Dec 14, 2011 • By

Improv and innovation

I recently had two personal encounters with social innovation – one human, one humorous – that were equally inspiring and actionable.

First, the humorous.

For the past eight years, the General Mills Foundation has worked in partnership with General Mills’ Organizational Learning department to host quarterly Leadership Forums for local nonprofits.

The forums consist of half-day workshops given by blue-chip consulting firms hired by leadership teams at General Mills, who generously agree to stay in town an extra day to offer their expertise pro bono to equally deserving and grateful nonprofit leaders in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The workshops consistently deliver a level of organizational and individual leadership training that few community – and most commercial – organizations could afford.

But that’s not the funny part.

The funny part came in the form of the blue-chip consultants featured in our most recent Leadership Forum, which were not from a traditional consulting firm, but rather an improvisational comedy theater troupe.

Improvisation breeds innovation

Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis is the longest running satirical comedy theater in the United States. And when 9/11, digital media, and our souring economy took the last few bites out of an already shrinking pie of live theater profitability, its enterprising owner, John Sweeney, turned to corporate America for a more profitable audience. (That’s Sweeney in the photo. above.)

Over the past 10 years, John and his team have built an entertaining brand of business services that have spawned three books and 200 plus days of onsite speeches and workshops for hundreds of corporate clients across the U.S., Canada and beyond.

John Sweeney

Sweeney’s grand metaphor connects the principles of improvisational theater to innovative leadership, and short of Cliff-noting his entire body of work (read “Innovation at the Speed of Laughter” for a primer), it pivots around three core tenets of:

1. Serving the greater scene (comprised of your audience or customers).

2. Making everybody else look better than yourself (be they fellow actors or employees).

3. Believing that you already have everything you need to succeed (leaving no room or need for excuses).

While Sweeney’s novel approach, delivered with equal parts slapstick and science, is desperately needed in the corporate world, anyone who has ever worked in the community sector will tell you that it might be even more needed for leaders who put the “non” in nonprofit.

It’s not that we don’t have innovation in the social services sector, it’s just that too often the innovation is reserved for and celebrated by the romantically niche (i.e., Ethos water, Tom’s shoes, pre-acquisition Ben & Jerry’s) versus the steadfastly institutional (i.e., Salvation Army, Red Cross, March of Dimes).

Innovation at these most scaled levels of social serving comes slow if at all, and appears as elusive as the social issues they tackle appear intractable.

Which introduces my recent “human” encounter of social innovation, representing the exact opposite of perceived intractability and accompanying inaction.

An innovative way to serve

For the second year in a row, I recently spent a cold Minnesota winter evening sleeping outside in a tent to help raise awareness and money for the homeless.

My sixth grade daughter and I were hardly alone, as hundreds of Minnesotans will do the same over a roughly six-week period leading up to 2012, raising over $1.5 million for “Bob’s Sleep Out” to benefit a local nonprofit organization.

At this year’s sleep out, we were visited by Bob himself, the very unassuming shoe repair man who back in 1996 simply wanted to experience what it felt like to be homeless by pitching a tent in the front yard of his suburban Minneapolis home.

Next thing he knew, he was pledging to stay sleeping outside until he raised a set amount of money for the homeless in his town, which then spread to another town, then another.

Fifteen years and millions of raised dollars later, his singular idea and act has become an – irony alert! – institution of Minnesota holiday benevolence.

Now, if you would have asked Bob 15 years ago to do something overtly innovative to help the homeless, he may very well have balked.

So many to serve, too anonymous to know, with not nearly enough resources available to pull it off.

But instead of doing something ‘innovative,’ he just started doing something from where he was, with what he had, for who he knew.

Improvisation – and innovation – personified.