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Live from the Front End of Innovation 2015: Michelle James on Applied Improv to Promote Innovative Thinking

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You can never go bananas over baguettes.

That was the moral of a story I created with a partner, in which our hero found that a banana is an inferior dueling weapon compred to a baguette.

No, I'm not kidding, and neither was Michelle James when she gave us the exercise of telling stories in which our partners threw in random, irrelevant words that we had to incorporate immediately. Underneath all of the laughs and hijinks of improv exercises were powerful lessons for how to build a team and engage in productive and creative ideation processes.

This is my fourth time in James's improv workshop at FEI, and what amazes me the most is how she is able to highlight different lessons each time. The energy and excitement in the room, combined with the profound change in the crowd over the course of a mere 75 minutes illustrates the stunning power of improv (and our fearless facilitator!).

You can't just jump into creativity -- warm up first!

The workshop began with some basic ground rules, like making everyone look good, that serve as a basis for building trust. But, we can't just take those rules and get into hard core, freewheeling imagination. The story exercise above came last, and we all admitted that it would have been nearly impossible as a first exercise. Over the course of several activities, James warmed everyone up and highlighted different rules that help not just the improv process, but the innovation process (and she had case examples to back that!).

Serve the scene

It's hard to step out of your comfort zone! There's fear of judgment, fear of the unknown, and fear of incompetence, and all three can inhibit creativity. The trick, however, is to recognize that the process is not about the individual; it's about the outcome. If we can keep our focus on "serving the scene," we find ourselves caring not about whether we look bad, but whether the result looks good. In doing so, we become less inhibited and more willing to take the kinds of smart risks that people can build on to make a stunning product.

Trust the process (and your partner!)

In serving the scene, we also learn how to build rapport with the team, and over the course of several exercises, we found that it was increasingly easier to open up and trust our partners not just to give good input, but to augment our contributions and treat them as important (another rule of improv). But, that trust doesn't come immediately -- it builds over the course of multiple exercises as different partners prove to us, over and over, that we are in good hands.

By the time storytelling came around, we were ready to make a meaningful product...one word at a time!

About the author
Orin C. Davis is a self-actualization engineer who enables people to do and be their best. His consulting focuses on making workplaces great places to work, and his research is on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. In addition to being the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory, the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark, a science advisor at Happify, and an advisor at FutureIdeas. Dr. Davis is an adjunct professor of Psychology and Management at Baruch College and a lecturer in Critical and Creative Thinking at UMass Boston. He writes and speaks avidly about human capital, creativity and innovation, and positive psychology. (@DrOrinDavis)

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