• Greg Ellis

Building teams and making them creative

I have a background in improvisation, 24 odd years of it to date, and its both theatrical and musical improvisation. It would be no mistake to say that I like to improvise. One of the reasons I have made so much of my career out of improvisation is that I love the way that it keeps me creatively fresh.

When we are young everything is improvisation, we are still learning about the boundaries of the world and its possibilities. It is an enduring cliché that when given a present young kids will often unwrap it, play with the toy for a moment and then discard it for the wrapping paper or box it came in. But there is some truth to this cliché - to kids the world is a blank canvas and a toy that only does one thing is not as fascinating as a box that could be a thousand things. As we grow up, however, education and society start to force us into the belief that there are many boundaries and limitations. Things are "scientifically impossible" or "impossible to achieve within budget" or "impossible for me to do right now." Our childhood sense of creativity gets further and further whittled away. Place us in a corporate setting where we are faced with the judgement of our peers, competition, KPIs and stakeholder accountability and any sense of creativity can completely evaporate. And yet so many businesses place innovation as a core value that it really has no innovative value any more - it’s a new way to tart up "business as usual".

Self-censorship, caution and competitiveness are the absolute enemy of creativity and yet the traditional corporate model is a really fertile place for these very things to grow. In this environment creativity and risk-taking is a weed to be pulled and not something to be nurtured and celebrated. Too often corporate "innovation" is a page on the intra-net that gathers "ideas" that are never acted on and risk-taking is the wearing of a pink tie.

So how do you unlock that inner kid, and find that world of boundless possibilities? Get a bit of improvisation back in your life. After all improvisation is a fancy word for play. And this is where it can get scary to a boss or a bean-counter. Improvisation can be seen as "a bit of Theatresports at the office party" or "something I hated back in secondary school".

Yes it is those things but it can be so much more than that. Think of a magic moment at a party where someone makes an off-the-cuff witty remark and a shot of energy and laughter buzzes around the room. That's a spark of creativity unleashed by improvisation. And it can be more sustained than that.

Here's a link to a fantastic Ted talk by a Charles Limb. He talks about what is happening in the brain when musicians improvise. One of the things that happens is that the part of the brain that self-monitors and judges shuts down whilst the parts of the brain that allow for expression open up. Also, amazingly other parts of the brain responsible for our senses and communication also come alive. We are waking up the parts of ourselves that create and communicate.

So improvisation has a real business case and benefits for you and your team.

- It cuts through the self-censorship that stands in the way of good ideas

- It awakens the creative potential of the brain

And more importantly it encourages dialogue and communication between team members. The great thing here is that improvisation puts everyone on a level playing field to a certain extend. Job description does not give you any greater ability to improvise, nor does seniority or salary. Often the best improvisers initially are those with the least to lose. Starting on a level playing field in an environment where there is no right answer allows for traditional workplace dynamics to be laid aside and for people to truly co-operate to achieve a creative goal.

Improvisation encourages us to generate ideas without judgement. These ideas don't have to last and don't have to provide the silver bullet each time. This can be enormously freeing for some people. Not every idea in your business needs to be brought to market, not every thought needs to be integrated into strategy. But the process of generating ideas generates more ideas of its own. It’s the same spark that follows a witty quip at a party.

It can be confronting. People can be taken a long way out of their comfort zone by creativity without limits. One of the reasons that we aren't all novelists is that looking at a single blank page of paper and envisaging that becoming a 500 page novel filled with stuff is impossible for many people to grasp. But when people find their way to that moment where the part of their brain is not judging and when they realise they are joined by other people in a similar state then there is an amazing freedom and energy that is generated.

Great in theory. How does it happen in practise?

I've been teaching improvisation skills for 23 years. In schools, in academia and in business. I've got a raft of skills to help unlock your businesses team-work and creativity. But I'm not about just parachuting in and offering you something off-the-shelf that bears very little resemblance to what your organisation needs. Calling something irrelevant is the easiest safety valve for someone who is struggling to unlock a sense of creativity. It’s easy to say "this doesn't apply to my business so its crap." Breaking down that sort of resistance takes understanding your business a little and finding out why you need to unlock your team's creativity, why they need to come together and what it is you hope to achieve. Then I can build this into the training and use it as the reason why the training is taking place and supply the all-important "what's in it for me?"

So I'm happy to sit down with you and talk through what it is that you really want, what the end goal is and what the current state of the play is with your team and then cherry pick the right stuff out of 23 years to deliver. I've delivered that stuff all sorts of ways through the years - through hands on solutions where teams build or create, through workshops that look at the basics of improvisational technique, through discussions of my own creative process or with combinations of some or all of these with other things thrown in as the group needs it.

I'm a qualified teacher and use many people in my team who are likewise trained. Greg Ellis Creative believes in making sure that people feel supported in the process too. I've had enough moments in my career to know the sheer terror of having to think of something on the spot and it not arriving instantly. It happens to us all. But it’s something that when we realise that we can create and we unlock that sense of limitless possibilities that we had as kids that is amazingly satisfying.

I experience it every day with my job and I'd love for your team to do the same. Take a look at our Training page and get in touch with us if you'd like to chat about what we can do to get back the sparks of creativity and connectedness in your team.

#creativity #teambuilding #training #teamwork

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