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Use Improv to Brainstorm Effectively

At Kohort, we take a cue from theater and comedy to generate new ideas--and enhance morale.
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Once a company starts operating, brainstorming often falls by the wayside.  But there's a cost to that—big ideas get missed and, unexpectedly, your team's morale may lag.

So every week I huddle with the team at Kohort, the social media company I co-founded, for a brainstorming session.  The group and I meet every Wednesday at 5PM.  If we don't have a topic we need to address, we brainstorm one.  Sometimes we brainstorm about the future, working through how we want the company to operate years down the road.

While at first glance, this might seem like a waste of time, I know it's not.  While it does consume the attention of everyone on the team for an hour—and adds up to quite a few man-hours—it's invaluable.

Brainstorming forces everyone to get out of the weeds and focus on the big picture.  It's a chance to come up for air and remember how the whole project fits together and why we're here.  Brainstorming makes the North Star shine a little brighter.

Brainstorming forces us all to think deeply and critically.  We unveil new ideas and illuminate previously unnoticed shortcomings. We find ways to be better.  Sometimes, we change our path.

Most importantly, brainstorming unifies our team. The act of brainstorming weaves our various ideas, hopes, and dreams together.  It defines a vision for each topic that unifies divergent perspectives and aligns us more closely around a common goal. In this way, it also—I believe—is helping us to reach our potential.

At Kohort, we use improv to brainstorm.

During my first week at Columbia Business School in the fall of 2007, class was interrupted to do an exercise with an improv troop.   Not being much of a thespian, I scowled thinking that my time was about to be wasted.  I was totally wrong.

While the leaders of this exercise were actors by trade, they came to Columbia to teach us how to brainstorm.  Improv is a unique cross-section of theater and comedy.  What's special about it is the absence of a script.  With no plans, preparation, or choreography a group of people can create a story on the fly, and do so seamlessly.  

The key to the technique I learned then, and have since adapted at Kohort, is a two word phrase:  "Yes…and…"

While it's a simple little phrase, it's an important one.  "Yes…and…" encourages momentum, fluidity, and acceleration in a conversation.  No matter what someone mentions before you, if you build on it by saying "yes…and…" the conversation is taken down unexpected paths.

I've found what's so special about this system is that it can transform the most idiotic comments into brilliant insights.  When someone provides unfiltered, knee-jerk reactions to another person's suggestions, we have the opportunity to tap into new ways of thinking.  Pinned together, a series of knee-jerk reactions can take ideas further and further from conventional thinking, triggering a stroke of genius. 

The key to this system is that anything goes.  By encouraging people to share any obscure and even bizarre ideas for solving a problem, you introduce new color and perspective that can help other people in the room think about a new dimension of the issue, igniting profound and deeply rational solutions.  One person's wacky suggestion can help unearth a deep insight from another person.

We keep the rules for our brainstorming sessions quite simple.  We start by all throwing out ideas for the topic of the day, we review them as a team and select one.  I then start the brainstorming session by asking the problem as a question. 

"How can we promote our product?" 

Then the team starts to work their magic. 

The first rule is that every person must start their response with the phrase, "Yes…and..." 

"Yes..and…" we can rent a hot air balloon." 

"Yes..and…" we can fly it over a baseball game."

And so on.  No matter how crazy the ideas are we write them on the whiteboard.

The only other rule is that no one is allowed to use the word "no" or ever react negatively to an idea.  If "yes…and…" is the gas pedal, "no" is a giant screeching break.  It interrupts the rhythm and makes people embarrassed to offer their otherwise ridiculous knee-jerk reactions—killing the creative process.

The vast majority of our brainstorm suggestions are wacky. But the hour-long exercise usually yields some very compelling ideas—ideas we use in our business and would have been far worse off without.




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