IHS Chemical Week


Improv and innovation


People apply what they know across all aspects of their lives. Some may use negotiation skills honed at the office in parenting at home. Others may apply a team approach from a weekend recreation league to a business project. About two years ago, Celanese, my employer, started its transition into a company focused on innovation, collaboration and customer-oriented opportunities while I enjoyed my own transition into a new product line management role. It was part of my job to support that innovation with strategy and marketing. I added a personal passion—use of my improvisational skills.

How can I suggest that good business can come from improvisational acting? It’s easy. In a discussion about unmet marketplace needs and debate on possible solutions, we embrace an unscripted environment where the solution doesn’t exist. We make it up as we go.

Applying marketing innovation concepts like integrating the voice of the customer and immersing the team in a customer-focused environment provides a platform and direction for new solutions. Using tools such as Robert Cooper’s Stage-Gate—a product innovation process—improves the success of innovation development. Similarly, three core elements make improvisation more successful. These elements sync with our innovation skills allowing for a perfect intersection of passions. The result is greater creativity and overall success.

First, the core of an improvised scene is the acceptance of the initial seed—or prompt—received. This is when two actors begin an unscripted dialogue and construct a scene layer-by-layer. They build each line on the previous. Each line embraces the situation and extends the scene further and longer. Any rejection will kill the scene. The same is true in the business world as we contemplate the value we bring to customers. An initial idea is only the starting place. From there, we continue to build, to embrace the opportunity and to develop a new solution that exceeds the starting idea with something more valuable and sustainable over the longer-term.

Second is the element of spatial awareness. A great improvised scene takes place somewhere—anywhere—and the improvisation extends beyond the dialogue into the environment. An actor doesn’t need to bring a kite on stage to show they are enjoying an afternoon in the park. However, an actor needs the audience and others to see from their actions that they are flying a kite and experiencing the park in order to sell the scene. Similarly, when we apply innovation in business, we cannot develop solutions without an environment. We must define the context where our solutions provide value, and we must demonstrate that value to our leaders and customers. If we don’t take the time to show our value in its environment, we miss our on-stage opportunity in our commercial discussions.

Third is the element of group mind. After only a few weeks of working together, a troupe has enough experience to pick up on context clues and mannerisms to improve the scene’s success. Not only are the actors speaking and demonstrating, but they bring a new layer of extrapolation into the dialogue, and they start to anticipate how the scene will unfold. For innovation in business, the collaborative team environment is crucial to developing and evaluating an opportunity pipeline. Once the team is established, they anticipate debate, identify logical gaps and improve the quality and creativity of their efforts. Yet, the group doesn’t need to be static. Support and collaboration can be contagious. As new members rotate in, the foundational skills remain and a new set of opportunities emerge.

As I learned in my own acting experiences, we aren’t improvising or using innovation without a safety net. We’re working from learned skills that only help us take on the unknown with more comfort, a sense of creativity and a dash of additional certainty.

Randy Skattum is Global Business Manager for Acetyl Specialty Derivatives at Celanese and previously led strategic marketing projects while at McKinsey & Company. He performed with the Laughing Stocks Improv Troupe at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and refreshes his improv skills through course work at the Dallas Comedy House. 

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