A new year, a creative you: how these 5 behaviours can make you more innovative


Listen, defer judgment, declare, reframe, and jump in – these are five habits to cultivate the Mindset of Discovery, as explained in the book, ‘The Innovative Mindset.’

Innovation is not just about ideas, strategy, processes and organisation structure, but also about the behaviour of employees on a daily basis. Innovative habits can help companies as well as individuals, as argued in the book The Innovative Mindset: 5 Behaviours for Accelerating Breakthroughs by John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska.

John Sweeney is owner and director of America’s oldest comedy theater, Brave New Workshop (BNW), and was earlier in the real estate sector. Elena Imaretska works at the intersection of arts, business and innovation. She is the VP of new products, partnerships and sustainability for the corporate speaking and training business at BNW.

BNW’s clients include General Mills, UnitedHealth Group, Target, Hilton, Microsoft, Cargill, and Heineken. Bridging the world of improvisational theater to organisational innovation is quite a leap, and it would have been informative to have more details in the book about specific impacts of their programme on these corporate clients.

Drawing on improvisational theatre, the authors have developed a transformative framework of five behaviours to harness the Mindset of Discovery and overcome the Mindset of Fear (see my summary in Table 1 below). Using improvisation-based tenets can help spark innovation, maximise productivity, and increase profitability, the authors argue.

The 13 chapters are spread across 195 pages, and make for an informative read. Here are my key takeaways from this book; see also my reviews of the related titles How to Get to Great Ideas, The Other Ideas, Show Your Work, and The Art of Creative Thinking.

Foundations: the Mindset of Discovery

Hiring outside consultants, creating an idea portal, giving incentives, and holding annual innovation rallies are not enough for sustaining innovation, the authors explain. What is also important is the culture of the organisation and the behaviour of employees in terms of how people treat each other, respond to ideas, and deal with the complexity and messiness of innovation.

Success in creativity comes from toolsets, skillsets and mindsets of employees. Innovation becomes sustainable through mindset (assumptions, thought processes) and behaviour (daily actions, habits). While there is a lot of focus on efficiency, leanness, speed and quality, the authors emphasise that innovation calls for experimentation, learning from mistakes, and patience in making unexpected connections through exploration.

Improvisational theatre and comedy reveal useful insights in this regard. They are based not on prepared scripts but on audience and team involvement in real-time. Improvisational activities help create a safe environment to practice some of the key behaviours in innovation.

Success in improv derives from the actor’s Mindset of Discovery, along with extensive practice in how to listen actively, embrace diversity, communicate assertively, change perspective, reduce premature judgment, negotiate barriers, and become more comfortable with risk.

In contrast, the Mindset of Fear comes from a lack of confidence, nervousness about failure, self-consciousness, aversion to criticism, worry about social ostracism, and wanting to stick to the safe status quo. Though fear and avoidance of threat are part of human survival DNA, it can be paralysing in the context of innovation.

The authors list a number of types of fear in the context of innovation: fear of judgment (what if I lose), fear of conflict (what if I am not liked), fear of change (what if I am not prepared), fear of the unknown (what if I am not smart enough), and fear of mistakes (what if I am not perfect).

Such fears lead people to dismiss or attack others’ ideas or even their own ideas, over-analyse, and over-prepare. The fear keeps people from sharing their ideas, stretching their limits, and pursuing long-term dreams. It suppresses their intentions, aspirations and ambitions. It takes effort and practice, however, to control the natural impulse of “freeze, flight, fight or appease.”

In organisations, this fear leads to risk aversion and intolerance of ambiguity. “Reliability and consistency is comfortable, but it also can be blinding,” cautions Ryan Armbruster, co-founder of Harken Health.

The Mindset of Discovery is the foundation for innovation, which involves creativity (something novel and useful) and implementation (product, service, process, or structure). It leads to a life of engagement, authenticity and forward-looking action, the authors explain. To move from the fear of failure to a state of excitement to discover, a number of new principles need to be embraced about mistakes, change, and uncertainty.

“Mistakes are a great source of inspiration and learning. Change is fuel – not an obstacle,” the authors explain. Ideas and honest opinions should be celebrated, and not judged. Actions can be taken even in the face of incomplete information.

The Mindset of Discovery calls for curiosity, authenticity, agility, and accountability. One needs to be open to gathering a wide range of information, perspectives and experiences, and have an inexhaustible need to learn and experiment.

To “become comfortable with being uncomfortable” in the innovation journey takes practice, repetition and habit. This can include activities like talking to people you normally don’t talk to, listening to a different kind of music, eating a new type of food, speaking in front of a new audience, working with differently-abled people, or volunteering in a nursing home.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively on the “growth mindset.” Changing mindset requires recognising the unproductive mindset, reframing through the lens of the productive mindset, and changing one’s behaviour.

For example, lifelong learning calls for accepting risks and mistakes, according to Diana Shulla-Cose, founder of Perspectives Charter Schools. The schools focus on classroom learning and social-emotional learning to create future leaders who are smart as well as ethical. They have developed principles such as Solve conflicts peacefully, Take initiative, Live a disciplined life together, Take responsibility for your own actions, Seek wisdom, and Show gratitude.

Time, dedication, and intent can help cultivate new habits and behaviours for innovation. These ‘Big Five’ behaviours are: listen, defer judgment, declare, reframe, and jump in, as explained below.

1. Active listening: curb your inner negative voice

It is important to go beyond “listening by default” or “listening for confirmation” (confirmation bias), and pay attention to the full range of verbal and non-verbal cues in communication. “We need to listen to our customers in ways that tell us more than just what we should build for them in order to determine what they really need,” the authors emphasise. “Voice of the customer (VoC) is a prime example of how listening to an outside perspective can help innovation,” they add.

Empathetic listening is “athletic, measurable and improvable,” and should be used to gather insights and building blocks for the future. Listening varies across professional and personal contexts, and one can decide how one wants to listen. Interestingly, the words ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ have the same letters.

Former Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak nurtured community innovation by listening to multiple views from citizens and only then taking decisions. Ryan Armbruster of Harken Health advises being curious and tuning in to cues from people; this involves asking questions, probing deeper, and challenging assumptions.

Listening to others makes them feel respected and validated, and builds trust and authenticity. It involves suppressing your negative inner voice and stopping the inner dialogue till the hearing is completed. “Listening is a great equaliser,” the authors explain. It is important to listen to those you lead; it makes them relate to you better.

Listening helps get inside the customers’ head and understand what they really want; this can lead to better sales pitches and deals. A common phrase to use while understanding problems would be Tell me more about that.

Gina Valenti, VP of brand culture and internal communications at Hilton’s Hampton properties, learns about listening practices from companies around the world, including brands with a differentiated service culture such as Southwest Airlines and Zappos.

The authors suggest a number of exercises to make you a better listener: focus on verbal and non-verbal cues, interpret on an emotional and intellectual level, repeat what you have heard before you respond, identify your biases, and assume that there will be value in what you are about to hear.

Other activities include watch a movie in a different language, listen to an instructional video as if you were to teach it yourself next, listen to a presentation on a topic that does not interest you, and watch ads for products that do not appeal to you.

2. Defer judgment and reduce personal bias

For innovative ideas to be explored properly, their potential and possibilities need to be analysed in detail. This calls for patience, calming down, and even taking a short break via meditation or going for a walk.

Deferring judgment and preconceived assessment of others’ ideas helps empathy and cooperation. “For the magic of diversity to work, employees have to practice deferring judgment about different and perhaps opposing points of view so that they can collaborate effectively,” the authors recommend.

The authors advise putting yourself in the shoes of the other. Questions to ask include What if rather than It’s not going to work because. A good follow-up would be to thank the contributor of the idea, and build on it with the response Yes, and.

Other activities include envisioning how others would tackle the challenges you are working on, role playing from multiple positions in a debate, and reflecting on ideas that were first ridiculed but are now accepted (such as thinking the world is round and not flat).

3. Declaration of views and objectives

A strong declaration is clear, concise, authentic and rich in content. It can serve as a great start, and trigger off a good domino effect. By admitting a level of discomfort and awkwardness, it also shows candor and can win trust.

“A declaration means letting each other, our teammates, and the audience know who we are, where we are, what our point of view is, and what we want to accomplish in the scene,” the authors explain, in the context of improv theatre.

In the context of organisations, assertive declaration about innovation initiatives can be done verbally, online, or through documents and drawings. Declarations of innovation require taking diverse inputs, but leaders have to go beyond being pollsters and take decisions that may be tough and even unpopular.

Leaders have to champion the idea by forging consensus between middle levels of management and other functions that may be opposed to the innovative idea. Leaders have to be respected more than just being liked. This grounding has to be driven by consistency in values and mission.

Declarations should also be understood by the stakeholders, and this can be done by a mix of presentations, data, summaries and informal meetings. Choice of language and communication style are key here, and it helps to videotape yourself and analyse your delivery and body language.

Some companies such as Hampton Hotels have captured their values through acronyms like FACT (friendly, authentic, caring, thoughtful). It serves as a connector, rallies people, and powers “moment makers” that go beyond scripts for processes in customer service. Hampton even recorded a music video called We’ve got Hamptonality based on the song You’ve got Personality. Professional development and innovation are always ongoing and never fully done, according to Hampton VP Gina Valenti.

Other examples of the power of declaration in changing society are the US civil rights movement, the stories around it, and the momentum it created around the world.

As declaration tips, the authors advice speaking up, verbalising how you feel, articulating your values and mission, getting feedback, and looking out for unintended impacts. Other activities including taking a stand, publishing blogs, commenting on others’ blogposts, and even coming up with three different things you would have done with a movie if you were the director.

4. Reframing to create diverse views and insights

Though we can’t change the reality of many situations, we can change the way we look at it, and reframe it to find new solutions. Playing the role of “chief framer” in an organisation helps look at obstacles from different angles and uncover new paths. In fact, reframing should be used even when things are going smoothly and not just during problems, the authors advise.

What if and How about questions keep you in the mindset of discovery. The digital medium is forcing traditional players to reframe their offerings and value. Reframing is also a part of professional and personal growth.

Reframing can uncover new customer segments, and helps refining of prototypes by unearthing new user points of view and needs. Reframing the use of tools can help go beyond “functional fixedness,” eg. using a paper clip to pick a lock.

The journey of innovation is full of ups and downs, and reframing helps interpret failures as sources of learning. Though mistakes can lead to heartbreak and disappointment, it is important to reframe them as sources of useful insights so that we can move forward. “Reframe mistakes as stepping stones to success,” the authors advise.

Examples of those who turned alleged mistakes into successes include Fleming (penicillin), Rontgen (X-Ray), and Greatbatch (pacemaker). Detours should not be seen as sources of regret, according to Jacquie Berglund, CEO of Finnegans.

Having a foot in different activities and industries also helps channel and synthesise new insights, as the author discovered when he began to integrate improv insights into his corporate life. Such principles include: make your team look better than you, reframe mistakes as instrumental in achieving success, build agreement quickly, and service your audience and team rather than just yourself. The mindset of discovery in improv helped his workplace productivity and personal development.

As activities to help the skill of framing, the authors suggest breaking down ideas into parts, identify your views and emotions on these parts, and distill the essence. Other tactics are getting insights from different industries, coming up with different answers to the same questions, imagining how you would do things without a budget, identifying different versions of the same song, finding new uses for everyday objects (eg. a swing made from tires), and listing benefits of losing a commonly-used tool or technology.

5. Jumping in: from analysis to execution

“We always feel better once we begin. The ideas start to flow, we get a clear understanding of what we need to do, and we’re less frozen,” the authors advise. It is important to go beyond hesitation, confusion, or “paralysis by analysis” and feel the energy of engagement.

Staying in information-collection mode may be safe, but action leads to focus and decisions, and helps overcome the prior fear of the first moment. The very process of putting ideas in motion creates insights from experiential data, whether it is prototyping or customer conversation.

This does not mean being reckless or impulsive, the authors caution; the move should be based on a balance of data and gut instinct. Being rooted in a larger cause and having cross-industry skills helps move into new disciplines and develop an innovative mindset throughout life. New avenues can open up by personal initiative or by invitation from others.

Many serial entrepreneurs, for example, move on to new ventures based on an inner voice or inner itch, as they look to being inspired and making an impact again. Jacquie Berglund, CEO of Finnegans has channeled her experiences into setting up an incubator for social entrepreneurs called FINNovation Lab. Finnegans also runs a programme called Reverse Food Truck, where people donate food at the trucks for needy people.

Typical barriers for people to jump into innovative projects include status barriers of organisational charts, lack of time, inadequate engagement, organisational politics, and excess workload. However, all employees can be “culture co-creators” where a spirit of innovation is established and sustained.

The author shares examples of some new initiatives he launched himself, such as Happy Hour Squared (getting pub patrons to make sandwiches for the needy during happy hours) and Jiggly Boy (donations for Smile Network International).

To have more of a bias for action, the authors advise breaking down large tasks into a series of incremental steps, envision taking the first step and not the entire project, assess the opportunity cost of not jumping in, developing a circle of trusted confidants, and making peers hold you accountable for your commitments.

Other activities to consider include becoming the first to raise your hand to speak up or volunteer in meetings, build things with Lego, make up lyrics and sing along to an instrumental piece, help strangers when they are looking for something, and complete in the next day something that you planned for the next 30 days.

The road ahead

The journey of entrepreneurship involves dramatic highs and plunging lows, including some days when the only goal is survival and profitability seems like a distant dream, the authors observe. Iteration, collaboration, communication, and negotiation are lifelong activities.

While productivity and profitability are important, so are innovation and connecting to a larger purpose. An innovative mindset helps you as an individual, a member of society, and an organisational employee.

The authors wrap up by suggesting that you envision what a future innovative version of yourself would be like in five years, and seeing how that version would react in today’s context.

“A clear set of defined behaviours is the key to any human transformation,” the authors recommend. Self-reflection, ability to deal with unpredictability, group collaboration, mutual interdependence, and a feeling of value are enablers for innovative behaviours.



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