Improv, startups and innovation

Improve2Last Saturday, I went to an Improv class. I wanted to do something to take me outside my comfort zone, something I thought I would enjoy. It was, as I’d been told, great fun and there was lots of laughing (which is good for the body as well as for the soul). However, I was struck by the parallels with two of my interests in business, startups and innovation.

Our teacher, Maria, told us about Improv. Here’s some of the things she said.

  • Improv is all about making it up as you go along and trying things out in order to learn.
  • It’s experiential and experimental.
  • Nothing you do is wrong because there aren’t any rules, nothing is ‘supposed’ to happen next and it’s not going ‘somewhere’.
  • You have to feel the fear and do it anyway.
  • You just have to take a leap of faith, it’s like jumping off of a cliff and learning to fly on the way down.
  • It’s about failing joyfully.

Now, I’ve read a lots of blogs and books on startups and innovation and I have come across almost exactly the same phrases.

  •  “Startup = experiment”, according to Eric Reis in The Lean Startup. He goes on to say that the key activity is learn by trying stuff out and seeing if it works.
  • “The rules have not yet been written” is the tagline for Wayra, the global starup accelerator run by Telefonica that I mentor at.
  • “Feel the fear” is a reference to the seminal work of Susanne Jeffers and is widely quoted in startup circles.
  • Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, famously said “Startups are like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down”
  • “Fail fast, fail often” is a startup mantra.

Striking, aren’t they? (Although I have to say I much prefer ‘Fail joyfully’ to ‘Fail fast’, it’s a more compelling call to set aside our need for perfection.) But what else does this tell us about startups and innovation?

Improv is very much about embracing a different mindset. You have to let go of the need to get it right, let go of measurement and judgement. You have to think more freely and creatively and commit to what you are doing. You also have to be fully aware of what is going on around you and respond to your buddies in the moment. This is equally true for innovation. You have to switch off some of our everyday thought patterns and automatic behaviours.

The one big difference with Improv, however, is that you support your buddies at all times. You’re only aim is to make them look good, because that’s the only way you can look good. You never, ever leave your buddies dangling. You do whatever you can, however uncomfortable that feels, to save them. It’s not about you, it’s about them.

I have to admit I struggled with this a bit. The desire to be ‘the best’ and to be ‘clever’ was surprisingly strong and it really got in the way, so I had to work hard to suppress it. When it came to the surface, the Improv staggered around like a man lost in a fog. When I kept it down and fully immersed myself in the experience, the Improv took flight and went off on its own crazy, magical, gravity-defying path.

I see this happen in some startups, where people are competing to be best and cleverest rather than supporting each other (founders falling out is the No.1 cause of startup failures). In larger organisations this self-interest causes teams to struggle, hampered by the limiting concepts of status and hierarchy and internal politics.

The flip-side of the Improv ethos is that you feel able to take risks with freedom and commitment, because you know all your buddies are supporting you. By giving to others you create an environment that causes your own success and enables you to perform to levels you never even dreamed of. It’s a win-win approach and the more we give the more get in return.

Imagine if we brought this Improv ethos, of unqualified support for your buddies and a focus on making them look good, to startups and to teams looking to innovate within large organisations? Imagine if this was the norm rather than the exception, and how many more spectacular ideas and creations we would bring to life?

So, let’s fail joyfully, make our buddies look great and create some magic!

(I did my Improv class at Hoopla in London. You can find other groups,events and news at The Crunchy Frog Collective)

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