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Spark Much-Needed Innovation With Improv

The science behind comedy, what we find funny, as well as how to make something funny, can be leveraged for great business profit.

June 2, 2009
Related Topics: Technology
KEYWORDS technology
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Amidst endless headlines about layoffs and budget cuts, we could all use a little comic relief. Not only is it good for the soul, but according to Amy K Hutchens, founder and intelligence activist for AmyK Inc., a business consultancy, it’s also good for the business.

“We don’t believe that innovation is limited to labs any more than we think improv is confined to a stage,” said Hutchens, who holds a master’s degree in education with an emphasis in brain research. “I always look at it from what’s going on inside your head. When one thought in your brain literally connects with another thought, you get that ‘eureka’ idea, that new approach.”

She explained that theater games such as improvisational comedy facilitate such moments. “It’s a business tool to foster and facilitate the connections of those disparate concepts. And you can transfer that innovative state in the brain back to the business topic at hand.”

For the past 17 years, Hutchens has applied her knowledge of brain waves to helping companies spark innovation. One of her most fascinating finds is that the science behind comedy — what we find funny, as well as how to make something funny — can be leveraged for great business profit.

To that end, Hutchens offered three tips based on standard principles of improvisational comedy to generate new ideas in the workplace:

Go Socratic. “Socrates once asked, ‘What’s the benefit of answering a question with another question?’” Hutchens said. “That’s my point. Answer a question with more questions. Let me explore all the possibilities. That’s what improv [is].”

Affirm and add. “It’s the Golden Rule in improv: You never negate — never,” Hutchens said. “For instance, onstage, if one actor were to say, ‘Hey, look at the purple tiger,’ and you respond with, ‘That’s not a purple tiger,’ you’ve just killed the theme. But when you affirm and add to it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, and look, it’s carrying off our 401(k) plans!’ then you’ve just expanded the theme and made it grow.

“The same is true in brainstorming and problem solving,” she continued. “It’s important to accept all ideas, no matter their absurdity, no matter whether they’re going to work or not, because often the craziest ideas in a brainstorming session that seem like they’ll never work lead to the most innovative solutions.”

Question both your own and others’ assumptions. It’s important to remain flexible and, if necessary, let go of prior beliefs to accept new possibilities, Hutchens said.

“[For example], you might have the idea that you’re going to go onstage and you’re going to play the mother [in an improv exercise],” she said. “But all of a sudden the [other] actor comes back and says, ‘Hey, sis!’ That’s when you have to know that your assumption about how that theme is to be played has just been thwarted, and in order for you to respond and respond well, you have to let go of your preconceived ideas.

“The same is true of innovation,” she continued. “True genius, new ideas — they only get created when people step outside their assumptions and break through those barriers that confine their thinking.”

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