Improv and Innovation

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Fourteen people, ranging in age from 16 to 60ish, stand in a circle in a large room.

A ball is rapidly tossed across the circle. Our leader, Missy Whitis, instructs us to remember two things: Who threw us the ball, and who we threw it to next.

A second ball is introduced. This time, the pattern is reversed, so that two balls are moving simultaneously in opposite directions.

Part three: The circle is broken. We are told to wander about the room. The two balls are still flying, and we’re still responsible for our personal throwers and throwees. A bit of chaos ensues, but it’s remarkable how well the system works.

This is not some team-building exercise at a corporate off-site. It’s day one of the Monday night “Improvisation for Adults” class at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Incidentally, if you’re looking to stretch yourself, I enthusiastically endorse improv and acting classes. You’ll be supporting your local arts community. You’ll learn something new. And you’ll meet people you would not have met otherwise. None of these can possibly be bad things.

I signed up for the improv class thinking that it would aid my public speaking. Maybe I’d find a new way to employ humor or to liven up the Q&A portion.

What I didn’t expect were the number of parallels between the principles of improvisation and the principles of innovation.

So, direct from the world of improv, here are a few rules and reminders for your next brainstorming or ideation session:


When faced with a challenge, several minds are generally better than one. You’re on a team for a reason. Trust others to do their thing.

That’s one lesson of the ball-throwing exercise. Take care of your partner, and she will take care of you. And if she doesn’t, what’s the worst that can happen? The ball drops to the ground. Pick it up and continue.

When innovating, you can’t throw your weight around or lean on titles. There’s no statistical proof that the VP with twenty years of experience generates ideas that are any better than those of the college intern who started this morning. Diversity in perceptions, experiences and thinking styles is what matters.

And trust the process. There are several schools of thought in ideation, but most are rooted in principles and real-world application. Though it may feel uncomfortable, the process is there for a reason. Let it work.

Go Fast

If you’ve ever seen well-performed improv, you know the speed with which the players act and react. It can be nothing short of breathtaking. How do they do it? It’s because they’ve been trained to think quickly. Do that, and the unexpected can happen. Too much thinkin’ nukes the funny.

For similar reasons, when brainstorming, speed is your ally. It mitigates two of the greatest enemies of new ideas: Perceived practicality and fear of failure. If you’re moving fast, you don’t have time to criticize or get scared. Save the evaluation for later. Your objective is quantity. Quality will take care of itself.


The imperative here is not “it’s okay to fail.” It is “you must fail.” If you don’t fail, you’re not doing it right.

I’ve been involved in several hundred inventing sessions, with the total number of ideas created being in the six figures. I’m pleased to report that plenty of those ideas – at least half, maybe more – were truly lousy. But that’s okay, as long as they’re big, bold and lousy. If you don’t generate some of those, you can’t generate ideas that are big, bold and pretty damn good.

In comedy, “safe and expected” doesn’t get the laughs. In innovation, it defeats the purpose. “Same-old same-old” doesn’t get the consumer’s attention, so it doesn’t get the sale.

So be fearless enough to live the paradox: Failure is, in fact, the path to greatest success.

A version of this post appeared in the March 6, 2009, edition of the Business Courier of Cincinnati.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2009 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.