I just got back from a really interesting PDMA event (Improv for Innovation) on how to use improvisational skills to enhance brainstorming sessions.
Improvisation has a very strong connection to creative thinking because both require people to think in an open-minded "building" fashion.
In Improv, actors depend on the phrase "yes, and" to keep the action going. "yes, and" means that they have to build off whatever the actor before them said or did - not matter what it was!
So if the previous actor jumped off a cliff, or lost a leg, the next actor has to keep going in that direction - or they risk bring the play to a screeching halt.
Creativity has a similar need for "yes, and". When someone voices an idea, and another person pipes up with "But that will never work!", it kills the will to innovate! No one wants to put forth an idea that will immediately be shot down - or invest time thinking in a direction if someone tells them it was all a waste of time and they had to start over!
So, I was really excited to go to this PDMA event and hear about creative thinking from a master of improv.
Stevie Ray of Stevie Ray’s Improv Company started off by talking about how our brains spend most of their time doing logical patterned thinking.
As a result, your brain doesn’t have to do mental gymnastics to drive to work in the morning, or while you’re thinking of the work you do every day. Your brain knows how to get from Point A to Point B in a consistent, orderly and extremely efficient fashion.
That type of thinking breaks down though when you want to come up with fresh ideas. Then your brain travels down those same well-worn paths in your memory to generate ideas - none of which are groundbreaking at all.
Stevie Ray's solution was to use exercises to force your brain out of its normal pathways and into “whole brain thinking” (where your brain is engaged on all fronts and thus has the greatest innovative potential).
Sounds like Lateral Thinking, right?!!! Except Stevie Ray's approach is a little different. He focuses on pushing your brain out of standard situations to where it has to be more aware and responsive to its surroundings.
One way he taught us to do that is to play games full of randomness. Basically, when your brain doesn’t know what to expect next, it forces itself wide open. The game we tried last night was called “Pass the Clap” where a group forms a circle and people try to “pass” a hand-clap along. The goal is to have the person in charge of giving the clap and the person next to them (the receiver) to clap their hands at the same time.
It turns out, this exercise is extremely hard! Both people had to pay attention with all their senses to time their clapping motions at the exact same time. But it was also very energizing and pushed us out of our normal inhibitions.
Then Stevie Ray taught us how to get our minds into an innovating mode through an interesting spin off the "yes, and" improv technique.
In almost every ideation session, whenever someone comes up with an idea, someone else’s first impulse is to respond to that idea with a “yes, but…[insert reason that idea won’t work]”.
Stevie Ray’s exercise was to get everyone to respond to an idea by asking “what do you like about this idea?” By asking even the skeptics to justify why an idea was good, the exercise pushed people beyond immediately dismissing that idea.
During the session, we spent a little time practicing this technique - and it was fascinating to watch people struggle! You could tell that the first impulse of most PDMA's attendees was to come up with objections to an idea - and this forced them to think differently.
The one thing I noticed about this innovation technique though was that it was missing a step to keep innovation moving. The tendency was for particpants to be too supportive: they would keep coming up with ideas why an idea was good, instead of supporting the idea and then coming up with another one.
My company, Ideas To Go, does a really good job of this with our similar technique called Forness Thinking. When someone comes up with an idea, we ask them what they like about the idea AND what they wish for to make it better. And then we use that the wishes as stimulus to generate new ideas.
Overall, a fascinating evening on innovation!
I highly recommend going to PDMA events in your city for anyone who is interested in learning about product development and marketing. And if you want to see the creative mindset on display, check out a local innovation event. Stevie Ray's Improv Comedy group performs regularily in the Twin Cities.