideas.
Rather than competing for individual ideas, a “yes, and” approach turns all individual creativity into materialized collaborative capital so that team-based problem solving yields more creative, innovative results. As well as teaching people how to adapt and be more creative as needs change, improvisation also teaches communication, teamwork and leadership. These skills are critical in innovation. A recent 2010 study by IBM, for example, revealed that the ability to think creatively was the single most important leadership skill needed for next decade technological leadership.
Improvisational approaches also represent a better ‘human” model of idea generation for both employees and customers. First, ideas that are built collaboratively tap into the human need for being creative and doing work that matters. Employees who feel creative and innovative are more engaged because the work engages both sides of the brain – the creative as well as the logical. Companies are always grappling with how to improve employee engagement. By giving employees more autonomy, mastery, purpose and creativity in their work – a very human aspiration – organizations will see engagement rise. Moreover, collaborative development also reduces push-back and discord within a group when the group has co-engineered and developed the best ideas together.
There is another reason non-linear problem-solving approaches represent a more human-centered model for idea generation. Better ideas mean better products to meet customers’ needs. When employees and users work together to co-create products and services, for example, the human needs of users take focus. And today, a social approach means that more products are being co-developed with users. That’s a great thing because it helps vet ideas with customers before they enter the commercialization funnel. This is the ultimate in “social” product and services development.
Applied improvisation drives better human outcomes because of its focus on “group.” We focus so much on innovation and the individual in our “hero” culture, and innovation is a team sport. No product, service or cultural innovation is ever brought to fruition without the collaboration of the team. Group collaboration has a multiplier effect on corporate innovation that is required for commercialization success. Certainly applied improvisation strengthens individual performance in any setting (business, education), yet the key in innovation-based efforts is improving “team” results.
Great models for problem-solving must improve human outcomes for all stakeholders –employees, organizations, and customers. That’s the beauty of leveraging improvisation in business.