“In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.” — Tina Fey
While it may feel like we are in an innovation revolution given all the technological advances made in recent decades, some data suggests that we may actually be innovating at a decreasing rate of velocity. A 2019 Harvard Business Review article — Why the U.S. Innovation Ecosystem Is Slowing Down? points out that the share of investment into researching new innovations has fallen by nearly 50% over the past half century. Much of this contraction in the innovation ecosystem stems from a shift away from larger corporations conducting both research and development of new innovations 60 years ago (i.e. Bell Labs) toward a division of labor environment today where universities engage in the research piece, and corporations work on the development side. Of course, any division of labor framework is predicated upon the belief that by dividing the labor responsibilities allows for greater specialization.
While well intended, the shift in the division of R&D labor over the past six decades may have created more specialized researchers and developer’s, but in so doing may also have stifled the innovation ecosystem. There is a disconnection between research and commercialization. While patent portfolio formation has served as a partial substitute for scholarship at some colleges, in many cases the patents may possess some flaw that makes commercialization not feasible.
As innovation slows, so does idea exchange.
We have all been there. You find yourself in a room with others tasked with solving a problem or creating something new. You feel unsure about sharing your idea, but you muster the will to speak up. As soon as someone else responds with “no” which often comes camouflaged in statements like “that’s already been tried” or “that’s not feasible’ or “it’s too costly”, “or “that already exists” that person has just successfully killed the idea and the potential conversation around the idea. In fact, unbeknownst to the naysayer, they are unintentionally stifling innovation. So, what can be done reduce the frequency of these occurrences where idea exchange is crippled, and instead create a climate for accelerated innovation. These types of large-scale problems are often best addressed initially through the micro level of organizations where igniting cultural shifts is not easy, but a bit more manageable than industry wide changes.
Enter stage left — Improvisation.
What is improvisation and how can it help make our organizations more innovative and entrepreneurial? At its core, improv is making something out of nothing. Entrepreneurs and improv comedians share many of the same attributes and leveraging the two together can yield some wonderful results. Both experienced entrepreneurial leaders and improv comedians create something out of nothing, make decisions based upon customer feedback, rapidly adapt to change, function well within conditions of uncertainty, build trust among colleagues, communicate with empathy and clarity, and have an uncanny ability to make decisions with limited information.
There are several key improv principles that entrepreneurial leaders can consider integrating into the cultural fabric of their organizations to help promote and yield greater innovation faster. The first principle is widely known, and referred to as “Yes, and…” When you are trying to innovate or build an innovative culture, one simple word alone can derail the entire effort. Saying no when someone shares an idea holds back the potential for cool things to happen. This principle is central to improvisation. By saying “yes” you are recognizing reality, and by saying “and” you are signaling a willingness to build upon that reality. When you only say “yes” to someone’s statement or idea and leave out “and…”. you are validating the idea, but not indicating a willingness to collaborate. Once you say “Yes, and…” you make someone else’s idea a group idea. Kelly Leonard from the famed Second City improv company explained in a book he co-authored called Yes, and that to build a culture of spontaneous idea creation, you must be willing to affirm (yes) and contribute (and) in order to explore and heighten.
We know that leadership appears in many ways. Many think that the first mover to speak up is the leader. Others believe that leadership rests, not with the person that goes first, but rather the person that is the first to follow along and validates the initiator that first shared the idea. Yes, and provides an opportunity for leaders to cultivate leadership through developing a culture of collaboration that supports and builds upon ideas of any kind. Every time, someone says “yes, and…” to an idea, they are taking on the role of becoming the first follower, and as such demonstrating leadership. After all, we all want effective leaders in our organizations that we can trust and rely upon time after time. The “yes, and…” improv approach can help foster such a culture, while at the same time nurture the development of first follower leaders.
While we know that all ideas are not necessarily good ideas, the last thing an entrepreneurial leader wants to do is shut down idea generation. Let us assume a person has an idea, that is not very actionable or viable. If that person shares the idea and it is stopped in its tracks with a snarky comment, or a simple statement from a colleague like “that’s not a very good idea”, the person that shared the idea is far less likely to share other ideas in the future for fear of ridicule, and that next idea may have been the best one yet.
A second principle to improvisation is that there are no mistakes, no wrong way of doing something. Many individuals are reticent to give things a go out of fear that mistakes may occur, and blame will be directed their way. It is difficult as a leader to redirect the culture of an organization to reframe the meaning of mistakes from being something bad to being wonderful happy accidents for learning about what is going on, what is working and what is not, and through those lessons an entrepreneurial leader is able to galvanize the team to venture ahead. Cultivating a no mistakes mindset also helps nurture confidence, innovation, and collaboration.
In many ways, the improv refrain that there are no mistakes aligns closely to a pillar of effectual logic, the lemonade principle. Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, developed the model of effectuation to provide a framework of how expert entrepreneurs think and operate. By codifying five core attributes that these experienced entrepreneurs share, we can extract a deeper understanding of how to make decisions under resource constrained and extremely uncertain conditions. Dr. Sarasvathy describes one of these effectual building blocks — the lemonade principle — mistakes and surprises are inevitable and can be used to look for new opportunities. Improv best practices can help individuals to identify opportunity where others see problems.
Improv also helps train us to play the scene we are in, by operating in the present. If you are not prepared to be flexible to sudden changes, you can end up missing opportunities. We all want to engage in work and life activities that we enjoy, bring us pleasure and make us grow and develop. But sometimes, more often than we realize, we find ourselves in a “scene” we would rather not be part of, or a scene that catches us off guard. What do we do? Sometimes we stumble, freeze, or misstep. The unexpected challenges we all face do not reveal the person that we were, but rather the person that we are. Undoubtedly, how we react to an unexpected scene that is thrust upon us can take us in many directions. When leading an organization, a project, a startup business, people will look to you when things suddenly go awry. Your ability to adapt, remain calm, adjust to the new circumstances, and embrace these changes as opportunities will put your team, the ensemble at ease, and consequently everyone is better able to focus on the challenge at hand. What turns out to be a highly controllable situation can cascade out of control when people choose to abandon the scene in which they are unexpectedly in.
There are endless improv attributes, exercises, activities, and trainings that can and do help individuals and organizations to become more innovative and creative. These skills are needed more today because of the rising tide of uncertainty we face moving forward. Being able to not only survive, but flourish in a world filled with ambiguity, constraints, and challenges will determine whether we are able to turn back on the wave of innovation needed to meet today’s challenges. The question is whether organizations and their entrepreneurial leaders can create a culture that allows for the principles of improv to have their place, and learn to embrace the profound learning that can result from shifting from a conventional to an improvisational mindset.