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What can a comedy theater teach us about innovation?

September 2, 2009

I heard John Sweeney give an enthusiastic and inspiring talk about innovation to the engineering and scientific audience at Medtronic a few years ago.  Included in his book was this handy card summarizing the innovation process and guidelines he used with his team at the Brave New Workshop. You’ll notice that the process and guidelines are quite similar to other processes you may have seen, such as those used at IDEO.  What can a comedy theater teach us about innovation?  My takeaway was that there are fundamental principles to the process of innovation that can be applied in any situation in which unanticipated, breakthrough, customer-thrilling outcomes are desired.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2009 6:47 am

    The most important rule in improv comedy is phrased different ways; at Second City it was “Yes, and…” Ideas are always accepted and built upon. If somebody suddenly indicates that you’re in a submarine when you were in a kitchen the moment before, you don’t ignore it or deny it. Doing either of those things stops the flow and interaction dead. Instead you try to expand on what you’re given. Often this is the germ of something funny, but more importantly it keeps everyone engaged and contributing.

    Other improv comedy games work well in a brainstorming context. For instance there’s one where a moderator can stop the action at any instant (with a gong, say) and “rewind” the dialogue. The moderator indicates the beginning of the sentence they want replaced, and the person who said it comes up with something different right then. Usually there will be three or four iterations on the sentence before the moderator is satisfied and the action proceeds. This might appear to be counter to the “Yes, and” philosophy but there is only one person with the “deny” capability and their role is fairly limited (if they exercise their power too many times in a skit it suffers). The game drills into the players the ability to replace boring, stereotyped ideas with a variety of unusual ones.

    These sorts of improv skills can apply to any situation where a small group of people need to come up with interesting ideas quickly. Other important comedy skills like callbacks, dramatic structuring, or composing rhyming lyrics on the fly may not be as broadly applicable.

  2. September 15, 2009 8:06 am

    youooo cennnnoooot teaach me … nooottting ! hehehe

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