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If you look at some of the most successful companies in history, there is one thing they have in common: innovation. With World Innovation Week coming up in April, we decided to sit down with John Sweeney, co-author of “The Innovative Mindset,” to find out how companies and individuals can embrace innovation and revolutionize the way they work.
Sweeney is the co-owner and executive producer of the Brave New Workshop, America’s longest-running satirical comedy theater. He uses his 20+ years of improvisational performance, speaking and training to influence human behavior and to create simple, but groundbreaking, tools that have ignited cultures of innovative behavior within Fortune 500 companies, including Microsoft, PwC, General Mills and many more. The first-ever MNovation seminar takes place Feb. 25 in Minneapolis. Get the details here: MNovation Seminar Series.
John, thanks for taking the time to tell us more about what you do and how innovation can help us in our daily lives.
You’re known as an “innovation behaviorist.” What does that mean?
When people approach the Brave New Workshop’s Creative Outreach arm to work with them on their company’s innovation programs, I start by having a simple conversation to get to know them. I always ask them to begin by telling me about their current innovation system. They usually tell me all about their innovation initiatives, chief innovation officers come and gone, programs launched and research they’ve done. But very rarely do they tell me about what their company is doing to help their teams behave innovatively. That’s where I come in.
We often forget about how much basic everyday behavior affects our ability to come up with great new ideas. Often, innovation leaders assume behaviors will automatically change once a great system is in place. The teams that work on those programs often overlook a very basic ingredient of a successful innovation effort: the people who need to fuel it – and all their fears and emotions.
I help people work on changing their actual day-to-day behavior, with the end result being that innovative ideas can flow more freely and arise naturally. No system will work if people don’t act in a way that promotes innovative thinking.
You recently co-authored a book called “The Innovative Mindset.” What is the innovative mindset, and how can someone get into it?
The book, which I co-authored with my colleague Elena Imaretska, came out from Wiley in October, and we’re really excited about it. An innovative mindset embraces a Mindset of Discovery, rather than a Mindset of Fear.
The Mindset of Discovery is a choice to not spend a disproportionate amount of time or energy on fear, and to live a life of engagement, authenticity and forward-looking action. It stems from more than 55 years of improvising off and on stage at the Brave New Workshop, the longest-running satirical comedy theater in the U.S.
The Mindset of Discovery works in contrast to the mindset of fear – fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of conflict. We often don’t even realize when we start on a downward spiral of negative thoughts: What if I can’t do it? What if I draw a blank? What if people think I’m stupid?
We are capable of making the fear of failure irrelevant and transforming that negative emotion into a productive drive that can allow us to perform to the best of our abilities and maximize the opportunities that life presents us. The key is to turn the fear of failure into excitement to discover. Embracing a Mindset of Discovery requires practice, and that’s where behaviors come in.
In the business world, we’re often expected to execute, execute, execute day after day, with less attention paid to actually practicing new skills and behaviors. But for real improvement and meaningful behavioral changes to occur, we need to spend time practicing integrating these behaviors into our daily lives.
You’ve made a name for yourself in recent years as a seasoned speaker. What are the top tips you share with an audience to ignite innovative behavior?
There are five behaviors – which I call “The Big Five” behaviors – that improv actors use every day that can spark a significant change in an organization’s ability to innovate. Luckily, you don’t even have to set foot on a stage to practice these behaviors.
1. Listen. Listening – really, fully listening – makes the people you’re innovating with feel validated, respected and trusted, which leads to them producing better ideas.
2. Defer judgment. A key behavior to spark innovation is to simply defer judgment – put some space between the moment that new information comes your way and the beginning of the judgment process.
3. Declare. A declaration is a clear, concise way of letting our colleagues know our point of view and what we want to accomplish.
4. Reframe the situation. Reframing is about taking a look at a challenge or opportunity through a new lens.
5. Jump in. Staying in information-collection mode may seem like the safest route, but if you’re looking to innovate, you don’t need all the data, you just need to jump right in and get started.
Practicing these behaviors every day helps foster an innovation-friendly environment where organizations can generate new ideas and spark a culture of innovation.
I’m a task-oriented person, so innovation is a difficult concept for me to grasp. What advice do you have for someone like me to better understand and spark innovation?
It sounds like you could benefit from spending a little extra time this week, this month or even this year, working on reframing, one of the Big Five behaviors I mentioned earlier. You might try setting aside some time in your day to think creatively from new perspectives.
One exercise I encourage people to try is to create a few profiles of some typical customers or collaborators you work with. Use their point of view to problem-solve, or come up with some ideas you think they’d benefit from. For example, “How would Becky look at this?” or “What would this mean to Archie?”
Another great exercise to try when working on a challenging project is to ask yourself, “How would I complete this if I had an unlimited budget?” After you’ve brainstormed some great ideas, ask yourself, “How could I complete this if I had no budget?”
Or, try finding a solution to your problem from a 12-year-old’s perspective.
These exercises will help you think from new perspectives, perhaps coming up with ideas you never would have considered when approaching innovation from your own point of view.
A little birdie told me you are also the Minnesota Timberwolves’ beloved superfan Jiggly Boy. How did that get started? And aren’t you ever cold? Minnesota is not really known for its heat waves!
I first developed the Jiggly Boy character in 2003 after the Minnesota Timberwolves, one of the Brave New Workshop’s clients, asked me to help engage their customers and generate more excitement at the game. We created a character who was so excited about the game and team that he took off his shirt and danced in the stands, only to be promptly ejected by “security guards” who were actually Brave New Workshop actors. Still to this day, many don’t realize the security guards were actors!
Fast-forward to February 2015, when the Timberwolves asked me to reprise the popular character to welcome NBA legend Kevin Garnett back to the team. They played the 2003 video on the Jumbotron, and then showed me in the stands looking uncomfortable, until the growing applause finally coaxed me from my seat. And then I burst into my Jiggly Boy routine, giving it everything I had, tearing off my shirt to reveal “Welcome Back, KG” on my chest. Once again, the plan worked. The stadium went nuts.
This time around, I enlisted some partners to help turn my 15 minutes of fame into an effort to change kids’ lives by literally giving them new smiles. Within hours after Jiggly Boy’s comeback, we created a website – JigglyBoy.com – to leverage the momentum and raise money for Smile Network International, a nonprofit doing miraculous work worldwide on missions that provide cleft palate and lip surgery for children. On the site, you can view the video, create a customized meme, shop for Jiggly Boy merchandise (all proceeds go to Smile Network International!) and, most importantly, donate directly to Smile Network International.
I continue to marvel at how the Jiggly Boy phenomenon is still going strong – we’re up to 150 million video views worldwide, and counting. If you need a bit of laughter in your day or an easy way to help transform a child’s life, a click to Jigglyboy.com is worth a few minutes of your time!
Luckily for me, the Timberwolves play indoors, so I don’t have to worry about being cold!
What are you working on now?
Creating comprehensive and meaningful learning experiences for our corporate clients is the name of the game these days! My team and I have developed a whole suite of both live sessions and digital tools that can move the needle for a company’s culture. We all know that behavioral change takes time, effort and intention and we are excited to support our corporate clients in inspiring their employees to cultivate a Mindset of Discovery and spark innovation on an enterprise level.
From train-the-trainer certifications, to drop-in innovation workout sessions, to an app which allows continuous practice and social learning, to an easy-to-use video learning course based on our book “The Innovative Mindset” hosted on learning.ly, we are excited to provide customized programs that create a solid behavioral foundation for any innovation effort or initiative.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m always open to talk with media on any number of topics, from innovation to improv. The best place to reach me is at firstname.lastname@example.org.