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"Conversation on Innovation"

Yesterday I attended a conversation on innovation hosted by MIG at Berkeley's Haas School of Business. It was a small informal gathering, and Victor Lombardi had kindly invited me to join the discussion. It was kicked off by Scott Hirsch, a principal of MIG with a definition of innovation he had found on the web. I'd link to it, I think it's wikipedia but as there was no source given I'm not wholly sure. This is what he used,

Innovation: An implementation of a new or significantly improved idea, good, service, process or practice intended to be useful. [ I would add the words revenue or profit in there, for the business context, else why innovate?]

And then they opened the floor to all the participants to take turns to answer three questions 1. who are you? 2. What do you do? 3. What you think of innovation? I'm going to cover that discussion in detail later, perhaps in another post or on my own blog as there is much food for thought, but for CPH127, I want to focus on one of the three short formal presentations that were given.

Harry Max, who is responsible for the Intranet at Dreamworks Animation, gave a short talk on his thoughts on innovation. What I really liked about his talk was that he had divided the presentation into two parts, the first part, where he said he was still trying to define innovation but here were four things that it wasn't,

  1. Reacting - Innovation wasn't reacting, that is, responding to changes in technology or the market
  2. Dreaming - Innovation was not dreaming, that is, envisioning a better future as dreaming was not time dependent but free floating.
  3. Planning - Innovation was not planning, as that was nothing more than structured dreaming, or creating a road map to achieve a goal or get somewhere
  4. Designing - Innovation was not designing, as designing is making an idea or concept tangible, solving a problem or making something better.

He then went on to say, that whatever innovation was, and as you all know, we have been struggling with an "Aha, yes" definition of innovation here on CPH127, it was a process that could benefit from these five key things from Improv. These were concepts that were conducive to atmospheres that were inherently innovative,

  1. Trust.
  2. Listening & Self-Awareness
  3. Accepting and making offers (Yes, And...)
  4. Moving into action with full commitment
  5. Staying nimble

There is a lot that can be said about each of these points but I believe that they are self explanatory for the most part. I will however expand a little on the "yes, and..." full commitment concept. This is the opposite of "No, but" which is a negative, or a thought breaker, in the brainstorming process (unless you're Irish, in which case it's illegal) whereas, saying "Yes, and ..." taking the thought further with full commitment continued the forward momentum of the innovation process. The complete explanation of the key points of Improv are here, but I must add that I was also taught at The Second City when I worked there was "Rule #1" =  "Make the other person look good."

He ended with pointing to Wells Fargo, Yahoo,Foveon and Toyota as innovative organizations whose culture supported these concepts from Improv.

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» Comparing Improv to Innovation from Perspective
Since I have already written up my impressions of the conversation on innovation that was held earlier this week on CPH127, with an emphasis on Harry Max's presentation where he compared the art of Improv and what we could learn [Read More]

Tracked on Sep 3, 2005 2:22:45 AM


If you're interested in innovation and improv, might I suggest

Whose Line is it Anyway: Innovation, Ethnography and Improv
run by yours truly in San Francisco, Nov 3.

Posted by: Steve Portigal | Sep 1, 2005 6:52:26 PM

Sounds great Steve, but at that time I'll be farther for the 2. time - so if you please could get a copy for me of the slides....?


That could be great.

All the best
Hans Henrik

Posted by: Hans Henrik | Sep 1, 2005 7:39:49 PM

Niti, your post is VERY interesting and by reading it a few times already I realize that I have to think it over before writing. You have ignited something, but I still cant tell what it is - but thank you, I'm waiting for Kairos.....

All the best
Hans Henrik

Posted by: Hans Henrik | Sep 3, 2005 10:50:47 AM

You're in limnos? :) I've begun talking to people in Improv about maybe trying to pull together a workshop on these lessons for professionals interested in innovation. Maybe some good news this week!


Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 4, 2005 8:23:29 PM

Hans, you may also enjoy this Fast Company interview of my previous boss, Joe Keefe.


Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 4, 2005 8:31:09 PM

"Rule #1" = "Make the other person look good."

That sounds very much like the Chinese concept of "mianzi" or face.


Nice one :)

Posted by: Ian McArthur | Sep 5, 2005 2:20:45 PM

I will have to disagree with Harry Max of Dreamworks, I do think that dreaming, designing, and planning are all parts of the path to innovation. While they are not exclusive contributors, they do play their part. I will also have to say that I don't think there is a process by which to innovate and there never will be; that is the point to innovation. If you can turn innovation into a commodity then it isn't innovation anymore. It can be packaged and purchased and mass produced in China. Innovation changes the rules of the game in an unforeseen way, therefore if you define innovation more specifically than in terms of change, you are stifling it and limiting yourself to a narrow formulaic path.

Posted by: Michael Nelson | Sep 5, 2005 5:53:17 PM

Limnos, yes! But not in every aspect of my life - work, entrepreneurship? Yes :-)

Sounds good - looking forward to hear more about the conference/workshop-stuff....

Posted by: Hans Henrik | Sep 5, 2005 6:59:01 PM


Yes and no. Innovation, per se, perhaps cannot be codified nor packaged, but the traits that make an environment that nurtures creativity and innovation are similar to Improv. After all, for the most part, even in improv, they don't know where they are going with the skit, since it isn't pre scripted.


Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 5, 2005 8:35:41 PM

Niti, I too felt that Harry Max's take on innovation was narrowing rather than opening the notion of what it is to innovate. Reflecting on this however, I conclude that as we have seen elsewhere to define innovation is difficult and at some point the process of innovation becomes mostly context dependent. Therefore, I suggest that overall, definitions of innovation are context specific too.

Simply put, to innovate in one organization will have different associations than in another. The understanding of "innovation will depend on:

-motivation to innovate
-professional backgrounds of the team
-organisational culture
-experience, education, values of managers
-willingness to tolerate risk
-willingness to experiment and explore [dream, design, posit, probe etc]

I am sure there are other factors specific to given situations, people and organisations.

To elaborate on the improv theme that emerged in this post, I can see this comparison being relevant in organisations open to, and comfortable with, experimentation and exploration of ideas. However it may be that it would be difficult to "make sense" of it in many organisations where such notions might be dismissed as too unstructured, or to use the word in the same way as Tom Peters..."weird"...

Does that make sense?

Posted by: Ian McArthur | Sep 6, 2005 12:16:24 AM


I can see where your thought is going with respect to the concept of the nurturing environment that improv techniques aim to create, however, isn't it ironic that we're discussing our concern that organizations may dismiss notions of trust, self awareness and commitment as weird.


Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 6, 2005 5:19:34 AM

Yes I agree totally Niti.

Management that does not value the tangental or exploratory will generally not share the perspective or values of say the group of contributors we see here for example.

Being aware of "gurus" like Peters, Florida et al who are espousing and promoting the creative class does not ensure that many oprganizations will go beyond the rhetoric into the risk zone of commitment to design thinking and innovation trajectories...

It is important however to be tenacious.

Posted by: Ian McArthur | Sep 6, 2005 9:11:25 AM

As important to trust, be self aware and committed.

Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 6, 2005 11:50:47 AM

The nurturing environment of improv as it relates to innovation is a topic I've talked about before. I have two contrasting examples from very different classes. In one case, it was generally a safe place to fail, but the inmates, as they say, took over the asylum, and the "safe place" mandate meant that no one was ever told "no" by the facilitator. Surprised, then, when I took a class (in SF, a long-time instructor who just retired) where we were indeed told "no" - because we were working against the group.

Specifically, one aspect of improv is be the suggestion from the audience - or in the class setting, the other members of the class. In group 1, we would challenge each other with really crazy and tough suggestions, designed, often, to embarass. It became competitive and ultimately counter-productive. In group 2, there was none of that; and that meant you were told, directly, "no that won't work, pick another one" - on one level it had the effect of shutting things down but on a deeper level it was quickly understood that the instructor was dealing with the overall group dynamic and protecting THAT - the spark of innovation and creativity.

Posted by: Steve Portigal | Sep 7, 2005 6:40:18 AM


So, if I understood correctly, in group 2, there was a dynamic of "innovation and creativity" that was recognized by the instructor, who was very experienced, and he kept that "magic" safe?


Posted by: Niti Bhan | Sep 7, 2005 5:55:04 PM

Both instructors were very experienced and had a different philosophy. In group 2, the magic was kept safer - but the point is that he used "NO" to do that; seemingly anathema to the spirit of improv.

Posted by: Steve Portigal | Sep 7, 2005 11:34:42 PM

the best definition of innovation i found on the web was wikipedia's at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation (see first sentence) - wikipedia also provided the most comprehensive information. i didn't mention in my talk that i also looked for definitions in the business press and in a few academic journals ... with no meaningfuul results. i was trying not to be snarky. :)
the definition itself was only half my point - i was also making an observation about "community information" being more valuable than private information. how innovative!

Posted by: scott hirsch | Sep 8, 2005 11:03:58 PM

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CPH127 is a sense-making initiative. We aim to create a open dialogue around the profound understanding of the leadership, organization and strategy of creative business functions with the aim to create new value (for customers, employers and stakeholders.

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