Creativity flows best when we don’t try to channel it, but give ourselves the freedom to explore and play, according to Michelle James. In this article, she explores the parallels between cultivating creativity and the free-flow that takes place during an improvizational play.

I am in an improvisational theater performing group. We improvise full-length plays with nothing planned in advance. No structure. No outline. No character or plot development. Nothing, except for 2 locations we get from the audience at the beginning of the play. The play is then titled, “The Space Station and the Bathroom” or whatever locations we get from the audience. Two of us then run on stage and start interacting, and thus the play begins.

When the play goes well, the audience says, “That HAD to be scripted. At least some part of it had to be scripted. It looked too easy.” It was easy. When the performance does not go so well, the audience says, “That looked hard.” It was hard.

So what makes is hard sometimes, and easy others? What is the “magic formula” that allows a fully formed, coherent, organized play – with believable characters and a plot – to emerge before the audience’s (and our own) eyes? And what gets in the way?

Adhere to the principles of improvisation

What makes it work when it works? We do not go on stage with a pre-formed notion of our characters, plot, conflict, challenge or situation. We just let them emerge based on our interactions, actions and reactions. The “magic formula” is the adherence to improv principles. When we adhere to the principles of improvisation, something emerges that is more intelligent and creative – and organized – than any one of us could have planned. As with any good emergence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By adhering to the principles, a play unfolds that is so original and unpredictable, that you have a sense of being entirely in flow – getting to fully experience the adventure as you create it.

The principles that allow this to happen are simple, yet profound. They seem easy, but in practice, they are almost the exactly opposite of the ways in which we navigate our way through society. They take re-learning; I say that becuase we were born natural improvisers and then got “educated” and “civilized” out of the playful aspects of it. Here are 7 basic improv principles. There are others, but I have found these to be essential:

1. Yes and: Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to move forward and stay generative.

2. Make everyone else look good: That means you do not have to be defending or justifying yourself or your position – you have a group of other who will do that for you. And you are comitted to doing that for others. Without the burden of defensiveness, everyone are free to create.

3. Allow yourself to be changed by what is said and what happens: At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next.

4. Co-create a shared “agenda”: This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. You are co-creating the agenda in real-time. In order to keep the play going, you respond to the moment and an “agenda” co-emerges.

5. Be fully present and engaged: By staying preset to each moment, getting out of planning and into being, you have a wellspring options and choices in each moment. To do so requires engagement and attention. With engagement combined with presence and yes-anding, you can’t do anything but be co-creative.

6. Keep the energy going: No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Someone forgot something important – justify it and move on. Just keep moving.

7. Seek the good of the whole: Always carry the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” and then you have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support your fellow performers and how to best support the scene. By focusing away from how you will look into serving the larger good, you have more creative impulses and resources available to you at any moment. And the choices you make are more in alignment with the higher levels of creative integration that form a coherent play.

So, what makes it “look hard” when it is not working so well? Simple, any violation of the principles. If one of us tries to orchestrate, or worse impose, our own agenda or plot on the piece. If one of us tries to be the “star” and take too much focus. If even one of us is not present to what is unfolding, moment-by-moment. If one of us worries about the plot, and starts to figure out how to “save” it. If we expect someone to should respond in a certain way. In short, anything that gets out of the moment and out of support – and into our controlling heads.

The truth is, in each performance we have some magic moments and some more effortful ones – some that work and some that fall flat. But by adhering to the improv principles we significantly increase the magic and decrease the efforting. A creative – and suprisingly logical – play can then emerge through that fresh and alive energy. We, and the audience, then get to experience the real-time excitement of riding the flow of a creative emergence.

Creativity is naturally self-organizing system. We are meaning makers, and left to our own devices, our brains naturally seek order, coherence and meaning. Once you allow yourself the freedom to explore and play; set the guidelines of play – i.e., improv principles; and then get out of the way, creativity can develop and unify all kinds of things that otherwise would seem impossible.

The principles of improvisation serve a much larger purpose than performance – they have the ability to create the life-giving container for cognitive, personal, organizational, social, political, and spiritual transformation. I see them as rules of engagement for a more peaceful, co-generative, co-creative, sustainable world.

Creativity catalyst and coach Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence, works with solo-preneurs and business organizations to help them unlock and focus their creativity to develop their signature approaches; draw out new solutions, strategies, services and products; and create inspired work. Using the principles of emergence with creativity, she developed the Creative Emergence Process®. Her techniques has been featured in numerous publications and on television.