How to Spark Creativity at Work

Let’s perform a quick exercise:

  1. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.
  2. Set a timer for two minutes.
  3. Now, list all the possible uses for a wire coat hanger you can think of.

How many were you able to come up with? 15? 20?

When I did this activity at a conference a few years back, the majority of adults in the room averaged 10-20 possible uses. Our facilitator shared that elementary-aged students, on the other hand, typically produce a list of 50 or more ideas.

As we age, we lose some of the imagination and creativity we possessed in our youth. Ideas don’t flow as freely and we struggle to think outside the box. Fortunately, there is a fun and simple way to flex your creative muscles and build better problem-solving skills.

The “Yes, and…” Principle

Improvisational comedy typically brings to mind shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyways?” or image of the Second City theater in Chicago. Unlike stand-up or skit-based shows, improv involves no advanced preparation. Scenes are often based on just a single word suggested by the audience.

Even though improv comedy and business may seem like completely different worlds, both pursuits are focused on reacting to the present moment and considering the possibilities. In improv, this principle is expressed simply as— “Yes, and…” Improv troupe members don’t say no, or reject an idea. Instead, they accept the idea and build on it. For example, you’d never see two improv troupe members have the following conversation:

Billy: “Let’s throw a space kitten pizza party at Ruby!”
Suzie: “No way! That’s lame.”

Or this:

Billy: “Let’s throw a space kitten pizza party at Ruby!”
Suzie: “Yeah, but I’ve got a lot of paperwork to do.”

Now let’s take a look at what a “Yes, and…” conversation would look like:

Billy: “Let’s throw a space kitten pizza party at Ruby!”
Suzie: “Yes, and let’s all dress up like space kittens.”
Billy: “Awesome! We should decorate the office like we’re in outer space.”

Suzie: “And we can make a donation to an animal shelter!”

As you can see, a “Yes, and…” conversation focuses on the possibilities, with the two participants building on each other, as opposed to shooting one another down. They are listening to the other person’s ideas and offer suggestions. Imagine how your meetings or conversations with customers would change if you implemented the “Yes, and…” principle in your office.

The Benefits of Improvisation

The constant process of listening and responding in improvisation makes it a training tool for business. Since improv troupe members don’t know what is coming next, it becomes crucial to remember what has already happened in the scene, as well as be listening for an opportunity to push the scene further. This type of active listening can serve your staff in a number of ways:

Improved Networking
Communication is often at the core of networking anxiety. How do I start a conversation? What are appropriate topics to discuss with a stranger? Improv exercises reduce anxiety by making each conversation a fun opportunity to practice “Yes, and…” Listening to someone describe their job? Ask them to expand on a particular responsibility. You’ll feel more comfortable approaching others knowing you’ll be taking your conversation cues from them.

Ready for the Unexpected
As a sales or customer service professional, improv exercises allow you to practice listening skills and adjusting your approach on the fly. Potential client throw you a curveball question? Being a skilled improviser will help keep your wits about you as you determine the best course of action.

Inject Some Fun
Meetings often fall into patterns, which prevent innovation and creativity. Consider incorporating improv exercises into your staff meetings. You’ll find the exercises lighten the mood, increase creativity, and keep the discussion positive.

Practicing improve teaches you to generate ideas by listening, accepting and building on what another person has said—skills that come in handy when you’re looking to take your business to the next level.

Ready to Get Started? Try These Exercises!

Hone Your Listening Skills: Blind Association Circle
Players stand in a circle. One player says a word, and then another player follows by freely associating on the previous player’s word. For example, Player 1 says “cat”; Player 2 might follow with “dog” and so on. Once each player has offered a word, round two begins, with players closing their eyes and continuing the rhythm—sticking to the same order of players. For the final round, players must walk around, listening for the voice of their former neighbor to know when it’s their turn to offer a word.

Idea-Generation On the Fly: Whatcha Selling?
Players form a circle, with one person acting as the “caller” by standing in the middle. The caller yells a letter to one of the players, who then must come up with the name of a person, object or service that can be sold, as well as a location—all starting with the letter provided. For example, “Casey sells cookies in Croatia.” If the player is unable to respond quickly, the player then becomes the caller.

Practicing Acceptance: Sound Circle
Once again, players stand in a circle. The game begins with one player making a gesture and a sound to the player on his left. The next player must first imitate the last player’s gesture and sound before turning to the next player and passing along a new gesture and sound. Players should be passing on the sound and gesture as quickly as possible.

For more improv exercises, check out the Improv Encyclopedia.

Creativity and imagination is like any other skill—it takes practice to perfect. Fortunately, we all are improvising every day, which means there are plenty of opportunities to improve! Is your office or customer service team using improv exercises? We’d love to hear about it! Share your story in the comments.

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