Eureka! How improv can help with innovation

Taking an improv intensive at The Second City here in Toronto over the summer was one of the most fun things I’ve done. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, you’ll see that it’s both a very creative and challenging process. But there’s method to this madness that has brought so many people much laughter.

First, it’s all about saying YES to ideas. For example, while staging a scene, if your fellow actor or actress were to say, “I like the colour or your lipstick.”, your response should be all about carrying the conversation forward. If you were to say, “Well, no I’m not wearing lipstick.”, you’ve just BLOCKED the other person. Similarly, while brainstorming of a product idea, innovators must remain open to play and say yes to move the conversation forward. Improv is also about bringing the child in you to life again and breaking the associations we’ve made as rational adults. Fundamental improv training aims to break some of these really fundamental associations. One of the games we played was about breaking the association between what you’re doing and what you’re saying. For example, if I were pretending to ride a bike and my team mate asked me “What are you doing?”, I would reply, “I’m ironing my clothes”. The goal was say something random and not the current action I was involved in.

It’s also absolutely amazing for improving your mental focus. We played a number of warm-up exercises aimed at keeping both our mental and physical concentration high. In a circle of 20 people, we passed around a clap to a random person only after making eye contact. The person receiving the clap then had to pass the clap on and the process went on. Then, the teacher threw in an imaginary red ball into the circle. The person receiving the red ball had to say ‘red ball’ twice. Once while receiving it and then while passing it on to another person in the circle with whom they had established eye contact with. Then our instructor threw in two other balls – a yellow ball and a blue ball. If you were paying attention, now there are four things being passed around in this 20 person circle – a clap, and three imaginary balls – red, blue, and yellow.

To top it off, the instructor told us at the start of this exercise that as a group we had to count through 40. No instructions on who was to say what number. Only that one person was to count at a time and if two people called out a number at the same time, we had to start the counting process again. The clap and balls had to keep moving. To keep things in check, every minute or so the instructor would stop us and ask us where the clap and the balls where. We made a number of mistakes the first day but after just a couple of sessions, neither the balls or the numbers were lost. Suddenly, I had realized that group had reached an almost meditative state. We were communicating extremely effectively with each other to accomplish a fairly cognitively intensive task.

These kind of concentration exercises where you have to hold a number of different ideas in your head simultaneously and remain focused in a semi-structured way can help amp up one’s creativity. If you’re an intrapreneur or entrepreneur, there’s no mistaking as to how improv can help you see the world with fresh eyes again. Creativity at its core is about making associations between seemingly unrelated concepts. When this happens, it’s a gift to the world whether it’s a great moment of laughter, a beautiful piece of code, or a great product insight.

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