Improvisation is key to building a culture of innovation, says Doug Stevenson

By adopting the behaviors and principles of improvisation, organizations can achieve significant and robust cultural change in the direction of innovation, says creativity and improv expert Doug Stevenson.

Interview #18 in our Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Doug Stevenson, founder of All Creation, which provides creative services and content for businesses and organizations; director of business development for Group Delphi and partner in The Innovise Guys, who infuse innovation with improvisation in their “innovisation” processes.

Doug started his career at the Leo Burnett advertising agency and has devoted much of his career in creative problem solving in a variety of industries since – most notably in experiential marketing, as a designer, creator and producer of events and experiences.

He has worked as an ideation catalyst, creative process designer, creative problem solving (CPS) facilitator, writer and consultant on projects which include new product development, change management, process improvement, team building, leadership, marketing strategy and developing cultures of creativity in business and non-profits. He leads workshops around the world, including at the Creative Problems Solving Institute, The American Creativity Association, Mindcamp, CREA, and the Applied Improvisation Network among others, and speaks to his passion on creativity in blogs, podcasts and other social media.

Q: How does your work relate to creativity?

Stevenson: Well, all of life relates to creativity, doesn’t it? It is essentially what we do when we live fully – or not even so fully. Funny, we improvise unconsciously everyday in all that we do without thinking about it and then, if we study creativity and improvisation, we become very conscious of it until we get very good at it. At that point, we live much again in a state of creative improvisation at a level of unconscious competency. It is where we are in what experts have called “flow” and it permeates everything we do, more acutely at some times than others – but it informs everything we do, especially in times of acute immersive engagement in a challenge.

Specifically, creativity pertains to the work I do in two basic ways: I work for a design & production company that creates experiential events and environments for businesses and organizations, and creative problem solving is at the core of our culture. I also facilitate, create, and ideate on projects that call for creative problem solving/innovation processes in new product development, process improvement, team-building, change management, business culture, marketing, etc.

Because I have an formal training in creative problem solving (I have an M.S. degree in creativity) and an improvisation background (Player’s Workshop of Second City & Improv Olympics Chicago) – in the work I have done, there has been some deliberate melding of improvisational games and CPS.

Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?

Stevenson: One might think first of letting go of old paradigms as a prerequisite to embracing new ones. There is hidden profundity in this, because “letting go” in the bigger picture is really the answer, as I see it. I mean this in the context of improvisation. As a creative problem solver and an applied improvisation practitioner, I have seen the profound shifts that individuals and cultures can have by embracing improvisational behavior and thinking as a core ethos. I have seen many people in organizations achieve breakthroughs by letting go, trusting their inner wisdom, finding agreement and moving forward in collaboration to achieve results.

In order to achieve significant and robust cultural change in the direction of innovation, the behaviors must be practiced until they become an “unconscious competency.” Improvisational organizations are 24/7, on-their-feet innovation-ready and change-optimization-inclined. As the bottom-line is so often a driver of management acceptance, there is ample and growing evidence that companies that embrace improvisational play as a natural way of exploring/collaborating/achieving realize better results for the bottom line and their key objectives. More organizations are embracing the value and reaping the rewards of cultivating this intuitive and increasingly lucrative paradigm.

Q: What do you see the role of creativity in that paradigm?

Stevenson: It’s at the core. Improvisation is human-centric, innocent and playful – and by its nature, creative. It is fun. It ignites and sustains passion. It encourages individual choices and exploration – even mistakes – certainly risk-taking. It is something that should pervade a culture and be nurtured as a matter of course. Improvisational and playful organizations encourage these things – and somewhat amazingly – nurture individual fulfillment and collaboration all at once.

It is difficult to expect conversion by inserting one or two playful keepers of the creative flame into an otherwise hostile culture. You may keep the flame lit alright, but find yourself surrounded by folks with fire hoses trained on that flame. One can spend a lot of energy just keeping it lighted, and siphon off energy that would otherwise be spent inspiring a playfully productive paradigm. There needs to be a safe place for the creative change-makers, if they are to survive and bring creativity in a meaningful and permanent way to the larger organization.

Q: What attitudes and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Stevenson: Commitment, resilience, humor, seeking out others who support a playful involvement in life. Within an organization, it may take some – if not much explanation – to win support. Unvarnished honesty is always best around the potential of doing things differently, even/especially with senior management. The data is available to speak directly to ROI, but significantly, your language may have to morph a bit to support what you are preaching so that it is better understood in interface with the economic values for which management is responsible.

The new behavior is an ethos, for sure – and undoubtedly best when this is primary, but it is also a way of doing things that is more profitable – that greatly assists in the recruitment and retention of top talent and very effective in creating and constantly improving on competitive advantages in the marketplace. An enhanced revenue and profit picture flow from that. When management gets that, they have something they can stand with.

Q: What is a technique or approach that people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?

Stevenson: Find ways to be more playful. Begin with what you can control – our own response to life. As Gandhi said, we must “be the change we want to see in the world.” So, one can be playful in any one of a number of ways. I would recommend taking a 20 minute comedy break. Watch a funny video. Read some humor. Get a joke book. Try turning the first minor challenge of the day into a game: If you face an obstacle, make a joke of it and write down some possible responses. Exaggerate them – make them ridiculous. This will likely diffuse some fears and tension around the task and might also make your response seem less loathsome of ridiculous.

Also, treat the other players on your daily stage as just that – players. Say “yes and” to colleagues and coworkers, even “foes” and see what happens. “Yes and” is such a simple tool that can have astonishing positive impact. It is really great at removing obstacles – and we all face them – because people typically choose to create them. “Yes and” dissolves our consent to disagreement and impasse.

Q: Finally, what is creative leadership to you?

Stevenson: It involves highly evolved “emotional intelligence.” Emotional intelligence manifests itself in empathy, interest, earnest engagement, self-deprecating humor, subordination of ego, creativity and possibility thinking. It also includes looking into the white space of life, outside delineations and definition of the challenge – as in appreciative inquiry – and asking, “What else is in the picture or what isn’t, and how is that already working for us?”

People learn by observing your behavior more than they learn when you are “on script.” So, the first task of creative leadership is to live the paradigm and model the behavior – and work – or should I say “play” – at getting it better and better.

You can learn more about Doug and his work at the All Creation website. The Creativity in Business Thought Leader Interview Series is conducted by business creativity catalyst, Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and Quantum Leap Business Improv.

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