Nathan Minns

How Improvisers Effectively Ideate In High-Stakes Situations

We start with a large number of ideas, agree to build on each other's ideas, and work together to build ideas until we have the best ideas possible.

Improvisers are experts at ideating in high-stakes circumstances, and we don’t ideate as most groups do in their boardroom or classroom.

Just think: we’re creating never-done-before scenes on stage, in front of a paying audience with high expectations, and they’re watching our every move. 

It can be stressful.

So let’s break it down. How do most teams ideate, how do we ideate, and how can you apply our ideation techniques to your team?

Here is how most teams ideate

Most teams will pitch ideas and generally develop and decide on the ideas that sound the best from the outset. They don’t spend time figuring out what an idea would actually look like in practice because they don’t actually consider the idea: they’re looking for why an idea wouldn’t work. They work with what sounds the best.

They often shut down ideas fast, without seemingly considering the ideas much.

On the surface, this could make sense. Most teams have limited time, and they often need to make decisions fast.

But do they end up just making “okay” decisions, instead of “great” decisions? 

We think so, and we think that how improvisers ideate can help.

Here are the basics of how improvisers effectively ideate

*A note for fellow improvisers: I’m specifically talking about organic, 20-60 minute long-form sets with openers here, as it is most applicable to ideating with teams.

Improvisers ideate a little differently. 

We get on stage and we have no idea what we’re going to talk about. We don’t even know the basics of the storyline:

  • Who are we as individuals?
  • What is our characters’ relationship?
  • Where are we?
  • What are we doing?
  • What is funny about this scene (we are doing comedic improv!)?

Because we have a lot of decisions to make in a limited time, we have a couple of different approaches to make it all happen. 

Here are the basics: 

  • We throw in ideas
  • We agree to work together
  • We return to the best ideas and develop them more
  • We continuously alternate between trying out new things and developing the material that we think is promising

We Throw In Ideas

Most improv shows will start with an opener. In an opener, the team will act out a ton of ideas, just to get the team’s brain on the same wavelength and get the improv team to develop a large quantity of ideas, not necessarily the best quality of ideas. We reserve judgment in this phase. Once these ideas leave the improviser’s mouth, they become the group’s ideas, not the improviser’s ideas.

We Agree To Work Together

These scenes will only work if improvisers work together, and to do that, we have to build on each others’ ideas. We say “yes, and…” and develop the ideas that our fellow improvisers have brought to us on stage, regardless of what we think about them. We’re always trying to figure out how our scenes can work with the premise. We’re never trying to tear the ideas down. We’re in it together.

We Return To The Best Ideas After We Have Developed Them A Bit

After we have developed a large quantity of ideas, it’s time to grab the best ideas and develop them into quality scenes. Again, we agree that as a team we will work together to develop these ideas. Magic ensues. 

We Continuously Alternate Between Throwing In New Ideas And Developing The Best Premises

Then we spend the rest of the show alternating between throwing in new ideas to the group and continuing to develop the best premises! Bigger magic ensues!

How can you effectively ideate with your team?

You can follow a couple of basic steps to iterate like improvisers in your group:

  1. Start by throwing in as many ideas as you can think of, without judgment. In this phase, we’re not trying to decide if the ideas are good. In fact, oftentimes the ideas sound ridiculous, and that’s okay. Just list out all of the ideas. Remember that once you throw it in the group, it is no longer “your idea” that succeeds or fails, but it belongs to the group.
  2. Once you have a large list of ideas, have everyone in the group pick their favorites. Here is where we’re judging the potential merit of the ideas. 
  3. Then, split up into teams and develop the ideas. Think of how an idea could work. It doesn’t mean you’re going to decide on that idea, but it means that you’re considering it.
  4. Once you have developed some of your favorite ideas, have each team present what they have come up with for their ideas. Take a look and again, pick your favorites. 
  5. Break into teams again and repeat steps 3 & 4 until you have decided on the idea that will work best in your situation.

The reason we suggest iterating in this way is so your team doesn’t decide on what initially sounds like the best idea, and instead, thoughtfully picks the idea that is actually best for your team.

Good luck, and email with any questions!

Want to hear more about how we ideate? 

Funny enough, we talk about this process in our Creativity & Resilience workshop.

First, we loosen up with a couple of easy performance games that will help the group work together. Then, we go through fun and engaging exercises that allow participants to experience the principle of “Yes, And…” firsthand. Then, we lead exercises where the team runs into obstacles, and as a team, blows through them. Want to know more about what our workshops are like?

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