Make More Happen

7 Ideas About Business Innovation From . . . Would You Believe, the Performing Arts

By using a few tips of the trade from the arts, leaders can help bring their companies out from behind the curtain and into the spotlight.
7 Ideas About Business Innovation From . . . Would You Believe, the Performing Arts
Image credit: Walter McBride | Getty Images

I’ve spent a significant portion of my career as an entrepreneur; however, I’ve also consistently been around creative fields and even dabbled in them professionally (I am still a proud card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild).

Related: 5 Networking Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Actors

Along the way, I've learned many lessons from the exposure I've had to improvisation, acting and comedy. I still find those fields useful when I think about innovation in business today. Here are seven ways in which that can happen.

1. Say yes.

There is one principle in improv which, when you don’t adhere to it, practically guarantees that you'll be doomed from the start. Consider:

Your partner says, Those are nice green pants you have on. 

You don’t respond by saying, No, actually, they’re shorts. 

Such contradictions ruin the flow of improv and stunt creative juices; instead, improvisational actors learn to say “yes” and expand on their colleagues’ ideas. This same collaborative spirit is the foundation of innovation in business. If someone has an idea that seems off, don’t rush to say “no” -- instead, help shape it into something more useful.

2. Play the opposite.

What often makes a movie or play seem interesting comes from a concept called “subtext.” Consider:
Peter walks into Sarah’s apartment.
Sarah: Hi, Peter, oh come sit down.
Peter: Thanks.
An actor playing Peter might enter, hear Sarah’s friendly offer and sit down. But what if, instead, Peter comes in and sits down first -- before Sarah delivers the line “sit down”?
Now, Sarah’s offer to sit is sarcastic because Peter is already seated. This creates a completely different and potentially more interesting dynamic.
How do actors and directors come up with these “off the beaten path” choices? They perfect the art of “testing the opposite.” You should do the same.
The next time a decision seems straightforward, stop for a moment to consider what would happen if you did the opposite of your natural inclination. This might not make sense most of the time, but sometimes it will lead to a huge breakthrough. When I was at a previous company, we constantly struggled to grow our sales team. Then one day, we played the opposite and imagined what would happen if we not only stopped hiring, but also eliminated the entire sales function.
While that wasn’t really an option, asking the question led us to a significantly more efficient combination of technology, outsourcing and action by our in-house team that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
 

3. Listen and react.

Sanford Meisner is one of the great American acting teachers of the 20th century. Meisner believed that great acting comes from reacting, the proverbial “be in the moment.” It’s not about thinking about what to say next, but about truly listening to words, and more importantly, the nuanced nonverbal cues Meisner counseled. 
 
 
We’ve all been in meetings where everyone was thinking about what they would say next rather than feeding off one other’s energy and ideas. Listening intensely to what colleagues are saying instead of pre-planning a response can lead to astonishingly creative reactions.
 

4. Use truth, pain and surprise.

Many comedians call truth, pain and surprise the key ingredients for comedy. Popular comedy-show topics such as dating, race and marriage are often built from underlying pain, with an element of truth and a punch line you don’t see coming. 
 
Humor stimulates activity in the right brain, which leads to creativity. So, next time your team is stuck, think about the painful parts of the problem and the brutal truth of the situation. Let your imagination run wild with new perspectives. For example, what would your competitors say about your pain? That kind of supposition might make you laugh (or cry), which would lead not only to stress-relieving humor, but to ideas that might not emerge from a typical ho-hum approach. 
 

5. Raise the stakes.

The concept of “stakes” is a secret that makes boring material come to life, especially in comedy. On the TV show Friends, you might wonder, why was it always funny to hear Ross talk about his job as a paleontologist? David Schwimmer masterfully created huge stakes for his character, Ross -- as if studying dinosaurs was as important as cardiac surgery.
 
In routine tasks, sometimes raising the stakes (even if the task is purely imaginary, for fun) leads to a level of commitment that encourages breakthroughs.
 

6. Tame the thinking.

Those in the performing arts learn to be in touch with their bodies in order to make more creative choices. In rehearsal, an actor might feel an impulse to move during a scene, even though the stage directions tell him to be stationary. Instead of ignoring the feeling or overanalyzing, he'll trust the impulse, which can sometimes lead to completely new ideas about the play.
 
In business, bodily awareness can be beneficial as well. Target, Ford, Google, Adobe and more have all embraced it to boost productivity. Taking a break from actively thinking (and instead, listening to what impulses we have inside) can often set the stage for more creative output.
 

7. Ask the right questions.

Often, when an actor is trying to get the essence of a character, the task comes down to asking the right questions. Those questions should stimulate creative choices and help the actor understand the character’s motivations. Sometimes, finding the right questions is actually harder than finding the right answers.
 
A previous company of mine consistently had working-capital issues because its customers didn't pay on time. We wondered how to get our customers to pay sooner, which was an extremely limiting line of thinking focused solely on existing clients. A better question was, “How do we find customers who will pay in advance?” Changing the question helped us see the situation more clearly, and shift into a new, more profitable line of business.
 
 

Break a leg

Many of the secrets of successful performers can be applied by entrepreneurs to increase their own creativity, as well as the pace of innovation within their organizations. By using a few tips of the trade from the arts, leaders can help bring their companies out from behind the curtain and into the spotlight.