Promiscuous Hostility, Positive Neutrality, Part 1

Interview with John Sweeney, Author of Innovation at the Speed of Laughter and Return to Civility, and Owner of The Brave New Workshop
By Vern Burkhardt
"Treat each other in a way that creates a culture that lends itself to more and better ideas. Then refine those ideas really quickly in order to deliver innovative products."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Would you tell us about The Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre, Brave New Institute, and Brave New Workshop Corporate Services Division?

photoJohn Sweeney: It's relatively easy for me to do this because we just went through a new branding process.

The Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre is the mother ship of our organization – it's the oldest comedy theatre in the U.S. that does satirical and sketch comedy. It's a wonderfully unique place which was founded by Dudley Riggs who was a 5th generation circus performer. He broke 42 bones in one aerialist fall in Blackpool, England while touring with the circus, so he decided he didn't want to do high wire acts anymore. Riggs went back to New York with a group of acrobatic folks and other circus performers and started what they called the Instant Theatre Company. This was during the last days of Vaudeville.

Their theatre consisted of a group of people on stage with a trunk filled with of lots of costumes, hats and glasses. They would ask for suggestions from the audience and do instant theatre off the top of their heads. At the time they didn't know they were founding American improvisational comedy, but they certainly were. In the mid-50's the group took their show on the road and during one of their stops Dudley Riggs fell in love with a woman in Minneapolis. This motivated Riggs and his circus people to establish roots in Minnesota. In May 1958 they proclaimed themselves to be "The Brave New Workshop."

In those days they were known for improvisational comedy and for their coffee shop. They had the first espresso coffee shop on the western side of the Mississippi River. At the time when the Ringling Bros circus group was performing around the world it wasn't easy to bring cash into the U.S. so when in Italy Riggs traded his services for an espresso machine, and had it shipped to America. We still have that espresso machine in our building. It's a glorious thing with two bronze eagles on top – it's quite a large piece of equipment.

VB: Does it still work?

John Sweeney: Yes, it still works! We had to rework how it produces steam because it used to virtually have a full boiler attached to it. Since its beginning in 1958 the comedy theatre and espresso house continued to attract forward thinking people--actors, writers, journalists, and political science majors from the University of Minnesota. Year after year, decade after decade, they developed a specific brand of comedy and improvisation, and we're still in operation 51½ years later. The Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre is the third oldest theatre of its kind in all of Minnesota and so it's a well-known institution here.

On September 21st Dudley Riggs was given a Lifetime Achievement award at the Ivey Awards recognizing accomplishments by the City of Minneapolis' theatre community. It's our version of the Tony Awards, and Rigg's recognition honored the impact he has had as an institution in our theatre community here in Minneapolis.

VB: And the Brave New Institute?

John Sweeney: The Institute is our 40-year old school of improvisation. Some people said, "Wow, those people in the theatre group are good at making stuff up and making us laugh. What's the process they use? How do they hone their skills?" For a long time people have asked us to teach them how to do it.

My wife, Jenni Lilledahl, and I bought the theatre and school from Dudley Riggs in March 1997, and since then my wife has taken the school to the next level. Now we have more than 200 students who come to us each week for about 3 hours. We have split the Institute into two tracks of education. One is for performance, for people who want to learn the art form of performing as actors. The other is for people who want to learn improvisation, and then apply those skills to their daily lives as parents, friends, and people in the workplace.

VB: What are the activities of the Brave New Workshop Corporate Services Division?

John Sweeney: The Corporate Services Division is where I spend most of my time. It's a group of about 10 people that takes what we know from our theatre – our art form – and transfers this to organizations. Our position statement is that we take the gifts, traditions, skills, and culture of The Brave New Workshop Theatre, together with the art form of improvisation, and apply it all to transform the employees of the organizations we work with. This helps them be more innovative and nimble in the ever-changing work environment. It provides them with a better sense of team, and they acquire leadership skills. There is a wide breadth of ways in which all of this gets packaged to help organizations perform better.

VB: The motto for The Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre is "Promiscuous Hostility, Positive Neutrality." Does that guide your performances and business operations?

John Sweeney: It does. It's not just literal; it's the working motto of our theatre. "Promiscuous hostility, positive neutrality" means we will examine the follies and foibles of society, and then be promiscuous and hostile in our approach to them. We will take these follies and foibles head on because our comedy theatre deals with issues from a satirical point of view. We are not performing just to be silly, shocking, rude or irreverent. We really want to have a point to the sketches we write and perform.

The positive neutrality is that we are willing to take on any issue, but we are neutral and positive towards the solutions to those issues. We try to ride both sides of the political aisle and look at any issue without a bias – we just try to expose the issue.

The goal of the theatre is always to make the audience laugh, and on the way home from the theatre hopefully people will start a dialogue about the issues we illuminate on stage. Perhaps this dialogue will lead to some sort of solution.

We take on hard issues like how to solve Minnesota racism, any type of political inequality that's going on, or the things that make our society cringe – the type of thing that Hollywood does. We watch for the next misstep of society and then we satirize it. We translate it differently.

Our motto of "promiscuous hostility, positive neutrality" also applies to our Corporate Services Division. It refers to the spirit of being willing to have courageous conversations with our clients and their employees about challenging things. We have a spirit of taking on tough issues, and not being afraid of going into an organization and saying we need to look at things differently.

The goods news is that everything we do involves laughter first. It seems that in our corporate consulting work it's easy for us to deal with tough issues because we always make our audiences and clients laugh first. This opens up the gateway to learning and dialogue.

VB: What is improvisation?

John Sweeney: I need to describe it in two different ways for two different uses or audiences.

From our theatre and an entertainment standpoint it's a group of people in front of an audience, and they ask that audience for suggestions. Most typically, those suggestions would be for an imaginary location where the scene will take place, the relationships between the actors, who are they, and what they are trying to accomplish. These types of suggestions are received in lots of different ways, and then our actors perform "instant theatre" – theatre without a net. Acting out these suggested themes usually lasts anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes.

Our brand of improvisational entertainment is a bit different from others, and we like the fact that there are many different types of improvisation. Our type is quite scenic, so you won't find gimmicky improvisation. We request the factual information we need for a scene, then based on suggestions create a piece of theatre in front of our audience.

Our second type of improvisation isn't for entertaining or theatrical use. It's sharing space and time with people who have the skills and willingness to move forward, trying to find a solution that doesn't exist yet. We believe that all of us are improvising all day long. In business people try to figure out the company's next product, internal initiative, big idea, or differentiation point in the market. Or they try to determine what will be the next cultural change to engage employees. We think that process is very improvisational.

We think that systems, analysis, and strategies help these improvisational processes become more streamlined and effective. Our contribution is to introduce improvisational skills that enable the business leaders and employees to find solutions a little bit quicker and perhaps more innovatively.

VB: You indicate that your Corporate Services Division is the most profitable. Does this mean your messages about improvisation strike a positive cord with the business world?

John Sweeney: They do. We have been very fortunate.

About 7 years ago we started asking ourselves, "What about taking these core improvisation assets and beliefs to the business world?" At that point 90% of our gross revenues for the whole organization came from theatre ticket sales and classes at the Brave New Institute. Today, about 65% of our gross revenues are from our corporate services division. Fortunately, we've grown this division to the point where it's now a 7-digit piece of business each year.

VB: People are receptive to the benefits of improv, they keep using your services.

John Sweeney: Yes. During our recent branding process we received some wonderful information. Our Corporate Services Division folks talked to lots of our clients, and we received a 100% satisfaction rating from 100% of the respondents.

I think part of this satisfaction rating is because we are blessed to have a great group of people working for us. The improv art form is also beneficial. People get a chance to look at their behaviors and workplace through a different set of glasses. The glasses we ask them to use are fun and different. Our improv methods are accessible and palatable to all kinds of folks, so in some ways it's not due to our strategy or skill set. We stumbled upon a really cool art form that we can bring to the workplace.

VB: Given the 100% success rate you received in your client survey, do you still have to constantly change in order to stay current?

John Sweeney: Yes, and especially in the last 18 months. Two years ago the bulk of our corporate services work was a couple of others and me giving large event keynote speeches. For example, in 2008 I made 126 keynote speeches. They were usually the classic model of having hundreds of people gathered in a nice hotel or resort, an agenda covering a couple of days, followed by some golf. We'd give the participants some new information, ideas for different strategies, motivational presentations, we'd thank them, and then they'd go back to their workplaces.

With the new economy this type of gathering doesn't happen as often. I'm sure it's the same with a lot of the folks you are talking with. It's not only budgetary restrictions, perceptions have also affected that type of event business. Even clients who have the ability to have those events from a budget standpoint don't want the perception that they are having the classic boondoggle. This has changed things for us quite a bit.

cover of Innovation at the Speed of LaughterMostly through luck we've developed a business model that attaches ourselves to clients more than events. Although we are not doing as many large events we are busier than ever. For example, Microsoft is probably our most frequent client. We have such a strong and deep relationship with them that we are still doing 20 or 30 events per year, but now it's mostly on their campus. Our business model asks who are the 50 to 100 companies we like to work with, who appreciate what we have to offer, and for whom we add value. Even with the depressed economy our relationship with those key customers hasn't changed much.

We are also always looking for ways to increase our scope and scale. We are about 80% done with producing what we think is a pretty exciting new e-learning product. The Brave New Workshop is developing the product. We hope this e-learning experience will be able to translate what it's like to be in a live improvisational exercise. We also hope it will be one of the most enjoyable, entertaining, and funny e-learning experiences on the market.

We started producing this e-learning product about 16 months ago, not because of the economy, but because we wanted to broaden how much we can do in any one-year. I have a wonderful wife, and six and four year old sons, and 150 or 160 airline trips per year do not a good husband or father make. This is one part of how we are trying to figure out a way for me to not have to fly 3 or 4 times a week.

VB: Has the current economic downturn increased the demand for your creative input?

John Sweeney: It has increased the demand, but there has also been a shift in the use of it.

About 2 years ago it was, "Please come and help us act like improvisers so we can come up with more ideas, refine them quickly, and find the next big idea. What will be the next iPod? What is the next big, sexy idea for our organization?"

Now, with the economic downturn, the demand continues but the request is more in the order of, "Please come and teach us in a very efficient way how improvisers do what they do, and show us how they perceive both good and bad as gifts. Teach us how to be nimble in times of changing chaos."

My most popular speeches these days – almost all of them – deal with how to use improvisational skills to keep people engaged and focused in a time of chaos and change. As improvisers there are always lots of variables and different, unpredictable environments. There's rarely a clear strategy. We don't have budgets. We don't have tools. We just have our point of view and the present moment. There are lots of things we can translate from being a good improviser to being an engaged employee who, despite some of the chaos and change that might be in the work environment, still stays focused and productive.

VB: What is the "Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Verbal Square Dance?"

John Sweeney: That's a term that gets chuckles and cringes from my in-laws, because I'm 100% Irish Catholic. I married a Norwegian Lutheran. Minnesota is so wonderfully Scandinavian, wonderfully Lutheran, and wonderfully passive aggressive at communicating.

We use this term as a fun way to describe some of the communication breakdowns that happen in organizations in which people aren't immediately forthright with their point of view, good or bad. We use the analogy to the Minnesota Lutheran people where nobody steps forward and says exactly what they're thinking – they all just do this verbal square dance. They use terms like "Yeah, that's real nice," or "Sure, that would be fine."

I think a clear example of it in the workplace is the meeting after the meeting, where you ask everyone on a team to communicate and be clear about their point of view. You think you've gotten as much input as you can, but then the meeting after the meeting happens in the bathrooms, on the golf course, over the telephones, and maybe even through social networking. And then people disclose how they really feel. As a leader you wish they would say what they think at the first meeting, because that information would help find a solution.

The Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Verbal Square Dance is a cute way of describing this communication phenomenon.

VB: Visually the idea of a square dance is it results in going in circles.

John Sweeney: Absolutely. Perhaps more importantly for me, it's an easy way for me to make fun of my in-laws!

VB: You mentioned "the meeting after the meeting." Would you talk about how facilitators and leaders can work to prevent this somewhat negative phenomenon?

John Sweeney: They have to have a courageous conversation with themselves, and then with their teams, asking, "What conditions exist that are preventing people from feeling comfortable and safe enough to declare their point of view in the first meeting? Why are they sitting on their hands? Why are they not opening their mouths?"

About 5 or 6 years ago when I was examining this question, I assumed the leader or facilitator of a meeting or the leader of an organization was somehow showing behavior that was reducing the motivation of the other people or intimidating them. I assumed it almost always was the fault of the leader or facilitator. I've completely switched my point of view over the last 5 years.

I've met many leaders who are wonderful people, are always empowering their employees, and who want the best from everyone. It's those who are being led who decide, usually because of status – and sometimes artificial status – that they are not going to say anything.

In meetings I'm pretty aggressive when people don't participate and express themselves. Maybe I'm promiscuous or hostile in my approach about this very point because I challenge our audiences. I will say, "If you believe you work in an organization or on a team, but you think your honest opinion and your true self will not be welcomed – that you will be judged – then you should quit your job. You should go to a different port, because life is too short." I use that kind of blunt language because, at least in my observation and research, it's a bit fictional or exaggerated when people say, "Oh, I can't say anything because my boss will judge me." I know some leaders are like that, but in general most leaders are wonderful people. So I challenge people to be a little more outspoken than they often are.

VB: It may be that they take that position because they are trying to resist change.

John Sweeney: Yeah. Maybe because they want to stay in their comfortable place, and not because the leader doesn't want change. I don't know.

The last time I checked most leaders understand that the new, profitable ideas come from a shift, a little bit of change. They are almost always trying to incite change. Yet sometimes when they walk into a room full of their employees, they must think, "I'm not going to say anything because I don't want to be at risk of another failure to engage generate excitement."

VB: Why does laughter increase learning, creativity, innovation, and productivity?

John Sweeney: It's a kind of lubricant, an elixir, or an accelerator.

I sometimes think of laughter almost as misting – you mist the culture with laughter. It's almost like pixie dust. When the culture is more filled with levity and laughter things tend to be a little bit looser. I don't mean that people lose their focus, rather that their ideas and accessibility to their true selves becomes easier to reach. They can get new, creative ideas faster. They can be their most authentic selves and feel a bit more comfortable. Perhaps, if it was expressed, we would hear, "It's going to be okay," or "I can take a bit bigger risk."

Laughter has those positive elements but sometimes humor doesn't, especially if it's not delivered in the right way or it's not the right type of humor. I think one of the reasons we are so busy is, as professional comedians, we tend to be able to understand the room, the focus, and the culture. Then we use appropriate humor and delivery to generate genuine laughter. Our view is "They laugh, and then they learn." It's almost a precursor to learning.

If there are people with arms folded or their laptops open when I go on stage in a large hall or ballroom, or walk into a room and start talking, once I get them laughing their laptops are shut down and their arms get unfolded. The imagery for me is if their mouth is open because they're full of laughter, then their bodies and ears are open. Once this occurs we can begin the joint experience of gaining some knowledge.

VB: Does it help people generate new ideas?

John Sweeney: Yeah. It's hard to simultaneously be laughing and judging yourself. It is also hard to simultaneously be laughing and judging someone else's idea.

Typically, laughter seems to be a forward moving behavior. It may even be reflected in your body position. You easily go onto the next idea. You want the next laugh. It's fun.

There are so many different analogies. When I watch my four year old I witness the difference between the risks he'll take, the new ideas that will come into his head, when he is smiling and laughing compared to when he is fretting or fearful. It almost seems like he's two different human beings. When he is laughing, he is confident. When he is laughing, he loves taking risks. He'll eat asparagus if he is laughing hard enough!

Laughter seems to push people out of their comfort zones because it is a safety rope. "Relax, we're all laughing! Okay, I'll take the risk!"

VB: What has to be done to convince leaders who take themselves too seriously?

John Sweeney: I guess it's a bit of an "unlearning" process. At least that's how it typically feels with the leaders we work with.

Society doesn't ask leaders to be playful. Since the first day these poor folks were identified as potential leaders, maybe from the day they took the Myers-Briggs aptitude test and were told they were "ENTJ" personalities or whatever the optimum leadership personality is considered to be, we have tended to expect them to take themselves seriously. Perhaps they've even taken a MBA!

We consistently ask these leaders to do serious, important things for us. So they may not have a lot of practice in not taking themselves too seriously, in engaging in laughter and having fun. Corporate expectations, and certainly boards of directors, try to convince them there are rewards for being serious and focusing only on success.

One of the rewards when leaders don't take themselves too seriously is they can show some authentic vulnerability. When leaders show authentic vulnerability they aren't thought of as fools by the people being led; people are going to know their leaders are just like them, have flaws just like them, and have to work hard just like them. Vulnerability seems to build a strong, authentic connection between a leader and the people being led.

Also, we advise leaders that there are appropriate times for them not to take themselves too seriously, times when it results in taking some of the pressure off them, and in recharging their batteries. Otherwise they will be under constant stress because they're the ones who are being counted on to drive their companies to be successful.

Whether leaders take themselves too seriously also depends on their personality. Some do so because they have experienced failure. I was the youngest of eight children in an Irish Catholic farm family. I didn't have the luxury of taking myself too seriously, because I had seven older brothers and sisters to constantly remind me that it wasn't a good idea!

VB: You would have starved if you took yourself too seriously.

John Sweeney: That's right!

VB: Of the eight secrets of the Brave New Workshop's creativity, is any one of them the most important?

John Sweeney: It depends on the task at hand.

If it's coming up with new ideas or being innovative, deferring judgment is the most important secret. This is because it's the hardest to learn, or perhaps it would be better to say it's the hardest to unlearn.

In any traditional academic approach we are constantly trying to figure out how to critique or deal with being critiqued. When we become leaders we focus on figuring out what's wrong with, and improving, the things that come our way.

As a trainer, it's sometimes really challenging in small group sessions, to see that it's almost human nature for participants to instantly think of what's wrong with an idea when it is first generated.

We just did some work with a wonderful woman, Kathy Cramer, who talks about asset-based thinking in a book she co-authored with Hank Wasiak called Change the Way You See Everything Through Asset-Based Thinking. She is a PHD Neurologist and tells us there is a good reason why we tend to be deficit-based thinkers, why we figure out what's wrong with things. It's because, from an evolutionary standpoint, if we didn't a saber-toothed tiger would eat us. We have instinctual survival mechanisms, and the first thing our brain does is ask, "Hey, is this going to kill us?" Our first impulse is to not want to walk into a cave, because there is a sound in there. Cathy said evolutionary experience has led to our tendency to be negative about a new idea – it was needed for survival.

This tendency is even needed in the corporate world, because you don't want to implement stupid ideas. Our belief is that when this tendency is not needed it's the beginning of a creative or innovative process. It's that part of the process which doesn't apply budgets, staff, or strategy. It's simply trying to expand a thought or idea to be as far reaching as possible, and getting as much ammunition as possible to start the mathematical process of getting to the real solution.

What I see a lot of, including in myself after 18 years of practicing improvisation, is a tendency to immediately judge a new idea. I figure out what's wrong with it, because I don't want to make mistakes.

When someone learns how to defer judgment, things get a lot easier. A lot easier.

VB: Would you talk about the 8 secrets of a brainstorming session, and tell us which are the most important?

John Sweeney: There are different uses for the skills of improvising, depending on what you are trying to do. One of our best clients is PricewaterhouseCoopers, and we want everyone to know we understand improvisational auditing is a felony, and we're not advocating it at all!

Your question was specifically about brainstorming. When you are trying to get a group of people to come up with lots of ideas there are two things that go hand in hand. The first is the status secret – you need to be able to reduce status in the room. As improvisers we find that the existence of status in the room is directly related to the quantity and quality of ideas that are going to be generated by a brainstorm. The status could be the typical one, "My boss is in the room, and so I don't want to screw up."

Status can also be established through participants' quick judgment. The facilitator will likely have said the classic, "There are no bad ideas. We just want to fill up this white board with ideas." If you come up with your first idea, and verbalize and share it, status will immediately be created if you see someone rolling their eyes, taking a deep breath, or you hear the words, "We've tried that before," "I don't think the client will like it," or "It doesn't meet our brand." It's Pavlovian. I come up with an idea, I see a smile, and I come up with more ideas. I come up with an idea, I hear judgment, I go back to my cubicle – it's not fun.

The second important secret is accepting all ideas. When we are working with a group and say, "We will accept all ideas", two things often happen. First, some people think, "He means all ideas we have a budget for, our boss will like, that meet our brand, and are executable." Those factors will apply to some of the ideas, but we find that about 99.9% of ideas are still out there. So we stress that by "all ideas" we mean "any and all ideas." Second, some think that what is being sought is "all ideas in their implementable stage." To counteract this we remind the group that, like a good piece of art or engineering, what we implement will probably be much different and certainly much more refined than the raw idea we generated at the beginning of the brainstorming process. We are not talking about "all implementable ideas;" we're talking about "all ideas."

VB: You say, "The skill of accepting all ideas is perhaps one of the hardest to teach to both improvisers and business professionals." We generally understand how this works in a brainstorming session but how do you teach this skill so it guides behavior in day-to-day interactions?

John Sweeney: We don't trick our clients, but we do set them up to practice those skills in a different way. We have about 140 exercises for the groups we work with. These exercises come from our Brave New Institute, and we refine them so they make sense in the context of the workplace.

If we are trying to get folks to accept ideas, we do exercises where the risk is low and the subject matter for creating ideas is well known. One example is an exercise where there are two lines of people facing each other, one will mime they are holding a gift, and will present it to the other person. The other person will say, "What is in the box?" and the first person will be able to name anything they want. The first thing out of the mouth of the person receiving the box has to be "Thank you", and they then have to come up with a positive use for whatever is in the box. In the first round it will be something positive that you might get for your birthday, like chocolate or a puppy. Then in the second round we ask that the box contain something a little bit more negative – something that might illicit a response of, "What would I ever do with that?" In the third round we ask that the box contain specific things from their workplace that tend to be obstacles to their innovating or getting things done.

We subsequently facilitate a discussion about how the progression of what was in the box became exceedingly more difficult when we got to the workplace items. It's easy to say, "Thank you for that box of chocolates. I'm going to share it with my family. It's going to be great." But it will likely be less positive and more difficult to say, "Thank you for that reassignment into a new department, for which I don't have a very good skill set." The exercise eases people into being more positive about new ideas, new occurrences at the workplace. This exercise is kind of cool, because we also try to give the participants a new vocabulary for the process.

We don't use the word "idea" very much at these workshops; we use the word "gift." We have transposed "idea" to "gift" because as performers with 208 people in the full house who've paid $25 for you to make them laugh, if you enter a new scene and all of a sudden can't think of anything – not one thing, if another improv team member comes onstage and offers you an idea you never have one thought about judging that idea. You don't judge that human being; you don't consider how long they have been with the firm, where they went to college, their religious background, or any of the other things we use to judge others all day long while at work. All that happens to you, at that point as a performer, is you are filled with gratitude that someone gave you something because you had nothing. They gave you a gift.

In the exercise I talked about we try to transmit that type of gratitude and positive outlook, and encourage people to bring this approach to new ideas and to the workplace. We are not saying implement everything, and we are not advising that participants be a "yes" person all the time. We are saying, at the appropriate part of the process, be open-minded and find the positive aspect of whatever comes your way.

VB: Would you talk about the "Jiffy Pop" syndrome as it relates to the production of ideas in an organization?

John Sweeney: That was a fun analogy. We wrote the book as an ensemble in the same way we do our show.

While we were talking and asking each other questions, someone said "Sweeney, how does it feel when you are facilitating a brainstorming session, and it is working really, really well?" It feels the same as how I felt when as a young lad around a campfire, I would put a packet of Jiffy Pop popcorn on the grill and hear the oil start to boil, and then – a pop, and a pop, and a pop pop. Before I knew it there was an exponential exploding of kernels experience, and the Jiffy Pop tinfoil would get larger and larger as it filled with wonderful kernels of buttered popcorn.

In a good brainstorm there may be 3 people on laptop computers typing as fast as they can in an attempt to record the many ideas being produced. We will generate 1000 ideas in an hour. It is just ridiculous!

Sometimes we don't use the word "brainstorming," because in some organizations it has such a negative connotation. All of us have been invited to take part in a brainstorming session, and sometimes it has been the most painful hour of our lives. But when it works, it's just wonderful. We facilitate it in our way, with our culture – improv and laughter. We get the Jiffy Pop many times with our clients, and we look around the room and their eyes are wide open – it's like "Wow! This is an explosion of innovation and creativity! This is fun! This rocks!" That's the Jiffy Pop syndrome. I am even getting excited talking to you about it, because it is not something that happens to us every day. But when it does look out for the experience!

VB: You talk about how the pressure should be on the supervisor, manager or boss to respond positively to all ideas from their employees in a manner that will encourage them to produce more and better ideas, rather than the pressure being on the person in a lower position when they wish to share an idea. What are some tips for making this happen?

John Sweeney: If you think about the current situation in most organizations the idea generators are usually providing their ideas to someone who makes more money than they do. That someone has often been with the organization longer, is higher up on the organization chart, has more power, more pressure, and the ability to implement or trash the idea generators' ideas. So the pressure is on those poor people who have been asked, or ordered, to "Give me some good ideas on this problem or issue." This doesn't make any sense to me.

If you are making more money and you've got more experience, the pressure should be on you. More money, more pressure – it seems to be the way of the jungle. If you are the type of leader who allows people to come to you with ideas the pressure should be on you to receive their ideas, give them a positive response, and encourage them to come back with even more. Sometimes I mean this literally and sometimes just philosophically. Most leaders will agree that the ideal is to have people take the lead and generate new thoughts and new things even if it doesn't literally entail them knocking on your door with each new idea – that's even better.

It is certainly true in the case of The Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre. For the most part my wife and I own an idea factory. The more ideas we receive from our employees the better. There are a number of tricks we use to encourage that to happen.

The first is we let our employees know the ROI of a group of people who are keen to share their ideas. You can imagine the absolute worst – the opposite of that type of culture – where nobody produces ideas because they don't want to be judged. That is a stagnant work environment where it is almost mathematically impossible for employees to come up with the next great idea.

We give our employees improvisational tips. One simple tip is to use the phrase "Yes, and…." If someone comes to you with an idea you can say "Yes, and we will consider that." Or "Yes, and let's see how we can improve on your idea." You can affirm, agree, and recognize the person who offered the idea without implementing it. Sometimes this is precisely where confusion and misunderstandings occur. For example, "I never judged the person as a human being, I just said that the idea was horrible."

Unfortunately, research shows us the negative effects of negative criticism – I think the word "critique" comes from "to tear" or "to rip." If our idea is criticized in the first couple of seconds after we have the idea and bring it forward, it affects us as human beings. There are some who are self confident enough to separate their work from themselves. But in general, and certainly in the arts community, if you critique the idea you are critiquing the human being who had the idea. This fact is an important insight, so why not say, "Great job! Thank you" to the person for the idea, and then consider their idea. It may be that their idea won't be implemented because you're up against budget, brand, staffing restrictions, or it's just not an idea that's going to happen. But if the person feels affirmed you are building a culture of innovation.

We had the University of Minnesota help us with some research. It seems that idea generators are not as concerned as we might think about whether or not their idea gets implemented. What they're most concerned about is whether or not they were respected and affirmed for producing the idea. The lesson of a lot of our exercises is, "Hey, leader, an idea has come your way. What do you do?"

It reminds me of my college football days. A new idea is like the snap of the football. What's your first move? How fast are you to go to the positive? How can you practice the skill of affirmation without worrying about the risk of implementation?

VB: You say there is a direct relationship between saying "yes, first" and increasing the innovative potential of an organization. How does that work?

John Sweeney: This refers to the beginning of any innovative process.

It isn't about radically saying "yes" to everything. A great client of ours is Medtronic. I don't want them to say, "Yes" when it comes to a decision at the end of the quality control test for their pacemaker units – both of my parents have Medtronic Pacemakers. I want them to say, "No" to whatever is going to make their pacemaker not work.

There is a cultural norm or attitude at our company. When someone comes up with an idea at the beginning of the process of improvement, we say, "Yes, first." It's all about mathematics. If you've got a culture that is "yes first," your people are going to be more passionate, excited, willing to take risks, and willing to say, "What can this company be? What can this team be?"

At The Brave New Workshop some days we've got 18 year olds working at our concession stand who call me on my cell phone to say, "Hey, Sweeney! I just came up with a great new idea for corporate services!" A student at the Brave New Institute sent me an email saying "You guys could do some great videos for your company." We've got a culture where people wake up in the morning asking themselves "What can we do to improve The Brave New Workshop?"

If an organization has a culture that says, "No but" to the majority of ideas it will not be innovative. I'm just a guy from a dairy farm, so I don't know why this works. But I can tell you what I've seen. People from that type of culture don't get fired up to come into work, or to generate great new ideas about how to improve their workplace, or make the company more profitable. They just get a bit of a gray complexion, and stay holed up in their cubicles.

A "yes, first" culture is unquestionably more productive, innovative and a better place to work than a "no but" culture.

VB: "Our goal is to become "idea machines." Is everyone capable of becoming an idea machine?

John Sweeney: We think so, and I don't know if we say it this way in the book. It's one of our firm beliefs as improvisers, and certainly in the culture of The Brave New Workshop, that everyone was born innovatively perfect and innovatively equal. We also agree that throughout our lives we stray to different degrees from being the perfect idea generator we were when we were younger.

If, because of socialization, education, parenting, peer pressure, media influence, and all that sort of thing, you've strayed far away from being a perfect idea generator you can unlearn some of those inhibitions. You can rebuild some of those brain pathways, muscles, and skills to get back, or at least get closer, to your most perfect innovative self.

We don't have a lot of sociological research to prove this, but if you observe three 5-year-olds in a sandbox, anywhere in the world, they are going to be pretty darn close to perfect at finding the next idea, finding the next innovative approach, working well together, and saying, "Yes" to each other in the sandbox. Everyday we can try to get back to that place where we were less jaded, less guarded, and remove some of the blocks that prevent us from finding that next idea.

VB: There is controversy in the literature over whether brainstorming is the best way to generate ideas. What has to be done in the business world to make sure this technique is successful every time?

John Sweeney: I don't have a white paper, or a group of Stanford University professors to validate my observation. My only expertise in this area is that I have been a part of, or facilitated, thousands of brainstorming sessions in a couple of hundred industries. My experience tells me that, in the corporate world, we have focused so much on the process and system of brainstorming that we have forgotten, unfortunately, about the culture in which the brainstorming takes place.

The importance of culture in an organization rings true to me as an improviser. You can take people with minimal knowledge and skill in the art of improvisation, put them in a culture that is wonderfully safe and allows them to instantly feel they can be their best selves, and most people – almost all – can instantly start doing a really good job of improvising. Conversely, you can take people who've got 10 years of experience and are great improvisers, put them on a wonderful stage, and give them all the tools and systems to improvise, but if the culture of the stage is negative in terms of how they are treated, how the other people make them feel, and how they feel they are valued, these great improvisers will barely be able to do anything.

I have watched organizations that have spent millions of dollars on idea generation software, try to facilitate a productive brainstorming process. I walked into those meetings and have observed how everyone in the room is ridiculously scared of getting judged, which doesn't work for the creation of ideas – much less the generation of lots of ideas.

Culture trumps process. Culture trumps policy. Culture trumps systems. A group of wonderfully cared for, confident individuals will generate great ideas.

VB: You say, "…improvisation actually rewards the performers for a sense of egoless cooperation." Is this different than working as a team?

John Sweeney: It is, in a way – it's actually more circumstantial than simply a comparison between improv and a team. Let me explain. I've had lots of jobs where I wasn't rewarded for egoless behavior. For 7 years I did corporate real estate consulting helping companies move their corporate headquarters. I was paid a base salary, but mostly was compensated on a commission basis. If another team member in our real estate consulting company was successful I didn't derive any benefit. If I had a lead or knew of a company that needed services, and I then shared this information with someone else who got their business I wasn't rewarded for that either.

Conversely, in our theatre, because of the way improvisation works, you are constantly asking what does my customer – the audience – need, and what do the other actors – my teammates – need? If you are constantly driven by these two questions you'll be a great improviser. The reward is interesting – the audience will think you are funnier. The audience will applaud and laugh at you, because you are helping others. I don't know if they know this is why they are laughing, but the mechanics of an improv scene mean that, when you help out the scene and your acting partners, you really look great as an actor.

I'm pretty ego driven, so I love improv. It almost inherently tricks me into being selfless, because the more selfless I am the more laughs I get and that feels great! This is why I fell in love with the art form when I was first exposed it.

It is tough, because in many companies there's a top down, org chart driven structure, and an assessment and a rewards policy based mostly on an individual contribution – not necessarily on team efforts and successes. So it can be an odd, gray line.

Organizations that reward selflessness in their teams will outperform the others every time. That's a little too bold – sometimes it may also depend on role of teams in the organization. There are lots of reasons why you want sales people to be rewarded for their individual activities.

VB: "…creativity and innovation are skills that need to be maintained and nurtured." What would you say to those who argue that developing and enhancing these skills are primarily our own responsibility?

John Sweeney: Ironically, or maybe for different reasons than you might expect, I agree with that in some ways. I'm not a big advocate of a team member, an employee, or a scene partner in the case of improv theatre who thinks it's the responsibility of the organization to tell them what to do, to motivate them, and help them build their skills. In the case of improv theatre I would emphatically also say it's not the responsibility of the scene, or the audience!

At a large software company in Redmond, Washington that I was working with we developed an internal statement that said, "Act the way you want the company to be." I really like that Microsoft phrase, because it puts the responsibility on the individual.

This is how I was raised as a farm kid, nobody was going to milk the cows for you. Nobody was going to cut the hay for you. You've got to get up in the morning and get it done.

On the other hand, some organizations have gotten so immense they've had to put programs in place to help their employees develop skills and grow. I went to a small liberal arts college, and subsequently have worked with organizations whose internal corporate training centre was more robust than my college in terms of technology, facilities, and number of instructors. Some companies have developed so many wonderful things for their employees that there may be a tendency for them to think, "Yes, our culture needs to become more innovative. I'm waiting for Human Resources to waive its magic wand, and then we'll be more innovative."

Given the question, "Who's responsible for this organization's innovation?" I tell every audience I speak to, "It's you. Individually." Another wonderful thing about this is it should help reduce employee cynicism. It reduces the tendency to think about all the reasons the company is not innovative, and always blame the organization. Rather, people should think in terms of, "Here's what I'm going to do tomorrow to enable me to be more innovative." If everyone in the organization did that simple thing the organization as a whole would be more innovative and successful. I like it when it's put back on us, and our individual responsibilities.

VB: We will continue our interview with John Sweeney in next week's IdeaConnection newsletter. We'll talk about a wide range of topics including: how to discover one's point of view; following the follower in business; how many of us don't bring our creative, passionate, excited and committed side with us when we come to work; the return to civility; and the ruckus Jiggly Boy created in front of 19,000 sports fans.

John Sweeney's Bio:
John Sweeney is an author, keynote speaker, trainer, improviser, and comedic performer. After buying the Brave New Workshop in 1997, Sweeney combined his instinct for business with his understanding of improvisation to launch the theatre's corporate services division as well as a speaking and training career.

Since then, he has trained and entertained people in hundreds of companies and thousands of business leaders using the Speed of Laughter programs.

Raised on a diary farm near Madison, Wisconsin, John Sweeney attained a Bachelor of Business Administration from Saint Norbert College. He has been featured in Leadership Excellence, Talent Management, Investor's Business Daily, Executive Traveler, Madison Magazine, and How magazine, and demonstrated his comedic talents on the Today Show or in video clips on ESPN.

John Sweeney led a team at the Brave New Workshop to write Innovation at the Speed of Laughter: 8 Secrets to World Class Idea Generation (2004) and Return to Civility: A Speed of Laughter Project (2009).

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