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The techniques of improvisational performance can be applied in helpful ways to any situation where people are collaborating to innovate or build something, says improv expert Kat Koppett.

Interview #28 in the Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Kat Kopett, founder of Koppett  Katbook + Company, a training and consulting company specializing in the use of theatre and storytelling techniques for individual and organizational performance, and the Co-Director of The Mop & Bucket Company, an improvisational theatre company and school.

Her book on how to use improvisational theatre techniques for organizational development, Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theatre Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership and Learning, is used by trainers, teachers and organizational leaders around the world, and will be released in a revised edition by Stylus Publishing this Fall. Kat has designed and delivered training for Chanel, Pepsi, Kaiser-Permanente, NYSID, Glens Falls Hospital, JPMorgan Chase, Eli Lilly, and The Farm Bureau among others in places such as India, Brazil, Paris and Oklahoma. TheatreWeek Magazine named Kat one of the year’s “Unsung Heroes” for her creation of the completely improvised musical format, “Spontaneous Broadway,” which is now performed from New York to California to Australia. She will also be chairing the 2nd Annual TEDxAbany conference in November.

Q: How does your work relate to creativity?

Koppett: Improvisers make stuff up, collaboratively, on the spot, with no script or pre-planning, in front of paying audiences demanding to be entertained, often based on that audience’s suggestions. We must take our ideas and passions and intentions and marry them with whatever is happening in the moment to produce work that delights our customers and ourselves. In order to accomplish this rather daunting task, improvisers have developed principles and techniques to guide them. And those approaches seem to apply in helpful ways to any situation in which people are working collaboratively (or individually, actually) to build something.

Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?

Koppett: There is no longer such a thing as job “security.” Whereas there may have been a time when a person could reasonably think to choose between the chaos and risk of life as an entrepreneur (or in the arts) and the steady safety of a job in a “solid” profession, now everyone lives the life of an entrepreneur. Most people will have many jobs. We must all manage our own career paths and financial well-being with less obvious, traditional trajectories to follow. And work is not just an at-the-office, 9-5 endeavor for most of us any more. The marketplace is global, the work-cycle a 24-hour one, personal and professional lives merge, and your colleagues and friends are as likely to live on the next continent as the next block. Work is much more individual, much more intertwined, and much more unpredictable than in the past.

Q: What do you see the role of creativity in that paradigm?

Koppett: The rules are changing all the time. Although planning remains imperative, most plans are useless, and all of us must be flexible and creative and autonomous and skilled at surfing change. Although there remain unprecedented opportunities and comforts for many of us, times are scary in all sorts of ways. Economically, environmentally, socially. It will take our best selves to develop new ways of interacting with each other to transcend the violence and mistrusts and that continue to plague us. It will take our most creative approaches to develop sustainable practices and keep the global community (and the globe) healthy and thriving. The old ways are failing us, and the stakes are as high as they have ever been. To paraphrase Daniel Pink, the future will belong to those who can flex, adapt, empathize,  tell stories, and create.

Q: What mindsets and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Koppett: The most fundamental improv principle is the “yes, and” rule which says, an improviser must accept and build with what her partner offers. (An offer, in improv parlance, is a technical term that means ANYTHING – an idea, an emotion, a gesture, an attribution – that is created in the scene.) Significantly, “accept” does not mean “agree.” We do not have to like the offers. They may not be at all what we are expecting or want. But we are obligated to use them, simply because they exist. On stage that means we accept the co-created reality. For example, if my partner says, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” then I accept that he has a honey and this is his home.

In real life, accepting offers may mean that I accept that my partner has a different experience of an interaction, or that there is an imposed deadline for a project, or that climate change is happening, or that there is an increasing disparity between the rich and poor in the U.S. I may not like it, but it exists, so I must deal with it. Once I accept the offers that are, then I can move on to the “and” part, which says, I will seek to create with what is already there. Too often we waste time and energy “yes, but-ing” – arguing with or blocking the offers that we don’t like, or don’t see. When we “yes, and” we are able to build with whatever has come before. Want to get better at “yes, anding”? Start by shifting your internal question when faced with something unexpected or unattractive from “Will I accept and build with this?” to “HOW can I use or build with this?”

Q: What is one practice people can start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?

Koppett: Most people respond to the “yes, and” principle above when it is presented. And yet most people also acknowledge that they and those around them tend to “yes, but” more than they “yes, and”. There are a number of reasons for this ranging from acquired habits to cultural norms and reward structures. Of course, sometimes “no” is appropriate, courageous, creative and useful. But often we block in ways that are habitual or fear-based rather than productive.

Keith Johnstone, improv guru and author of “Impro,” sums it up this way, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes’, and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”  In order to encourage positive risk-taking and developmental culture in which “yes, and” is practiced, we and our clients use the “Circus Bow.”

The Circus Bow:

Step 1: Put your hands over your head.

Step 2: Say, “I failed!” or “I made a mistake” or “I feel silly!”

Step 3: Take a big celebratory bow and accept wild applause from your colleagues.

The circus bow is, of course, borrowed from the circus. When the start arielist misses the quadruple back-flip, he does not slink off muttering that he should have stuck to the triple that he was certain to succeed at. He celebrates the courage and achievement mindset necessary to have stretched himself and tried something new and adventurous. It is only in environments where failure is not only tolerated, but celebrated in this way, that creativity and innovation can truly thrive. (This, by the way, is an idea which is being rediscovered and heralded in business publications right now. Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, TED and others have had great articles and discussions on just this topic in the last few months.)

Q: Finally, what is creative leadership to you?

Koppett: The Artistic Director of Freestyle Repertory Theatre, Laura Livingston, once told me that she felt her job was to create the jungle gym so that her improvisers could swing on in. By providing solid structure – clear objectives, rules of engagement, resources, time, functional and delightful spaces – leaders can provide environments in which creativity can grow and thrive. Often that means doing the boring, inside-the-box, behind-the-scenes scut work that gets very little recognition or conscious appreciation. Kinda like being a good parent, I suppose. In short, creative leaders model what they want to encourage, provide stimulating environments in which it is safe to experiment and grow, and get out of the way.

Kat will be presenting an improv and story-based breakout session at the upcoming Creativity in Business Conference in Washington, DC on October 23, 2011. The Creativity in Business Thought Leader Interview Series is from business creativity catalyst, Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence.

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