Improv Innovation – Using improv comedy tools/tricks to innovate

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 comedy to challenge not only you but your teams to new levels of creativity and innovation?

improv comedy and innovation

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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.

Creative Auto-Pilot Mode

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.

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.

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.  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?

Improv Comedy

The best example I can think of, or 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 stand-up 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.

I’m a big lover of improv comedy.  In my case, my wife is not, so I have to fulfill my love of improv comedy through going out with other friends or watching it on TV.  Now, again, this is not stand-up 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.

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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.

The fundamental idea behind improv comedy 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.

Improve and Brainstorming

Now in many cases when I’ve been in brainstorming sessions and you just get that right mix of people and you get the right 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.  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?

Creative Writing Exercise Based on Improv Comedy

So what I do is I usually run like a five or 10 minute exercise and I just sit down and 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.

Other Creativity Exercises

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.

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.  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 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.

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Team Exercises For Creativity

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.

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.  As your team is getting set up to start a creativity brainstorming session, 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.

Dropping The Filters

What typically happens in ideation and brainstorming 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 comedy 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.

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 comedy 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.

If you haven’t enjoyed the benefit of seeing an improv comedy 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. Watch is and see what games they play and see what you can adapt to your ideation session that you do with your teams.


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