Innovation at the speed of laughter

Six improvisational insights the Brave New Workshop uses to help companies enhance employee creativity and performance.

By Brian Bellmont

Minnesotans tend to know the Brave New Workshop, the oldest satirical comedy theater in the country, for its smart and edgy improv and sketch comedy and school of improvisation. But what few realize is that the company-which moved into a new theater and corporate event center in downtown Minneapolis in November-uses the tenets of improvisation to make a significant impact on how some of the world's most respected corporations approach idea generation, employee engagement and business innovation.

Its creative outreach division has built a national reputation for its speeches, training and message delivery methods, using improv-based techniques to teach skills and behaviors that help leaders to build a better workplace.

"Everything we do to help corporate clients become more innovative stems from the improvisational mindset," says Brave New Workshop Co-owner John Sweeney. "We've been fortunate to work with some of the best companies in the whole world-Microsoft, General Mills, Medtronic, Ingersoll Rand, the NBA, Hilton/Hampton- it's the fastest-growing part of our business."

Here are six improv-based ideas from the Brave New Workshop that can help boost innovation in your organization:

1. Accept all ideas.

Improvisers accept that whatever idea presents itself is a gift, and they value its potential. Too often, people start judging and editing an idea based on assumptions and fear. Fight that urge and respect the idea giver, even if your first inclination is to tell your colleague why it won't work.

2. Defer judgment.

In the idea-generation process, quantity is more important than quantity. "One of the best ways to generate a lot of ideas is to reward people for the number of ideas they produce, not how good the idea is," Sweeney says. "You're not encouraging them to come up with the idea, but an idea. Being critical during the early stages of the process discourages others from contributing in the future." 

3. Declare.

Improvisers declare their point of view "loudly, clearly, quickly and respectfully" in order to lay the foundation to build a scene. "The same thing is true in the workplace," Sweeney says. "It's no longer OK to not declare your point of view. A disengaged or quiet team member simply isn't contributing."

4. Appreciate different styles and points of view.

Improvisers know that in order to make the scene interesting and innovative, they need to have as many different and varied points of view as possible. When a team embraces their differences as an asset, the possibilities are endless.

5. Embrace "Yes, and!" The most common phrase in the study of improvisation is "Yes, and!"-which is also key to corporate culture-building. "Yes" is the attitude of acceptance and possibility. "And" refers to the actions that are necessary to build and create the innovative solution.

6. See change as fuel.

Improvisers know that the next great idea lies just on the other side of change. They anticipate change in a positive way to capitalize on the opportunities it brings. "Improvisers don't look at change as an obstacle or risk; they see it as fuel, a propellant to the next part of the solution," Sweeney says.