Improv Your Way to New Ideas
June 15, 2018

Improv Your Way to New Ideas


I recently watched David Letterman’s ‘My Next Guest is’ interview with Tina Fey — while the entire episode is worthy of your time, the clip below is the inspiration for this post. In it, Tina explains that one of the key rules of improv is “yes, and…”. Someone starts the scene with an idea or scenario and the next person agrees to it, and then builds upon it.

“Yes, and…” is also something we practice in design thinking. It pushes us to expand ideas and add onto them instead of saying, “No,” or “How about this instead?” When we can get beyond our own ideas and truly listen to others, that’s when the possibilities for innovation become limitless.

Tina further explains her rules of improv in the book “Bossypants.” She explains, “Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

Another rule she shares is that there are no mistakes – only opportunities.

“If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on ‘hamster wheel’ duty because I’m ‘too much of a loose cannon’ in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.”

This is similar to one of our rules for ideation – there are no bad ideas. Keeping an open mind and deferring judgment allow us to explore avenues and take risks with our ideas.

So what could an improv-based exercise look like? Here’s how it might work:

Activity: Improv Your Way to New Ideas

Goal: Prototype

Time Frame: 2-5 minutes per idea explored

People: at least two people; a third person to document could be helpful

Materials Needed: video for recording (bonus)

Difficulty Level: Medium (role-playing might be better suited for certain personalities)

Step One: Choose the idea to prototype.

Step Two: The first person creates a scenario related to the idea. For example, if the idea is to build a mobile health clinic, the person might set up the scene to signify they’re taking their daughter to the clinic.

Step Three: Whatever the first person says, no matter how whacky, the second must agree to by following lead and then introducing a new element to the scene. Perhaps they’re a doctor onsite, or they bring life to the mobile clinic and assume a characterized version of it.

Step Four: The first person then responds, and continues to build the scene. With each element that’s added, new details about the mobile clinic will emerge, making room for collaborative iteration. Piecing the puzzle together, you should end up with detailed description of how your mobile health clinic will function, what it looks like, how visitors engage with it, and so on and so forth.

Stay tuned to hear how this exercise works for us, or drop us a note if you decide to try it yourself. Let’s be honest though, anything inspired by Liz Lemon has to be great, right?