Improv Innovation – Using improv comedy tools/tricks to innovate


Segment 1: Improv Innovation

  • Improv comedy is one of the best examples of real-time creativity
  • Improv Tools & Tricks for yourself
    • Writing
      • Describe an emotion in two minutes without using the word
      • From a random word, write an entire story in 5 minutes
      • Start with the first four word of a random sentence and complete it. See how many different endings you can come up with in 2 minutes
    • Picture
      • Tell a story about a person or item in a photograph.
      • Draw a picture that describes an emotion in 3 minutes
    • Item
      • Take a random item from your desk and come up with as many uses/descriptions of the item in 3 minutes
  • Improv Tools & Tricks for a team
    • Item
      • Pass around a random item(s). Each person must identify a unique description or use of the item.
    • Rhyme
      • Complete the rhyme/song where each member of the group must add a line.
      • Make sure to record as this is a great source for ideas

Segment 2: Killer Questions Of The Week

  • Disney Imagineering Team Questions
    • How?
    • Why?
    • What other way?

Segment 3: Closing Thought

“When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a micoscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most giganic idiot on earth. So what the heck …. leap!” Cynthia Heimel

MP3 of the January 28th Podcast

[Start of Audio]

In my opinion, improv comedy is the purest form of real-time creativity.  The ability to be given a challenge, respond with humor and fun, and to totally entertain the audience is not that different from being tasked to create the next great product or service.  How can you use improv to challenge not only you but your teams to new levels of creativity and innovation?  I’ll be right back.




This is the Killer Innovations Podcast with Phil McKinney.  Keep in mind that the information and opinions expressed in this podcast are Phil’s and Phil’s alone and they don’t necessarily reflect those of his past, current, or future employers.  Now, here’s Phil McKinney.




Sometimes we just need to get out of the way.  To really unleash our creativity and innovation we have to get our brain out of the way.  Now I’ve talked in a previous podcast about how to get over the brain being in auto drive – well, in this case, and many times, our brain just takes over.  It dictates everything we do day in and day out and many times we over think, particularly when we get into innovation and creativity.  If we’re not comfortable with it, we tend to over think it.  We get in there and we try to force it, we try to think too logically what the right answer is, what are they asking from me in this brainstorming session?  What is it that is going to really prove that I can be a leader in developing new products or services or concepts for my business?  Now there are times when we over think it and there are times when we just need to let the brain disengage, particularly that logic side, and let that subconscious take over.  Now, one example of where I know your brain has just kind of clicked out and the subconscious takes over is when you’re driving.  Now how many times have you been driving along and you’ve gone some distance when all of a sudden you realize that you’re at some place but you don’t remember how you got there?  You don’t remember all the twists and turns and accelerating and changing lanes and getting off at the exits.  But all of a sudden you’ve become aware that you’ve covered some distance but you don’t know how you got there.  That’s a perfect example of where we’ve been able to literally switch the brain off – it’s gone into auto-pilot mode, it knows the directions to work, it knows where to make the turns, it knows the rules of the road, and it allows you to go do that, and your brain has just basically taken over.  Now what you really want to do is you want to be able to lock that process in to get that portion of the brain to go into autopilot mode and let your subconscious, creativity side of your brain to click in and take over.  Now there are times when you have basic tasks that if you over think it you just tend to lock up.  Now two examples of where you can over think it and you can get yourself into a little bit of a jam is one, is concentrate on your breathing.  Now don’t do this now, particularly if you’re driving your car, but if you sit down and you really focus on the breathing that you’re doing, in and out, in and out, by over thinking it in many cases you can actually hyperventilate because you’re over thinking the process.  It’s a natural process of your body of breathing in and out, but in this case you over thought it and therefore literally the brain takes over, freezes up, the natural process can’t take over and you can actually get yourself into being in a hyperventilated situation.  The other case – just listen to your heartbeat.  If you over think it, you become so focused on listening and feeling that heartbeat that you basically – anything can be going on around you and you would be totally oblivious to it.  You would become so focused; your brain has gotten so locked up on that one area.  So how do you unlock the brain?  How do you get beyond this situation?  Where you’re over thinking it?  The best example I can think of, or the best test – I shouldn’t say test, really – what I’m really meaning is, is what’s the best tools you could use – is really just to go out there and watch improv comedy.  Now if you’ve never seen improv comedy, go out and watch it.  You can get it on TV, you can go rent DVDs, you can download it from the Internet.  Whether that’s “Second City” – not “Saturday Night Live,” not standup comedy where someone has worked out a comedy routine and they just perform it – I’m talking about truly improv comedy where you have a troupe of comedians, they’re given tasks or challenges each night of their show, they have no idea what the challenge is going to be.  Someone picks it out of a hat, it comes from a suggestion from the audience, whatever it is, but they get that challenge and they have to be able to at that moment unleash their creativity to not only be able to respond to the challenge but in effect create a hugely entertaining routine and entertain the audience such that the audience feels that they’re getting value for being there and watching the whole process unfold.  Now, I’m a big lover of improv comedy.  In my case, my wife is not, so I have to fulfill my love of improv through going out with other friends or watching it on TV.  Now, again, this is not standup comedy, this is not the things that you would see, for instance, on HBO or things that you would see on “Saturday Night Live,” but this is truly improv comedy and therein lies the challenge.  Your ability to basically be given a challenge and to unleash that creativity.  And for those comedians to be successful, they have to get their brain out of the way.  They have to be able to get beyond over thinking the task and basically just let the creativity flow.  Now in my case, my favorite TV show is “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”  It originally was a British version, it’s now here in the U.S., but it’s a perfect example of having instant creativity at your fingertips.  Now, the fundamental idea behind improv is that it’s an instant challenge.  It’s unknown to the comedian or comediennes who are responding.  There’s a time constraint.  They have to be funny; they have to be able to respond to the challenge now.  Not in a week, don’t give them 24 hours.  They literally have minutes in order to respond to the challenge.  Their answer or their response to their routine must fit within a specific topic area chosen in many cases at random.  So they have to create an entire comedy routine around a doctor and a nurse but they only know that literally, you know, 60 seconds ago.  And many times elements are taken from the audience.  They’re asked from the audience things like name a job that involves working with your hands.  And the audience will yell out things – they’ll pick one and that becomes part of the comedy routine.  The routine – the result of the routine is really that it’s 100 percent unique.  No two improv comedy shows are alike, even if it’s the same troupe, even if it’s the same challenge by the fact that the audience participation it is unique.  The routine really is the purest form of instant creativity and when you’re in the zone or when you’re watching in the audience when the comedians are in the zone, you know it.  It is absolutely pure brilliance.  Now in many cases when I’ve been in brainstorming sessions or I’ve been running ideation sessions and you just get that right mix of people and you get the righ t tone from a standpoint of getting people comfortable with unleashing themselves, you also will experience the same zone, the same exhilaration watching people with that instant creativity.  That instant flow of ideas and the key there is to get people comfortable outside of their normal operating mode and to put that brain in park and just let the subconscious take over and for them to be creative.  So what are some of the games and challenges that you can be yourself that can be applied to unleashing your creativity?  Things that you can do on your own?  Well, one that I find quite useful is writing.  Now many times – I’m not really – I’m not a professional writer by my trade, but writing and communicating is an important part of my day-to-day job.  And in many cases just the fear of looking at the blank piece of paper, or in my case a blank screen whether I’m writing a script for the podcast or whether I’m writing a blog entry it is how do you get started?  So what I do is I usually run like a five or 10 minute exercise and I just sit down and I go through a couple of different options just basically to get words on paper, so one of them is pick an emotion.  Sadness, happiness, love, whatever – anger.  And re-describe the emotion without using that word.  Write a paragraph on anger without using the word anger.  Write about love, lust, happiness, sadness, depression, but write a paragraph describing the emotion without using the word.  It’s a lot harder than it sounds and it forces you to be thinking about alternative ways to describe terms or expressions.  Take a word randomly from a magazine and write an entire story, write a one-page short story by just picking a random word out of a magazine.  Take parts of a sentence, so take a first part of the sentence, first half of the sentence and write the rest of the sentence.  Complete the sentence.  Now, take that first part of the sentence and write it again, but do it with a different ending and see how many different endings to a sentence you can come up with by just taking the first couple of words of a sentence and then completing it.  And then also write a poem.  It doesn’t have to be a poem that’s going to get published.  But write a poem.  Rhyming is one of the areas that I think is another way that I use to unleash creativity.  Rhyming forces you to think differently.  You’re not worried about what the word is but you’re focusing or you’re constraining yourself to words that do rhyme, so in that case it forces you not to filter what you’re writing, you’re focusing on the rhyme.  Now moving beyond writing, another area that I use, and I’ve used this in some cases in the Killer Innovations Community Site, is using pictures.  So take a random picture, whether it’s a picture you’ve taken, or go out to Flicker or any of the photo Web sites, pick a picture – typically I like pictures with people in them – identify one person in the picture – and tell a story about them.  What’s their life like?  Write a fictional story about somebody who appears in the picture.  A gentleman in a hat wearing a brown coat, blue jeans, hands stuffed in the pockets, head down.  Maybe he’s just had a fight, you know, maybe he’s lost his job, whatever.  But look closely at someone in the picture and just sit down and write short story about what it is that they’re feeling, what it is their life is like.  What their job is.  What they’re experiencing, what their challenges are, what their dreams are.  Next is draw a picture that describes an emotion.  Now, first reaction for most of you is I’m not an artist, I’m not a drawer, I can’t draw.  Well, guess what?  Many of you, when you first started listening to this podcast, thought that you were not creative.  You weren’t innovative.  Now hopefully through the 75 plus podcasts now I’ve proven to you that anybody and everybody is creative and is innovative.  The same applies to anybody and everybody can be an artist.  Whether that’s even just a stick figure, but, sit down with a blank piece of paper and draw a picture describing an emotion.  So whether that’s love, anger, sadness, depression, hurt, tickled, whatever.  Pick a word and now describe it through picture form.  Next is a little bit more tied to what I would traditionally review as kind of an improv routine.  So look at your desk, pick up an item, any item and improv other uses for it.  So whether you know think of the coffee cup sitting on your desk, what are other uses for it?  Well, turn it upside down and put it on a doll, it could be a hat.  Put water in it, put it out on a pole out in the yard, it could be a birdbath.  Think up as many ideas as you can of alternative uses and the funnier the better.  Get creative, don’t hold back, let yourself loose on what alternative uses are for that item.  Now that’s great for individual perspective – what happens if you’ve got a team together and you want to be able to use some of these improv tools to kind of get them comfortable with letting loose and just putting that brain in park and letting their subconscious and the creative side of their mind loose.  Well, one is you can use this item exercise and in that case have a series of items, go out and find some of the wackiest things you can find.  And as your team is getting set up to start a creativity brainstorming session or an ideation session or whatever you want to call it, pick an item out of the box, pass it to the next person and they’ve got to come up with some kind of improved other use for that item.  They come up with one item, the item gets passed to the next person and they have to come up – and keep that item going around and around as long as you can.  When things start to slow down, yank that item out and hand the next item out and have it go around.  This is going to force them to get defocused out of what was happening at their desk that day, whether their boss is mad at them, whether they had a fight with their spouse, and it gets their brain comfortable and in a mode of being creative in your ideation session.  Another tool for dealing with groups is rhyming.  This is similar to writing the poem that I said you could do on an individual basis, but in this case you lay out the first line or the first line of a poem or a rhyme or maybe even you can count it as lyrics to a song, so write the first line of the song or the poem so in this case maybe it’s your challenge today is about customer care.  So you come up with the first line of a poem and maybe that line is, “Our customers make the call.”  Then each person adds a line to the poem – now it must rhyme so in this case if the first line was, “Our customers make the call,” maybe somebody – the next person in the line comes up with the response line, which is, “from their telephone stall.”  Now keep it going as long as you can.  You keep adding lines to it that must rhyme and what you’re doing there is you’re forcing people to focus on the rhyme, not on what the line is.  Now, here’s a hint.  Have somebody write down or record the rhyme that has come up with.  Why?  Because I have found that this tool actually results in some great ideas.  Why?  Well, since the members are not focusing on the words they’re saying because they’re trying to figure out the rhyme, they aren’t filtering their ideas.  What typically happens in ideation and creativity sessions is employees, managers, whoever is involved in that room tend to filter what it is they’re going to say. They filter what it is because they’re trying to not be rude, they’re not going to say things that may be purely factual but they’re not going to put it out there on the table and what you tend to find with this particular exercise is it gets out on the table.  Why?  Because they’re focusing on the rhyme and they don’t have their normal filters up because you’ve got the brain busy focusing on the rhyme, they don’t have their filters up and they come up with some great, great ideas.  So I would suggest if you do the rhyming exercise put a tape recorder on the table or have someone write down the lines as they’re being said, maybe have a scribe put them on the board because then you can go back and ask questions as to why people chose certain words and what is the real underlying meaning of that and you can use that as kind of the kick off for focusing on areas of improvement in this case, customer care.  Now keep in mind that the key with improv is you can use the improv techniques to get yourself and others outside their normal operating mode.  Get the brain focused on doing something else such that you don’t over think it and you just are simply responding.  You just are reacting.  When you’re on the spot, and you’ve got to come up with that rhyme, you’ll come up with it.  Now in some cases people may think that you’re putting pressure on them, or you’re putting them on the spot, but hey – that’s the whole idea behind creativity.  The team is being put on the spot to come up with that next killer idea or the next killer product or service.  So, again, the key with improv is that you’re using these techniques to get that brain, the logic side of the brain, focused on something such that the creative side of your brain and the subconscious can focus on just responding with the output of creativity.  Again, if you haven’t enjoyed the benefit of seeing an improv routine, find one.  Find it on the Web, find it on YouTube, go to a show, watch it on TV, borrow someone else’s tape of a show that they’ve liked and I think if you look at the tools and watch them – see what games they play and see what you can adapt to your ideation session or your creativity session that you do with your teams.


This week’s “Killer Question” is about asking questions.  This last week I was down in Orlando meeting with Disney and had an opportunity to look through some of the materials and some of the tools and methods that are used by the Disney imagineers.  Now the Disney imaginers, you can think of them really as being Disney R&D.  These are the teams of individuals that come up with all of the new Disney World, Disney Land, Disney Tokyo, Disney Hong Kong, Disney France rides and attractions.  Now if you’ve ever been to the parks (or if you haven’t you should figure out some way to get to one of the amusement parks) but you just sit back and you look at the overall immersive experience, the creativity that goes into creating one of those rides and attractions.  And when you sit down and you talk to the Disney imagineers and you talk about how they come up with this from the standpoint of their creativity sessions, they basically ask themselves three questions based on a challenge and the questions arehow.  The other question is why, and the third question is what other way.  How, why and what other way.  So, for example, imagine if you were a Disney imagineer and you were tasked to come up with a way that someone could jump 50 feet in the air.  Fifty feet in the air and you’re not constrained by cost, time or even physics.  So how many can you come up with?  Come on, how many?  Be honest now.  Obviously you start with the obvious ones, the super-sized trampolines, springs in the bottom of your shoes.  And some of you may have even gone to the extreme with liquid fueled jet packs.  But ask yourself these questions.  How would someone jump 50 feet in the air?  Why would that idea work?  What’s the basics behind the idea that would make it work?  And then what would be another way to get them 50 feet in the air?  What would be another way using your first idea, building upon that?  So, a super-sized trampoline?  What would be another way of using a trampoline and something else, and then you just repeat the process.  So ask how, why and what would be another way?  Those three simple questions can hopefully unlock some ideas for your next ideation session.


This week’s closing thought really ties into this whole theme of improv; creativity and really letting yourself go.  Putting the brain that’s your logic side, that kind of puts the constraints on you and how you should act, really I think what I would call is it puts the adult in the adult and in some cases we have to get the adult out of us so that we can be more child-like.  And this week’s closing thought is from Cynthia Heimel.  Now her view is very unique, she’s a writer and she’s basically a humorist, writes books that are comedy-driven, very different, unique topics.  But her quote I think is really one that just hits it right on the head:  “When in doubt make a fool of yourself.  There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth, so what the heck; leap.”


Thanks for listening to this week’s podcast; I look forward to hearing your feedback and thoughts on this and all of the shows.  Send your feedback to If you wish to connect with me directly you can connect with me via LinkedIn, just send me an invite via the LinkedIn site to  Please note that you are a podcast listener and I’ll accept the invite.  For more information on creativity and innovation and updated and recent articles on the whole space of innovation and creativity go ahead and visit the Web site at  As many of you know, my drive to producing the podcast is to pay it forward as a result of a promise I made to one of my early mentors.  If you’re enjoying the content, all that I ask is that you pay it forward by telling others.  Feel free to post your comments on the Killer Innovations site, or post your comments on any of the podcast sites that you visit regularly whether that be digg, PodcastAlley, iTunes or wherever.


And thanks again for taking the time to listen.  I do know it takes a lot of time out of your busy schedule to listen to the podcast and I do truly appreciate the time.  We’ll be back soon with another episode and until then, be creative in everything you do.  Bye-bye.


[End of Audio]

Zoom - Video Collaboration That Doesn't Suck  - Is a sponsor of the Killer Innovations Show

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “Improv Innovation – Using improv comedy tools/tricks to innovate