Last fall, I finally took the plunge and signed up for an improv course. The core quality of improvisational theatre is that it’s completely unscripted. The plot, characters, relationships, and scenes unfold before the audience’s eyes through a process of determined collaboration. The troupe of performers must be completely present in order to maintain momentum and keep the audience engaged. By completely accepting and trusting one another, actors immerse themselves in a process of pure co-creation.
As I attended each course, I couldn’t help but think about how the people I work with at GoKart Labs naturally carry the spirit of improv performance into their work. Take, for example, our annual GoKart 600 event: Five teams each create a new business in 600 minutes with a budget of 600 dollars. By applying the same principles that an improv troupe would use, the teams came up with extremely innovative products under crazy constraints.
“Can I get a word from the audience?”
At GoKart Labs, we really look forward to the 600 “Race Day.” There are a bunch of events leading up to it, and celebrating its completion. But this year, we got no advance clues to what we were building. Instead of crafting problem statements in the days before the 600, this year they were chosen out of a hat (a motorcycle helmet, actually) the morning of the event. It’s not unlike how, in the improv world, we ask the audience for a random suggestion to start the scene. This ensures that the show is truly improvised. It also builds a strong bond between teams since no one can just take over and bring a preexisting scene to fruition. For the 600,, this means we get to tackle problems we haven’t previously encountered in regular projects at GoKart Labs.
“A to C”
After receiving our suggestion or problem statement, we applied a concept known as “A to C” in the improv world. A to C challenges improvisers to move beyond their first thought and explore other connected thoughts by practicing free association. For example, an audience member will shout out the word “pineapple” (my instructor once told me this was the most common suggestion). An improviser on stage may relate that initial idea “A” the pineapple) to idea “B”, perhaps a vacation. They then take it one step further and relate a vacation to idea “C”, say, Switzerland. Similarly, my GoKart 600 team jumped into a brainstorming exercise to identify common themes around our problem statement. By thinking more broadly, we identified other issues that weren’t immediately obvious.
“Bring a brick, not a cathedral”
Like any improv scene, you have to work with what you’ve got. You can’t bring any props to the stage and must use your whole self to manifest the scene. So when it was time to develop our GoKart 600 business concept, we used tools that were immediately available: our networks and a search engine. We didn’t have the budget or time for a formal qualitative interview through a vendor, yet we still needed to make sure that the problem we were exploring was indeed a problem before building a product.
Once we validated our problem, it was time to develop our solution. In improv, an actor cannot hog the stage with a monologue and build the cathedral on their own. The principle of short turns is better because the team co-creates a scene, it’s far more entertaining and successful than when an actor hogs the stage. Everyone is expected to contribute. Similarly, our product was being built brick by brick through suggestions from our team. From tweaking the copy of our site, to putting together our go-to-market plan, we all rolled up our sleeves to contribute.
Just like any improv scene, we hadn’t rehearsed and would not know how our audience would react. It’s a little daunting, but fear is immaterial and we hadn’t budgeted any time for unproductive activities. Instead, we followed the fear and put it on its feet. By applying the same principles that improvisers do – creative problem solving, listening, agreeing, initiating, we built a product (with 10 minutes to spare!) and pitched it by the end of the day.