Professor Mary Crossan and her team at Western University's Ivey Business School have discovered how the spontaneous and creative facets of jazz and theatre improvisation lead to a better understanding of what it takes to generate the creativity that gives rise to innovation.

Building on a finding by Henry Mintzberg that 90% of what managers do is spontaneous, Crossan and her team differentiate good spontaneity (improvisation) from people just transacting in the moment and doing what they have always done. When put on the spot, most of us have trouble breaking from conventional views to find unique ideas and solutions. Organizations have found that training teams in improvisation through participating in "what if" scenarios enable individuals to experience this shift in thinking. While having the creative mindset to improvise takes individual and team practice, organizations need to address the following elements to cultivate an environment where it can thrive:


"Experienced musicians can make improvisation look easy and natural on stage," states Crossan, "but it goes without saying that years of practice go into learning their instrument, how to play together, how to blend a sound, etc. Beware that experience can work against you if you allow it to lull you into old habits of how you get things done. Instead, as Juno-nominated concert jazz pianist turned entrepreneur, Paul Tobey, suggests: "After building a strong foundation of experience, visualize solving someone's biggest problem. Innovation will naturally take flight."


As professor Crossan explains, it is not so much the length and depth of relationships, but rather that two fundamental qualities exist: cooperation and trust. Improvisation requires "yes-anding" rather than "no" or "yes-but" responses to ideas. Shutting down ideas shared by members of your team kills innovation, and improvisation exercises can quickly identify toxic leaders and relationships.


In order to harness the power of improvisation to innovate, employees must work in a culture that rewards experimentation. "Improvisation requires commitment to the process without promise of an innovative outcome that will suit particular needs," states Crossan. "And history has shown that many great innovations were unexpected consequences of experimentation, with the development of 3M - Post-it notes serving as a great example."


Professor Crossan explains in her paper, Improvisation and performance in teams, that in order to become more improvisational we need to learn to be attentive and alert to what is happening in the now of the organization. This requires an infrastructure that provides the team with relevant real-time information – from within their team and inside/outside their organization.


In the words of jazz great John Coltrane, sometimes "You've got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light." To innovate successfully, teams need to be able to remember and reincorporate what has already been introduced.

Not sure whether training in improvisation is right for your team? Then don't expect results that are any different from what you are currently receiving, Crossan warns.

Learn more by reading the full report: Improvisation and Performance in Teams

Discover how Ontario's innovation ecosystem is helping companies develop breakthrough concepts and technologies



June 23, 2015

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