How Can the Use of Improvisation Skills Unlock Innovation Creativity?

By Francine Stevens

Innovation is about challenging existing ways of doing things, asking the difficult questions and thinking differently. It means bringing the right people together in the right place at the right time, and letting them be creative. As a leader and coach in innovation, I facilitate many design thinking workshops to help our most adventurous customers come up with ideas to change their businesses from the ground up.

When training others within the business to lead these workshops, I am often asked about the role of improvisation in innovation and brainstorming. How can it be used when facilitating these workshops to unlock the groups’ creativity and passion?

Why improvise?

We know that leading any brainstorming session or innovation workshop requires the facilitator to be agile; to have the ability to take whatever may come their way and possess the mastery to direct people’s energy positively towards the overarching goals.

Improvisation skills can help build listening skills, strengthen collaboration, increase your agility and adaption to change, help to manage difficult conversations, improve essential story telling skills, develop trust, rapport, communication and confidence.

Before understanding why improvisation skills are important in innovation, first, what is improvisation?

So what is improvisation?

Is it working together as a jazz band and performing improvised solos? Children getting creative with their friends and building something imaginative? Looking in the pantry and being able to create a remarkable dish working with just what you have? Demonstrating resourcefulness, knowledge and ingenuity to resolve a complex situation with something simple in the hour of need, or being entertained by talented actors with their quick off the wall thinking?

So, is it a science, art, or is it a skill?

You can find many definitions online by various experts in their field but I think the definition also depends on the context for which you are improvising. As for the role of innovators, I believe the definition is: “The ability in that very moment to create something quickly out of nothing, in collaboration with others. To be bold, confident, without fear of failure”.

The principles of innovation

Regardless of how and when you improvise, there are some fundamental principles that consistently hold strong when leading innovation workshops.


Be courageous. There are no wrong ideas or answers – it is not about perfection or having all the answers. Your opinion, knowledge and unique experiences (as well as everyone else’s in the room) is as relevant and valuable as the next person's.

With good improvisation, you don’t have time to wait, reflect or even overthink. You are in the moment and must be focused on moving forward.

Be bold, confident and courageous. Just like any sport or profession, it takes practice so keep working to improve.


Innovation and improvisation is a team sport; we win and succeed together. Appreciate everyone’s unique experiences and the skills that they contribute to the team.

Have empathy and listen. Work together, be flexible, give, take others' suggestions in a brainstorm, add a little to it and see where it goes. It’s important to support each other and build on things together. Generosity is critical for effective collaboration. Adam Grant, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School gives a great interview with McKinsey’s Rik Kirkland, why selfishness fails and how working with, for, and through others continues to be the recipe for personal and organizational success.

Rather than imposing yourself, it’s critical to complement what is happening in the moment and allow others to have their own ‘lightbulb’ moments and shine.


Focus and listen to each other with no defined agenda and then react. You don’t know where that idea is going to lead, but you can be sure if you don’t accept the idea it’s going nowhere! A great tip is to form the habit to use the words ‘yes and’ to start your sentence.

Be aware of your physical posture and stay open to be ready to take the ‘catch.’ Be aware that defensiveness can shut the brainstorming down. Be open, be available, accept the ideas, say YES and build upon it.


Innovation has energy and life. Use emotion and your story telling skills to inspire, add energy and motivate people.

If the energy or momentum drops, ask open questions that can push it forward and lead to more ideas. Focus on the wins when giving feedback as opposed to what may be wrong with their ideas as it will shut people’s participation down. Avoid closed questions, as these can also prematurely end or block a conversation or idea.

When a good idea is surfaced from a brainstorm, keep questioning further. Don’t settle on good, keep the momentum and lead the idea to GREAT. How can it be even better?


As a facilitator ensure to convey your idea or point efficiently to allow more space for everyone to reflect, think and contribute. Resist the urge to fill the space of silence with waffle. These moments of silence are just as important for the process for the individual and group. If the momentum is slowing down, recharge the discussion with an open question to move it forward again.

Most importantly, creativity and improvisation is about having fun.

Find the joy in spontaneity and the unknown. Say ‘yes’ and a world of ideas for business transformation will open up in your innovation workshops.

Francine’s global experience spans almost 20 years with a variety of roles in enterprise telecommunications and technology, focused on driving growth and added value for customers. Bringing together her experience across the various functions of the business to foster and enable innovation she is continually refining the Innovation practices using lean and agile methodologies, developing tools and approaches to support a culture of change and to assist enterprise’s transform their business.