Clowns, comedians and creative problem-solving

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What can clowns and comedians teach us about leadership, innovation, and collaboration?

One of our consistent drumbeats is encouraging executives to lead with empathy, put themselves in the shoes of others, and be curious. More easily said than done sometimes. To help, consider borrowing from the world of entertainment using improvisation.

Improv beyond the stage

It might sound funny (no pun intended) to encourage leaders to “think like a clown,” but hear me out. Thinking like a clown, comedian, or actor means thinking on one’s feet, being adaptive, and using whatever circumstance is presented as a tool to produce a better outcome. That’s the power of improvisation, and, when used intentionally, can be a game-changer. Especially in today’s complex world, leaders are often hamstrung by bringing a technical solution to an adaptive problem.

Technical solutions move efficiently along a mostly known pathway from a known problem to a known solution.

Adaptive challenges need more attention. They require everyone in the organization to make efforts toward the change. Even when change is welcome and will make things better, leaders often experience resistance.

Next time you’re in a tight spot, bring in a spirit of improvisation. Leaders and team members who adapt readily to changing circumstances are better equipped to handle dynamic work environments and challenges effectively. Building off of one another’s ideas, rather than competing for power, helps to create a cohesive narrative for the change we seek.

Improv strengthens folks’ active listening skills. Leaders who practice active listening better understand their team’s needs and concerns, fostering open communication and a more supportive work environment.

Improv also helps build the ever illusive T-word: trust. By its very nature, improv brings vulnerability into the room. Leaders who intentionally create space for team members to take risks and share ideas without fear of judgment build stronger bonds and foster trust within the team.

When it comes to collaboration, well, that is the backbone of improv. I have to tune in to what you’re saying so I can build on your idea to grow my idea. When leaders and team members practice this principle, they learn to value each other’s contributions. This helps make way for shared goals and approaches to getting work done rather than just focusing on the “right” way, “my” way, or the status quo.

The yes-and technique for innovation

When faced with a problem, begin without judgment by asking, “What are all the relevant factors that might be contributing to this situation?” Seed your mind before you problem-solve…be energetically curious!

Then, dive into the improv space:

  • Ask the team to generate a lot of ideas without evaluation or judgment. Think quantity over quality. Research suggests that developing many ideas is a key to innovation.
  • Evaluate ideas AFTER all the ideas have been generated.
  • Encourage people to offer completely impractical ideas. The sky’s the limit!
Once you have your list, take each idea and review it using the following process:

  • Step 1: The idea person states their concept.
  • Step 2: Colleagues listen without evaluating or focusing on their responses. Then, folks respond using the following format: “What I LIKE about that idea is…” Let the 10% Rule be your guidepost; it stipulates that whatever idea somebody tosses out is at least 10% right. Focus on the 10% you can honestly say you like. This is the YES part!

Important note: Avoid, at all costs, responding with “I like that idea” At this point, you’re merely providing feedback about what you like ABOUT the idea. Watch out for being a heat-seeking fault-finder!

  • Step 3: Then, each person builds on the idea by offering: “And, what it sparks for me is…” In this way, colleagues find the 10% they like and share their ideas that get sparked. This is the AND part!
  • Step 4: Continue with all the ideas generated.

At the end of the session, harvest the group’s intelligence with a few simple questions:

  • What’s the group recommending?
  • What ideas might we be willing to “rent”?
  • What excites you?
  • What did you hear that changed your mind, opened your perspective, or helped you see something new?


Give it a shot and let us know how it goes…oh and have fun! We need more of that in our workplaces!


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Hey there, I'm Kimberley

Welcome! I believe our social sector organizations are at the forefront of making here better. With more than 33 years of diversified fundraising and nonprofit experience, I partner with courageous organizations committed to building clarity and confidence. Let’s connect and chart your nonprofit’s path to thriving. 

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