I am often asked about how improv can be used in Idea Generation. I’m asked because I’ve done improv in Chicago at the schools there (IO and Players Workshop of Second City) and I do Idea Generation as a business. While I’m not a serious candidate for Whose Line Is It Anyway, I have learned, and integrated, the basics into how I think. As for Idea Generation/Brainstorming/Corporate Problem Solving it’s practically all I do these days, so, I’d likely make that All Star team.
Call me the spitballer who mixes pitches like structured problem solving and improvisation.
Let me state it simply: You can adapt classic comedy improvisation games to help solve serious business problems. You can use these adapted games in all phases of problem solving — not just ideation — to explore challenges, generate ideas, and get into action. Adapting games is not that hard if you understand what kind of thinking a game tends to generate, and, if you understand how to convert stimulus the games give you into ideas you can use.
Why you’d want to is straight forward: it’s hard to get people thinking differently. Improv games are an incredibly great way to get people thinking differently. It just need to be focused.
Maintaining a fresh atmosphere is always difficult across a full day workshop, and that’s where I use improvisation games in my sessions. But it’s more than just energy management. It’s part of the process.
I organize my work, typically, around a creative problem solving process called CPS. CPS has three phases:
- Exploration – figuring out objectives, what’s going on, and ways to frame problems
- Idea Generation – coming up with ideas to answer or solve the problem frame
- Action Planning – refining and amp-ing up ideas, creating exciting plans
What I’ve done is taken classic improvisation games, and adapt them for use in exploration, ideation, or implementation.
For instance, in challenge exploration I can set a scene where people talk about the challenge at hand. I then have walk on’s come into the scene and ask “dumb” questions, or take actions that take the original problem explorers in a new direction. I do a lot of active coaching in order to get more things going in the scene. Meanwhile, I have the audience part of the group making observation notes. When the scene is over, we do a structured debrief around the scene and chart a divergent set of objectives, we list facts, feelings, and discuss problem frames. We then narrow these lists down through dialog, clustering, and voting.
Nearly any improv game can be used as “stimuli”. You simply have to structure the game content (the “who, what, where”) to be somewhat relevant to the task at hand. Players create the stimuli, the Audience make observations of what’s going on. These observations are sometimes random thoughts, sometimes questions, and sometimes ideas that directly address what we’re trying to accomplish. What improvisation games do a great job of is getting people out of the typical way of thinking about something. They provide an avenue for more spontaneous or tangential thinking. This “new” thinking is then harnessed by the whole group as launch pads, or starting points for new ideation.
You might think this requires experienced improvisers, but in reality, it does not. Experience would help, but with a bit of training, and a bit of courage, anybody can improvise – for this purpose. Our intent with adapted improv games in business is not to be funny. Our intent is to learn from the game. Even very poorly done improv can be a rich learning experience, and an energizing one. Viola Spolin, who invented many of these games, designed them so actors could learn to be spontaneous, and learn how “not to act, but to be”.
And “being” creative is where it all starts, for spitballers, improvisors, and corporate problem solvers and innovators.