Improvisation and Innovation

According to Wikipedia Innovation is defined simply as a “new idea, device, or method”. However, innovation is often also viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market need”

While Wikipedia defines Improvisation as a “broad term referring to the process of devising an atypical method to solving a problem due to lack of time or resources. In a technical context, this can mean adapting a device for some use other than that which it was designed for, or building a device from unusual components in an ad-hoc fashion. Improvisation as a context of performing arts is a very spontaneous performance without specific preparation. The skills of improvisation can apply to many different faculties, across all artistic, scientific, physical, cognitive, academic, and non-academic disciplines”

In many ways these two elements are made for each other. Many large organisations use improvisation skills sessions to support innovative thinking within teams and departments. It is vital to align the learning potential of improvisation with the purpose of a team or project in order to maximise the value of the experience. For the vast majority of participants it will be their first experience of improvisation and they may well fear that they will have to be adept, polished and amusing or end up “letting the team down” They may pre-emptively question the purpose and relevance of an improvisation session in the context of their work. This may be a subtle defence against feeling embarrassed or incompetent in front of their peers.

It is at this point that I shall boldly take exception to this portion of the Wikipedia definition of performance improvisation “a very spontaneous performance without specific preparation” Au contraire Wikipedia, performance improvisation requires a lot of highly specific preparation. Performance improvisers need a shared language which supports and enables collaboration. They need a set of functional principles and techniques which build trust and rapport so they are willing to take risks together and create a compelling spontaneous performance.

The same applies to using improvisation to support innovation. Successful professionals who work in the realm of innovation are generally highly educated; at a recent Innovation conference I stood by the check in desk and out of 180 delegate badges I counted 90 with “Dr” or “Professor” before their names! This is an audience that has learned to follow procedure and conform to a rigorous process of education. The paradox is that their roles require divergent and disruptive thinking and attitudes – especially in the era of companies such as Airbnb and Uber. With specific preparation organisations can have the best of both worlds. By establishing a culture where – in the right time and place –  it is impossible to make a mistake then the talents of their best people can be drawn out so they feel free to truly innovate. Improvisers know how hard it is to sit and generate new ideas by themselves and how thrilling it is to share the spark of creativity with like-minded individuals. Improvisation can resolve the paradox of mature and accomplished doctors and professors wanting to be spontaneous and, in a certain way, naïve in approaching situations.

Improvisation can bring out an element of playful curiosity in highly trained professional people and undermine the societal idea that learning must serious to be productive and that simple enjoyment is a waste of time. By blending intellectual rigour with emotional lightness and collaboration truly new methods of problem solving can emerge and take hold in organisations. A match made in heaven!

Posted on 2nd December 2016 in Improvisation, Innovation

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