Monday, February 29, 2016

Innovation is a Team Sport (but let’s forget the Sport part)

image from pixabay under Creative Commons License
In this blog, I’ll be writing a lot about teams.  That’s because innovation requires bringing together a wide variety of skillsets and perspectives.  Though individuals can work on broadening their own horizons and become better innovators, a team of amazingly talented people will always outperform the lone genius.  Learning to build and work in these teams is critical to innovating.  Plus, working in a team can be a whole lot more fun and motivating.

It’s important to note that there are many different kinds of teams.  American leadership is obsessed with American football (but not futbol) as a metaphor for teamwork.  There are many former high-paid coaches working on filling in their million dollar wage loss by writing books on leadership and teamwork.  Do not read these books…  at least not if you’re looking into applying it towards innovation team building.

Football is about centralized leadership and execution.  Individuals are heavily specialized into narrow roles.  In professional teams, there is a separate offensive team and defensive team which have no interaction whatsoever with each other.  The head coach drills specific plays into the team members so that they can execute with perfection when it’s game time.  No doubt, there is a beauty in the trust formed and the ability to rely on each other, but players are not meant to be innovative.  They are meant to be reliable.  Any innovation in football comes from the coach.

Innovation requires a more improvisational framework.  Teams exist everywhere in life, not just in sports.  A ballet company is a team.  Your family is a team.  Your work group is a team, as is your church or even a group of friends throwing a barbeque.  A team is simply a group of people working together towards a common goal.  Since each team has a different goal, they each need to function differently.  If your team’s goal is to innovate, then a good model to look at is the Improv Comedy Troupe.

Improv techniques are now often used in team offsites and in design courses.  Why?  Because, where most art forms are mostly about the execution of creativity, improv is 90% creativity with very little preparation beforehand.  Like a good brainstorm, an improv scene is created in the moment.  However, the groundwork is laid through practicing skills beforehand, collecting the right players, and running the scene using set structures.  The result is a wonderfully hilarious and beautiful show that is a unique blend of the actors and the audience at a single moment in time.

Like innovation, improv is messy, but it can be learned and practiced.  Contrary to popular belief, improv comedy isn’t just about funny people acting funny.  It is built on many rules (as is brainstorming) which are designed to move the story forward.  We’ll go deeper into Improv rules and exercises in a future post.  But to give you a sense of how an improv team works, here are some basic rules:

Say Yes, and
In improv, every interaction builds the story.  As a rule, you must accept that story and build on it.  For instance, if your improv partner comes onto the stage and says “Hi Dad, how’s your back?” you must accept the role given to you.  It is counterproductive to respond, “Uh, what’s wrong with your eyesight, I’m not your Dad, I’m your best friend.”  Instead, use your freedom to expand the story.  “Oh, my back is sore alright.  I can’t believe I carried your mother down 10 flights of stairs .”

Don’t Try to Be Funny
Trying to be funny often leads to one liners at the expense of the story.  To continue our example, what if you respond to “Hi Dad, how’s your back?” with “I don’t know, why don’t you take a look?” and turn around and moon the  other person.  Wow, you’re really trying hard to get in a laugh.  This may make you feel like you’re “funnier” than the other person, but this didn’t move the story along.  You’ve just killed the scene.  Build the story, and the hilariousness will come out.

Follow the Follower
In an Improv show, no one is in charge.  Otherwise, it would be just like watching a directed play except that no one rehearsed beforehand.  Sounds great right?  Improv only works when the story is the spontaneous creation of the group.  Someone will initiate the scene.  Support her in this.  But that doesn’t make her the leader.  When someone else shifts the scene in another direction, support him as well.

Take Risks
When the rules above are followed, individual actors can take risks.  You can turn off the filter and say whatever comes to mind, even if it’s not the safe thing to do or takes the scene in an odd direction.  Say, you’re doing a restaurant scene, and suddenly you feel like saying “Mmmm, love baby humans.”  Sure, go with that.  You don’t need to know what that means, or where it will go.  Cannibals, vampires, aliens, lawyers?  Your teammates will support you, and you’ll end up with a more interesting, more creative, and more hilarious show.