Innovation, Teamwork and Improvisation

The world of work is characterised by high levels of uncertainty due to constant change, forcing organisations to innovate recurrently in order to survive. Researchers agree that working as part of a team plays a very important role in the process of innovation within organisations, as teams stimulate creativity and innovation. The development of Team Innovation is therefore crucial to help organisations to adapt faster to the demands of change. This emphasis on team innovation is very prevalent in value statements and guiding principles of many organisations.

Having teamwork and innovation as values laminated on your wall is however not going to improve your team’s ability to work more creatively together. Having people work in teams and expecting them to therefore automatically be more innovative, often has the opposite effect. Individuals become in many cases less innovative when they work in a team. The reason for this is the nature of the team’s climate. Team climate refers to the shared perceptions of team members in terms of what is expected of them, work standards, recognition and their feelings about their manager and one another.

The following table shows the characteristics of an innovative team climate in contrast to a non innovative team climate.

Innovative team climate Non-innovative team climate
All the members participate in discussions and decision making. Members don’t participate and decisions are made by the most dominating person.
Members are aware of others and listen to one another. Members don’t listen to one another.
Members take risks and make it safe for others to take risks by accepting failures. Members don’t take risks and ridicule others who take risks that fail.
Control is shared by the whole group.  Individuals take initiative and allow others to take initiative . Control belongs to one person and others aren’t empowered to take initiative.
Ideas are appreciated and there is a high level of trust and support amongst team members. Members don’t trust or support one another and ideas are criticised rather than appreciated.
Members accept and build on each other’s ideas. Members block each other’s ideas.
Members share a clear and common goal. The goal is not clear and not shared by everyone in the team.

So is your team’s climate innovative or non-innovative?  And if it is non-innovative, how can one change it to become innovative?

This was the question that I grappled with when I was doing my Masters research in Industrial Psychology. I looked for teams who succeeded in working together in a team, very creatively under high pressure and much uncertainty, to see what I could learn from them. I found such teams in a place very out of the ordinary, namely Improvisational Theatre. Improv theatre groups work together very creatively under the pressure of a demanding audience and the uncertainty of having no script. How could these people do something so daunting that most people would rather die than do? And this may also be exactly the reason why most teams tend to be more non-innovative that innovative – it is because being creative is scary. It is making yourself vulnerable in front of others. Yet, somehow improvisers have found a way to make it safe and to create a team climate in which creativity can thrive. Improvisers do this by applying a few basic principles of which I will share two in this article.  These are 1) appreciation and 2) building on ideas or in Improvisation lingo … as 1) “make your partner look good” and 2) “yes and”.

In her book, “Time to think”, Nancy Kline emphasizes the importance of appreciation to create a thinking environment. This appreciation of another’s idea is described in Improv by the phrase “Make your partner look good”. It means that when a fellow player makes an offer you make him/her look good by accepting it with enthusiasm. This relates in an organizational context that whatever idea your team members share, you don’t make them feel foolish for sharing it.  You regard their offer as a gift of great value. When team members start appreciating each other’s ideas by focusing on the value of the idea instead of criticising it and looking for reasons why it won’t work it builds trust amongst the members and people start feeling safe to share their ideas.

It doesn’t stop with appreciating ideas however. After you appreciated your team member’s idea, build on it. Actors in an Improvisation theatre group call this acceptance and building on ideas the “yes and” principle. When an idea is not accepted, it is called a “block”. The way we often block one another in real life is by saying “yes but”. Most people are more used to saying “yes but” than “yes and”. Every time someone shares an idea and it is blocked by another team member, the likelihood that the person will share another idea is diminished. Therefore to create an atmosphere that promotes idea sharing, start applying the “yes and” principle.

The “yes and“ principle is more a mindset than anything else. In her TED talk entitled “Improv not just for comedy anymore”, Cat Koppet states that applying “yes and” doesn’t mean that you agree with everyone, but rather that you accept others reality. It is a mindset of accepting a situation and doing something useful with it. Kline notes that the human mind works best in the presence of a whole picture of reality. This contains positive and negative aspects. Most of the time there are more positives than negatives in the complete picture of a situation. Carol Painter, the developer of the Negative Reality Norm Theory, states that according to society a realistic picture of reality is more negative than positive.  Being positive is regarded as naïve and vulnerable. Whereas being critical is informed and sophisticated. Therefore most organizations function on this negative norm, resulting in the pervasiveness of “yes butting” and team climates that stifle innovation.

Right now you might think “yes, but I can’t say yes to all ideas all the time”.  Yes and you might be saying this because you are already in a mindset of “blocking” rather than “accepting”. It is true there are appropriate times to block, but they are far less than appropriate times to accept. Try the “yes and” principle for a day and see what happens.

Click here for an exercise to introduce the “yes and“ principle to your team.

Team Innovation Workshop

A half day workshop for managers and team leaders who want to learn practical ways to develop their team’s ability to collaborate and innovate.

Date: 20 May
Time: 9:00 – 13:00
Venue: Stellenbosch
Contact Burgert on 0822559625 or

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *