Brainstorming with Da Vinci: Chapter 20

The Improv

The Power of And

A concert I will never forget is Robin Williams in the early eighties in Grand Rapids. While most comedians have a highly rehearsed set of jokes and stories, Williams was highly improvisational. He included jokes from news events that happened just days prior—a skit about the toilet malfunctioning on the space shuttle to a local bit about Amway (which has a large presence in Grand Rapids)—and added his hilarious interactions with the audience. His kinetic energy was infectiously funny.

The free-form, positive approach to improv can be a catalyst to great group interactions. Amy Poehler, a well-known actor, and cofounder of the improv group The Upright Citizens Brigade, once said, “Good Improv is like alchemy that is very dependent on the other [participants] and active listening and taking chances and risks.”

The quote from Poehler resonates with me. The best brainstorming sessions have people feeding off each other. This requires actively listening to everyone’s ideas and then throwing your ideas out there.

For some people, throwing their ideas out to others is intimidating and personally risky. This risk must be removed to get the most out of a team.

The Improv

This method is based on the improv “Yes, and” exercise—involving building a story positively from person to person. In this method, the first person would begin the story with a fun or provocative sentence, and the next person would continue the story by starting with “yes, and.” This story would positively build while from one person to the next.

In a brainstorming session, this method is applied by only using “and” and avoiding the word “but.”

Set Expectation in Immersion

The use of the improv should be communicated in the immersion. It reminds people to stay positive and build on ideas for the initial sessions, where the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. It is also worth communicating that following these initial sessions, more sessions will be held to critique the ideas for building them out—or removing them.

Police the “Buts”

For some people, this concept may be difficult to do, at least at first. The group dynamics will be interesting, because the first person to use “but” will be called out. Don’t panic or make a big deal of it when this happens. When the first “but” occurs, point out we should use “and,” and ask the person to reply again using “and” instead of “but.”

Personally, I had to practice this method, being born with a critical gene. My natural inclination is to critique ideas instead of building upon them. So, the power of and is something I now focus on using both in sessions and in life.

Promote Self-Policing

Recommend that your team self-police this method. The group dynamics will be interesting, because as people use the word “but,” someone will respond with an accentuated “and.” As the session continues, people will over emphasize the word “and,” and if someone slips up, it typically results in laughter.

For reference purposes, “but” isn’t the only word you should police. In one session, I got called out for using “however.” The person stated “however” is just a fancy version of “but.” They were right.