Improv Tip of the Month: What Animals Can Teach Us About Innovation

Cary Paul
Category : Improvisation October 4, 2012

This article is from Cary Paul, our Chief Improv Officer:

There are some great lessons we business types can learn from the world of biology, one of which leads us back to the basic truth about survival: adapt or die. Read on to discover an improv favorite that offers invaluable practice with moving out of personal or organizational ruts and into positive and constructive thinking.

Biology Lessons for Business People

If you’re reading this blog about business innovation the odds are good you were not a biology major in college.  Just guessing here, but if you were anything like me, you went to great lengths to avoid the biology building entirely; for one thing, it smelled bad.  For another, not withstanding an appearance on Jeopardy, understanding xylem vs. phloem seemed like a colossal waste of precious time.

But it turns out there are some great lessons we business types could have learned in those formaldehyde halls.  Primarily, the basic truth about survival at every level of the animal kingdom; adapt or die.

From the least sophisticated protozoa to the Bactrian camel, animals that don’t adapt to their environment die.  It’s Darwinian.  Survival of the fittest.   Even the leftover egg rolls in my fridge have mastered the art of remaking themselves, virtually over night, hosting some new and enterprising life forms.  All forms of life seem to grasp instinctively that constant adaptation is necessary for survival.

Here’s the problem.  The higher up the food chain you go, the harder adaptation seems to become. By the time you work your way thru the taxonomic ranks to humans, you discover that we what we “big brain mammals” have become downright stubborn about the change process.

Organizational Change: Adapt or Die

We’ve found this to be especially true when we group really smart humans together into organizations.   Let’s face it; even the highest performing teams and individuals are destined to hit ruts sometimes.  Sometimes, those ruts are caused by the inertia or negative and pessimistic perspectives.  The question becomes: is there a way to turn “we can’t do this because…” or “we’d like to find a better solution, but…” into positive and constructive thinking?

That’s why one of my favorite improv exercises we do with our clients is called ‘Animal Ad Agency’.    The idea is creative, and we love to watch as teams use this exercise to “adapt themselves” out of their own personal or organizational ruts.

Your Client is a Donkey?

It works like this:

Break into small groups.  Five to seven is ideal.  Each small group forms a circle. Ask each group to name two things:

  • An animal. (Take the quickest or best answer.)
  • A common household product.  (Take the quickest or best answer.)

Then  explain that your organization has been hired to be the advertising firm to sell the common household product to a group of those animals.

Describe the process to the group.

Someone starts by identifying a feature of the product that would be compelling for the animal; the next person says “yes, and…” then gives their feature; and so on around the circle. It might sound like this for selling Eyeglasses to Elephants:

  • Person 1: The glasses would be enormous, to fit their large head.
  • Person 2: Yes, and…they would have a special nose-saddle to adapt to the movement of their trunks.
  • Person 3: Yes, and…they would have a heads-up display that pinpoints distance to their next meal.
  • Person 4: Yes, and…they would have special bifocals strictly for seeing their tiny mouse friends.
  • And so on…

When you debrief, discuss the importance of “yes, and…” in terms of the creative process.  As a team of professionals, what types of new possibilities are created by thinking in terms of “yes, and…” instead of the more often heard “no, because…” or even “Yes, but…”

The benefits of an exercise of this type will remain evident into the future as well.  Meetings and discussions will include more “yes, and” thinking—and the results will be immediate and valuable.

Better yet, here’s what our clients tell us they take away from the exercise:

  • Breaking the “yes, but” or “no, because” patterns or thinking;
  • Developing new patterns of “yes, and” thinking;
  • Improving team communication;
  • Experiencing the power of creativity in the workplace;
  • (Don’t tell anyone…) Having fun!

Don’t think too long and hard about it; just try it. Then let us know how it went!

Originally published by BossaNova Consulting Group, Inc.
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Cary Paul

Cary Paul

I just might have the best title of anyone on The Get Real Project team: Chief Improv Officer. I have over 20 years of consulting experience, specializing in process improvement, change management, facilitation and leadership development. __ years ago I took my first improvisational comedy class, which sparked my passion for applying the principles and practices of improv to real-life business challenges. My clients tell me that the custom programs I create produce profound results for leaders needing new perspectives, creative solutions, breakthroughs in communication and teamwork, and a more nimble and energized workforce.

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