Is improv the key to innovative teams?

Post written by Chris Spagnuolo. Follow Chris on Twitter 18 comments

According to Webster’s Dictionary the word improvise means

“to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously; to make, invent, or arrange offhand; to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand”.

I actually prefer the definition of improvisation that Wikipedia provides though. According to Wikipedia, improvisation is

“the practice of acting and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of ones immediate environment. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols and/or new ways to act. This invention cycle occurs most effectively when the practitioner has a thorough intuitive or technical understanding of the necessary skills and concerns within the improvised domain.”

Wow, now that’s a definition! But what I love about this definition is that it recognizes the link between the response to the immediate environment and the invention of new thought patterns. In short, it recognizes that improvisation and innovation are intimately linked.

Most people associate improv with acting or comedy. But, you don’t have to be an actor or a comedian to apply improvisation to your work. In fact, I think there is more opportunity for improvisation in the professional world than most people think. Gary LaBranche of the Association Forum of Chicagoland says:

“Board meetings and committee meetings, dialogue with colleagues and other everyday situations give professionals plenty of opportunities for improvisational responses. Improv is all about adapting to constant change and unexpected situations, which is familiar territory for most professionals.”

I think Gary’s statement is right on the money. We have more opportunities to use improv as professionals than we realize. In fact, a few weeks ago, I wrote about Pixar and their use of improv in their creative process. Pixar boils down their use of improv to two essential principles:

1. Accept every offer. You don’t know where that offer is going to go. But one thing is for sure: If you don’t accept that offer, it’s going nowhere! So you have a sure thing on one hand: a dead end. And you have possibility on the other.

2. Make you partner look good. That means that everybody on your team is going to try to make you look good and vice versa. It’s about saying “Here’s where I’m starting. What can I do with this?”.

I think Pixar was able to break down their use of Improv into these two principles because of their long, shared experience with improv. I like these two essentials principles of improvisation for innovation, but wanted to expand on a few other principles for teams and organizations that are just starting to experiment or have never used improv before. So, to add to Pixar’s principles, I would advise those new at improv think about these as well:

1. Keep questioning what works. Good is the enemy of great. When something is really awful, we know we need to fix it, and we usually do. But when something is good, we settle. We don’t necessarily think about how we can make it better. So, take a look at what you do everyday. Consider the things that are good and ask yourself or your team “Can this be better?”

2. Be a risk taker and take chances. Sure, you can do things the way you’ve always done it. And you’ll probably get predictable results and that might be good enough for you. But if you want to be innovative, you need to break through barriers, take risks, take chances. You may not always be successful when you take chances, but if you don’t, you won’t ever have the chance to really innovate. The most innovative companies and creative people have failed more than they have succeeded. But, when they did succeed, it’s been with market-changing and world-changing innovations.

3. Always be changed by what is said and what happens. Innovative people and innovative teams always uncover new information. But more than uncovering new information, they learn to react to that new information. Instead of locking up when change comes along, these innovative people let that change inspire new ideas and let what unfolds next guide them on. They welcome and thrive on change. And they allow themselves to be changed. They have the beginner’s mind and are always able to learn and change.

4. Create shared, dynamic plans and agendas. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry right? We’ve all heard that a thousand times before. So, why stick to a plan that is going awry? The answer…DON’T. Abandon them to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. That’s right, ABANDON them. Let your plans and agendas emerge in real-time in response to what’s right there in front of you.

5. Be fully present and engaged. So, you get your team to abandon static, concrete plans. You’ve gotten out of planning and into being. But, this comes with a caveat. To do this, your team has to be completely engaged and have their attention completely focussed. You have to always be ready and able to ask the question “Yes and?“. You have to be engaged and present to always be asking this question. 

6. Keep moving forward. When you’re constantly in the flow of improv and innovation, you can’t stop to analyze. It slows you down and stifles creativity. When something unexpected happens, take advantage of this new situation and move forward with it. If something goes wrong, learn the lesson and move forward. The whole idea is to keep moving forward. The road behind you is not the road that leads to innovation. Keep moving forward.

7. Understand the good of the whole. When you personally understand what is good for the whole, you have a deeper understanding of when to hang back, when to grab the reigns and how to grab them, and how to support the other members of your team. When the whole team has this attitude and understanding, it creates a truly collaborative, improvisational environment.

8. Lose control. We don’t want anyone on our team to be the star or orchestrator. We want to make sure that no one gets into the “controlling mind“. As soon as one person assumes control or seeks the spotlight, the creativity, improv, and innovation of the team suffers. We need to lose the control aspect of the team and allow everyone to respond to the moment.

9. Self-organize. Creativity is naturally a self organizing system. Teams that allow themselves to explore and play find this self-organization with ease. The team may set some very basic guidelines of play, but once they do, their roles and organization emerge naturally and creativity flourishes. This type of self-organization allows all kinds of things to be possible.

From my own personal experience, the most innovative teams I’ve ever worked on embraced these basic principles of improv. In fact, a few years ago, I worked on a truly creative, innovative team. That team always asked the question “What else can we do with this?”. We opened our minds to all possibilities. There were many times we said, “We’ve never done this before”. Often, we had no idea how the idea would play out. But we always accepted the offer to see where it would go. Sometimes we failed. But, we learned and moved on. And, when we were successful, we produced some of the most innovative software the mapping world had ever seen. I don’t think we ever tried to be improvisational or purposely forced these improv principles. It emerged naturally on a team full of incredible talent with no egos, and I think that made all the difference in the world.

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  1. Marcos Orozco said,

    “Interesting, I agree with you about improv as a skill relative to innovation, but I dude about your first point: Acept every offer??? mmm… even when the offer is out of you domain… I think “caution” is not the oposite to “take a risk”. I can take a risk with caution; totally agree with your point 4.”

  2. Dan Breslau said,

    I think these fit well with the spirit of Agile. And #5 is self-fulfilling : I feel changed by that suggestion. Chris, have you considered improv as a team-building exercise for Agile teams? To Marcos re #1 (“Accept every offer”) : I have only a little experience with improv (and none that’s recent), but I gather that “Accept every offer” refers to the practice of not rejecting an improv theme on stage. I think this works in the business world as: “Consider every idea”. That is, don’t reject a new concept simply because it makes you uncomfortable. Follow it in your head and see where it takes you. Several of the ideas embodied by Agile (test-driven development and timeboxing come to mind) made me uncomfortable at first, but I’ve come to see how to make them work for me.

  3. Michael Bolton said,

    You might have enjoyed the presentation I did with Adam White and Adam Geras at Agile 2008. You might also have enjoyed even more Lee Devin’s session, and his book (with Robert Austin) called Artful Making. In our session, we had lots of fun not only following improv principles but doing improv exercises. Improv is about awareness of yourself and others; valuable skills. —Michael B

  4. Roger Valade said,

    Very interesting. I saw John Sweeney at a local tech conference and his presentation made me think along these same lines. Check out his site / book at

  5. Is improv the key to innovative teams? « THEMdidit said,

    [...] is reposted with permission from Chris Spagnuolo. The original post can be found here. 0 [...]

  6. Bil Sherrin said,

    As someone who has performed the comedy (well, ok, sometimes not so much) kind of improv off and on in 4 different cities since 1993… I could not agree more. Great thoughts, Chris. On a professional level, I think this is why I love Agile programming and having business and IT folk co-located during development. B I L

  7. Marcos Orozco said,

    From this perspective, I totally agree with you Dan

  8. Thomas Dawson said,

    11. Don’t be afraid to mold the process to fit the project. Improv applies to process as much as anything else.

    12. A team that trusts each other is far more productive than one where people don’t.

  9. Stephen Heffner said,

    1. This puts you at the mercy of anyone who makes an offer. Many such offers will be wastes of time; some may be extremely valuable. Judging which is which is a matter of skill, experience, and of course some luck. But judge you must.

    2. I’d rather say “Make the team look good.” That way you avoid questions of who looks better than whom. See comments below about ego.

    3. A non-sequitur? I agree with both sentiments, but I don’t see how they’re directly connected. If you question what works because you don’t think it works well enough, that can be a good thing. If you do so because you don’t think it will result in perfection, then the 2nd sentiment comes into play.

    4. Absolutely! But again, you must judge which risks to take. Too many, or the wrong ones, and you’re needlessly reckless. Too few, and you’re stuck in a rut. It’s not an “all or nothing” or “either/or” proposition.

    IMHO, one secret of innovation (and, in fact of genius) is in seeing things in a different way. This is independent of taking risks, except that you risk being laughed at or derided.

    5. That’s a good idea if what is said is profound and what happens is at least slightly momentous. Being changed by trivial utterances and happenings makes you fickle, weak, and easily manipulated.

    6. Yes! Communication and flexibility, respectively. But again, too much flexibility results in a failure of leadership. It’s a judgment call. Too much communication bogs you down and means you don’t trust your colleagues to do things right, so you can’t delegate and wind up micromanaging.

    7. No caveats on this one — I heartily agree. Be alive and focused!

    8. Of course you must analyze, in fact even more so when things are in flux; otherwise you become a victim of events, carried on the tide like flotsam.

    When you come to a branch in the road, “keep moving forward” just doesn’t cut it. You must decide, and you’d probably better take some time to do so, to ensure the best possible decision in the circumstances.

    And since when is analysis the enemy of creativity? Good analysis begets creativity! It’s over-analysis that paralyzes and feeds into the perfect being the enemy of the good.

    9. I agree wholeheartedly. The most productive people I’ve ever known combined craftsmanship at the detail level with a comprehensive understanding of the “big picture”. That’s a powerful combination, but it’s hard to find.

    10. Agreed again (barring OCD…). If you’re not well organized, especially mentally, you can’t create, or participate effectively in, a plan with others.

    > It emerged naturally on a team full of incredible talent with no egos…

    I disagree with this, as I did with the “ego-less programming” fad of years ago. Egos are a fact of human nature, and they support individuality. The trick is to engage your ego in the success of the team, so it serves the common goal. You can still express your individuality, but at a higher level of abstraction, so you don’t insist on “your way” at the detail level where it really doesn’t matter.

    One way to summarize that is “what’s right, not who’s right”. A healthy ego can handle being wrong, and can get satisfaction from its contribution to the team when it’s right.

    Many of these questions are profound and strike at the heart of human nature, sociology, and politics. Please take my comments in the spirit in which I offer them, as a modest attempt to address these thorny issues.

  10. Simon Lam said,

    The context of improv in which decisions are made is often more political than technical. And the commonality solutions are most effective.

  11. Fay Simcock said,

    My experience of improv is, like Dan’s, not recent (in fact, from my student days) and I quickly learned that I was better behind the stage than in the footlights. But one thing I did learn could maybe be added to Chris’ list: for me the best approach was just to get on and do it and not sit on the sidelines and worry all the time about what the others would think. It’s partly in Chris’ risk taking but it’s also that doing adds value, if you just sit and agonize until the idea is clear or perfect, you’re likely to be too late and the idea will need to be modified anyway.

  12. Ryan Martens said,

    Michael Bolton was good to link in Lee Devin’s work.  Lee also has a paper on “Planning to get lucky.”  (See related post in Agile Commons.)I think it is the combination of bottom-up improve plus a planning paradigm that keeps you from deciding on point-based designs too early that can combine to really drive innovation.  XP and 37Signals team would tell you to do the simplest thing and have the architecture emerge.  In large complex systems, that is a very hard concept to get across.  You have to have some way to open the space and mind to do improve.  I would like to collaborate with you this missing aspect to “Innovation.”

  13. svilen dobrev said,

    except 1) about accepting anything, and the part saying that analyzis is bad, i think this is it.

    IMO current (mental) crisis is about sitting too long on same brick in same pose, doing same things, specializing so narrow that it’s close to nothing.
    One has to be human, to move, improvise and error if it comes that way. Otherwise it’s a dehumanizing 9-to-5 ticking clockwork.

  14. Michael James said,

    Yes, thanks for bringing this up. Theater improv directly exercises the skills we expect from high performing development teams. I’ve been using elements of this when teaching Scrum to teams, and feel they’d benefit from a lot more. Tobias Mayer and Matt Smith (the boss in the film “Outsourced”) are also doing work on this.


  15. Mike Sutton said,

    Chris you make an awesome point and you make it brilliantly and simply. Agile (IMHO) has forced us to confront what has always been the case – that software creation is an intensely creative process and its main ingredient is people. We now have to figure out how to help people collaborate in a creative and respectful way and I beleive improv is a vital part of this mental reeducation. Rock on.

  16. Joseph Marino said,

    What exactly is meant by #8? Isn’t it a good idea to do thorough analysis and approach any new idea with a full understanding of the downstream effects? I guess I come from a more analytical background and would be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on whether you can do proper analysis and still remain “agile”

  17. How do we find game-changing strategies? | Game-Changer said,

    [...] It could’ve come from a major brainstorming session to spot game-changing ideas but most often game-changing strategy comes from an improvisational approach. [...]

  18. How do we find game changing strategies? | Game-Changer said,

    [...] I would be surprised to find out that these companies came up with their game changing strategies after an all-hands-on-deck strategic planning session where they’re exploring growth opportunities. It could’ve come from a major brainstorming session to spot game-changing ideas but most often game changing strategy comes from an improvisational approach. [...]

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