There are a number of emerging thought leaders in corporate innovation. But there is only one who is advocating a unique and critically important perspective. This thought leader is John Sweeney and he owns and operates the Brave New Workshop, America’s oldest satirical comedy theater. And through the lens of improv comedy, not corporate R&D, Lean Startup, or human centered design, comes the most important concept in innovation.

Act 1 – Setting the Stage: “an innovation” versus “innovating”

Because the word “innovation” can mean both the act of innovating and the result of innovating, it is important to make a clear distinction between both. Most definitions of innovation (and there are plenty) involve describing the results. Take this example which is a top hit on a Google search of “definition of innovation”:

Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. (Scott Berkun, 2013)

And fourth on the search results is a post which provides “30+” innovation definitions. The article’s conclusion is this summary: “a) something fresh (new, original, or improved), b) that creates value” (Jeff Dance, 2008).

In recent years, with the emergence of human-centered design and design thinking as a leading innovation method, the point of view of solving for a customer or stakeholder’s needs might also make the definition, like this one:

Innovation is something new to your business that fills an untapped customer need. Ideally, the innovation builds a new market. (Jeff Dance quoted by Chuck Frey and Hitendra Patel)

Like the saying, you can’t tell which way a train when by looking at its tracks, you can’t tell how to innovate by looking at an innovation. The examples above all try to explain innovation by describing “an innovation.” Unfortunately, they provide no insight regarding “innovating,” the act or process of creating an innovation. This is a problem because corporations depend on building systems that are repeatable, affordable, and predictable. The “process” of “innovating” is how we eventually get “an innovation.” And though the inputs (customer needs) and the outputs (valuable solutions) will always have degrees of variability, it is the system of innovation that must be constant and predictable to be useful to corporations. This means that how we think and act matters.

What John Sweeney has to teach us is not about a toolset (design methods, The Lean Startup, Business Model Generation, etc.), or a skillset (rapid prototyping, customer interviews, ethnographic inquiry, etc.), but the mindset of innovation.

Act 2 – Developing the Narrative: Accepting and Advancing

John speaks about the creative process of improv. How something that takes random inputs (suggestions from the audience) and converts it into gut-busting comedic acts is really about a system with a specific set of rules and a highly trained mindset. Actors must “take” what they are given and “accept” the input, whether that input is from the audience or another actor. By first accepting what they are given and with a positive mindset advancing the scene, a comedic skit is developed and performed simultaneously and in real-time. As the idea develops between the give and take of the actors, the scene is advanced. In improv, the innovation (the skit) creates value (audience laughter) but it’s the rules (toolset), practice and experience (skillset), and the underlying attitudes and behaviors (mindset) that produce the result.

Plenty is being said about toolsets and skillsets but little is said about mindset. That is where John, his collaborative partner Elena Imaretska, and the rest of the Brave New Workshop comes into the picture.

Act 3 – Curtain Call: The Innovative Mindset

In their book, The Innovative Mindset: 5 Behaviors for Accelerating Breakthroughs, John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska challenge the notion that great tools and skills are the key to great innovation. They take the position that how we act is the foundation beneath skillset and toolset. And this mindset being advocated is not exhibited for just an hour during a brain-storming meeting, or while attending a design session, or while sitting in an “innovation lab.” It is behavior that is exhibited all the time in all situations.

John and Elena talk about the “mindset of discovery.” This can also be portrayed as curiosity or openness to new ideas. It means that we are ready to “accept” what is given and “advance” the interaction in a positive way. This does not mean that we can no longer disagree, or say “no,” or push back. But our first reaction to something new needs to be receptive acceptance. It means that we take it in and consider it.

Corporations are, by design, the opposite of the mindset of discovery. Most corporations develop a culture of “no.” The default answer to any question, any idea, any action, any behavior outside the norm, is “no.” And yet, with a different mindset, one developed over time by practicing skills and using those behaviors everywhere, a new corporate mindset can take hold.