This is a scene from “30 Rock," where Jack Donaghy, one of my favorite caricatures of the Great American Businessman, satirizes the popular business cliché that “there are no bad ideas.” Kill Jerry Seinfeld? Of course that’s a terrible idea! Not to mention one that that is at-odds with a very real constraint: the law.
The truth is that there are such things as bad ideas in brainstorming – also called idea generation or ideation. Another truth is that it’s okay. Ideation, especially in the early stages of product or service development, is about playing the percentages – the more ideas, the more opportunity you create for the best ones to come to the surface.
It has become a bit trendy to deny the value of a come-one-come-all approach to brainstorming. Some view it as a bit hippy dippy. Others view it as risky since it doesn’t allow for known constraints to be applied. But encouraging both bad and good ideas to be shared is actually the least risky option you can take. Prematurely stopping what David and Tom Kelley of IDEO have called “idea flow” actually limits the potential to get the best ideas. Beyond playing the numbers game, having a small number of ideas encourages people to get territorial and defensive of them, which only further limits possibility.
Getting bad ideas is actually a sign that you are getting ideation right because it means people feel safe enough to give you everything they have. This is one of those rare occasions when quantity actually equals quality. As humans, we like to say no and invent reasons to not do something. An idea that at first glance seems ridiculous can very easily become a top contender. We often discover that we have invented constraints that don’t actually exist. Figure out what are the good and bad ideas later on when you can apply the best criteria to filter them through.
Through pure coincidence, I started doing improv comedy at the same time I started working in global innovation at a Big 4 consulting company. I saw immediately the similarities between the principles behind improv and those behind idea generation and I began to open my brainstorming sessions with improv exercises. Around the same time, an MIT engineer published an idea generation study that compared improv comedians and career product managers and found the following:
Improvisational comedians on average produced 20% more product ideas and 25% more creative product ideas than professional product designers well-versed in traditional ideation methods
Putting participants through just one improv comedy workshop increased their idea output on average by 37%
The ability to quickly generate many ideas (quantity) is strongly correlated with being able to come up with a single, promising, creative idea (quality)
The product designers had professional expertise and brainstorming experience. And yet improvisers with neither outperformed them in both quantity and quality. What is it about the brains of improvisers that allows them to do this? As a regular improv performer, teacher, and trainer, I can identify the following skills that improvisers constantly hone that can also help with getting the most – and the best – ideas during an ideation session.
This is the granddaddy of improv principles and elegantly combines two classic brainstorming rules: “suspend judgment” and “build off each other’s ideas.” Many organizations believe they employ “Yes, and” but actually don’t because they forget about the “and” part. Saying “yes” is about agreeing with and not prematurely saying no to an idea, which is valuable and gets us on our way to more of them. The “and” is necessary because it ensures the quality. Merely agreeing with an idea without adding on your own associative contribution inspired by that idea will only get you going in circles and put you at risk for innovation-killing groupthink. When you practice a “Yes, and” approach during ideation you’ll achieve both depth and breadth in your ideas.
Listening is another important – and difficult – skill all improvisers practice. If you aren’t listening to others, you are denying yourself invaluable (and free) opportunities to be inspired. The next time you find your team talking over one another or not responding to the last thing said, take a break and have everyone do a listening-focused improv exercise to get everyone in the right frame of mind.
Be Present/Be In The Moment
This improv principle is closely related to Listening. To listen properly you need to be focused on the present and not buried in your smartphone or thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner. Ban distractions like phones and laptops in your brainstorming sessions and make the sessions as interactive, physical, and experiential as possible. Consider kicking off your session with an improv game that requires people to build something imaginary together or requires eye contact.
Play to the Top of Your Intelligence
This one is simple: don’t pretend you know something you don’t. In improv, it’s okay to not get a movie reference or to not know the intricacies of string theory your scene partner is talking about. You are encouraged to have your characters know exactly what you do and admit when you don’t know something. This encourages humbleness and an ability to “play things real” in the moment and alleviates the pressure to invent things out of thin air. To achieve co-creation rather than invention and to encourage collaborative learning, establish an ideation environment that is safe for people to admit they don’t know everything.
Treat Mistakes As Opportunities
Similar to the “there are no bad ideas” adage, improvisers learn that “there are no mistakes.” What we really mean by that is mistakes can and do happen, but they are gifts to be embraced that can actually propel things forward. We are trained to not let a “mistake” halt progress and to get rid of our natural human tendency to attribute blame. The next time someone makes a “mistake” in a brainstorming session (like contributing an idea that is a clear violation company policy), embrace it as an opportunity and respond with “Yes, and” to discover what magic might result.
It is worth nothing that most workplaces do not regularly develop these skills in their people. Remember that good idea generation, just like any creative endeavor like improv comedy, is a habit that must be practiced.
Coonoor Behal is Founder of Mindhatch, an insights firm specializing in design thinking, organizational improv, and innovation facilitation. She is a former strategy and innovation consultant at Deloitte and performs improv regularly in Washington DC and in festivals around the country.