Think like an improviser to drive big ideas

Innovation. The word strikes excitement and fear in the leaders with whom I work. The good news: True innovation is grounded in everyday behaviors, and improvisation is your guide.

Improvisers arrive onstage without a script and must create entire one-act plays on the fly. It sounds terrifying, yet improv has guidelines that allow collaboration and innovation in the moment.

I’ve spent years teaching Fortune 100 clients how to implement those behaviors to drive innovation.

Say ‘yes, and’

An improv troupe can create scenes out of thin air because of the foundational principle, “Yes, and.” No matter what I contribute onstage, my troupe would immediately agree with me (“yes”) and add onto my idea (“and”). So if I declared, “I’m a warrior queen!” a fellow improviser would say, “Yes, you are my warrior queen, and I’m your shield bearer!”

This behavior is critical to innovative teams because it allows all ideas to be heard.

We worked with an insurance company that realized great ideas from its call centers weren’t bubbling up. Once someone hears “No,” they’re statistically less likely to ever contribute again. One frustrated employee took her idea to a competitor. It saved the competitor 2 to 10 cents per call, which over thousands of calls is significant.

“Yes, and” encourages contribution. Some managers are afraid it means they have to accept anything their team says. On the contrary, “yes, and” is about saying, “Yes, I hear you. And let’s discuss this idea and please continue to contribute.” An environment of acceptance, discussion and addition allows tiny ideas to be vetted, rather than trashed before we know if they’ll work.

It’s not always obvious

A funny aspect of innovation is that good ideas seem obvious to creative people. They fix problems, mess around with processes and innovate without knowing they’re doing it. On the improv stage, that’s called thinking upside down.

If everybody does something one way, a good improv troupe will try to do it in the opposite way for humor. It upends our preconceived notions and creates surprise onstage.

More than 20 years ago, one of my clients noticed that packaging was taking up expensive shelf-space. She created ways to package more compactly with 50 percent less materials than competitors. When she first introduced the idea to global retailers, they were flabbergasted by the cost-savings.

Gender differences, team equity

Over the years working with many teams, I’ve noticed a key gender difference around innovation. Women are more willing to start over. They’ll fail, start over, get another degree, switch careers, etc. They seem to have less fear about being a beginner again.

Ironically, when the stakes are high, men are far more likely to take big risks. They bet more money and commit more resources.

The reason I note this is to encourage you to engage in team equity. Team equity means, “different yet all with an ownership stake.” A good improv troupe knows that diverse talents onstage make a good show; teams need greater diversity in order to innovate. Greater diversity in all senses can only fuel innovation more.

So next time you’re stuck, think like an improviser.


Karen Hough is the Founder and CEO of ImprovEdge LLC. Karen, an Amazon best-selling author, Yale graduate, winner of the Stevie Award for Most Innovative Business of the Year and the WNBA Inspiring Woman Award, uses improvisation as a learning catalyst for Fortune 100 clients.