What Jazz Improvisation, Second City Theatre and the Grateful Dead Teach Us About Innovation

What Jazz Improvisation, Second City Theatre and the Grateful Dead Teach Us About Innovation

By Keith Sawyer

by Keith Sawyer

Managers love certainty. MBA degree programs are designed to teach you how to create certainty and minimize uncertainty. And the same is true of innovation management. Standard operating practice is to formalize a linear process—typically, some variation of the “stage-gate” methodology. Of course, everyone knows that innovation isn’t completely predictable and that a large number of new projects will fail. Managers are taught to quantify this with net present value and risk calculations. These then allow them to develop a “portfolio” of new projects that balances high cost/high reward with low cost/low reward.

However, innovation scholars have come to a consensus of late: These techniques for reducing uncertainty do not work when it comes to breakthrough, radical innovation. There are many reasons, but perhaps the most important is that surprising and original ideas emerge from a non-linear process, and methodologies like stage-gate assume that innovation follows a linear process. Innovation and creativity tend to follow a “zig zag” process, with false starts and surprising changes in direction.

In the last year, the business press has picked up on this, and the trendy word for a dramatic change in direction is a “pivot”. The word became popular terminology after Facebook purchased Instagram for $1B, when everyone read the story of how Instagram started out as a location-sharing app called burbn before its developers “pivoted” to transform the software into a photo-sharing app.

But innovation managers aren’t helpless in the face of the unpredictable and zig-zagging nature of the creative process. There are important lessons available from surprising sources: jazz musicians, improv comedy actors, and even stoner ’60s legends the Grateful Dead. What these super-creative groups all share is a focus on ensemble improvisation. The performance emerges, unpredictable and unplanned, from the creative interactions among the performers. And in spite of this unpredictability, these groups have figured out systematic techniques and strategies that, more often than not, lead to effective performances.

The zig-zagging nature of improvisation applies perfectly to business innovation, once you realize that innovation is never about a single brilliant insight. Instead, innovation emerges, over time, from a series of small ideas (whether from a single person or contributed by different members of a group). As these ideas are each shared, it changes how everyone else perceives the nature of the problem, and it prompts new thoughts about potential solutions. The challenge is to manage the process so that, more often than not, it leads to successful and profitable innovation.

In my research, I’ve identified eight stages or practices that are associated with successfully weaving through the zigs and zags toward successful creative outcomes.

  1. ASK: Find and formulate the problem
  2. LEARN: Acquire knowledge relevant to the problem
  3. LOOK: Gather a broad range of potentially related information
  4. PLAY: Take time off for incubation
  5. THINK: Generate a large variety of ideas
  6. FUSE: Combine ideas in unexpected ways
  7. CHOOSE: Select the best ideas
  8. MAKE: Externalize your ideas

It’s tempting to consider these eight stages as yet another variation of a linear creative process. But in exceptional creativity, the steps overlap and interweave—as often as every day or every week. The creative process is nonlinear and improvisational—and yet, if managed well, it can consistently lead to successful creativity.

There’s a key to this form of successful management: (1) Provide everyone with open space in their daily schedule to allow the natural unfolding flow of creativity to happen. (2) Provide spaces and cultural norms that foster people coming together to share and exchange their ideas. (3) Make sure that new ideas continually build on the ideas of others so that the creative process is always moving forward. (4) Work to constantly improve, revise and edit existing ideas—sometimes so dramatically they become unrecognizable.

Image © Aude Vanlathem / www.audevan.com

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.