Guest Blog: Four Steps To Creating an Innovative and Improvisational Team

Karen Hough

Everybody wants innovation. Yet companies are risk-averse and people are uncomfortable with change. What’s the answer? Improvisation. The companies and people that continue to thrive and innovate display the same behaviors as successful improv troupes.

Why do we need to innovate and improvise? Andrey Kunov, Ph.D., of the Silicon Valley Innovation Center predicts that, “Based on adaptability, 40 percent of the Fortune 500 will be gone in 10 years.” Do you work in a team stuck in old behaviors, or one that knows how to improvise?

Improvisation is the art form where 5-7 actors perform with no script, props or costumes, and create a show in the moment. That improvisers’ ability to create, think on their feet, manage change and collaborate has never been more critical for corporations and professionals than it is now—a time of relentless change and unexpected events. Let’s examine the four phases that mark a successful improv cycle: Prepare, Play, Think Upside Down and Change.

  1. Prepare: The single most absent behavior in corporate America today is practice. No performer would hit the stage without rehearsal and no athletic team would take the field without practice. Why do we think we can run a meeting/win a negotiation/crush a presentation at work without practice? Improvisers are the most over-rehearsed people in the performance industry—they are ready for anything. Advance preparation allows you to be ready when the unexpected strikes, lower your stress so that you can observe activity around you, innovate and come out on top.
  2. Play: Dr. Stuart Brown found that play is not only important to brain and physical development, it is a key to our evolutionary progress. Improvisers make mistakes, play games, laugh. A spirit of playfulness allows us to stay relaxed and access our higher brain functions. Social, fun interaction continues to be a proven part of successful teams—their playful connections allow them to collaborate on a much higher level and the outcomes in profit and new ideas are measurable.
  3. Think Upside Down: Improvisers are always looking for a different angle, “the third idea”. That means never going for the obvious. To push the performance envelope, improvisers strive to surprise the audience. If someone shouts, “Potato chips,” the last thing a good improviser does is pantomime crunching on chips. Think about ways you can take the least-likely approach, and ask disruptive questions: What if we did the opposite of our assumptions? What if we reversed the model? What if we changed our vision?
  4. Change: It’s scary, difficult and inevitable. It’s also the improvisers’ stock in trade. Improvisers keep finding new ways to delight the audience. Examine your own response to change; even if it seems awful at the time, there is always a lesson, a competitive advantage or an innovation hiding inside there somewhere. So, rather than running away screaming, take a breath. Look around, especially in places you normally would avoid. Ask some questions and make connections. Now you’re improvising, and change will seem far less scary.

Think like an improviser. Next time you are with your team, engage in the Improv Cycle: Prepare, Play, Think Upside Down, Change. Then start all over again. You’ll have the flexibility and process to create an innovative and improvisational team.

Karen Hough’s third book is available online, Go With It, Embrace the Unexpected to Drive Change. Hough is the CEO of, an award-winning entrepreneur and speaker, bestselling author, Yale grad and blogger for the Huffington Post.

Karen Hough