The Innovation Framework
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Become A Co-Creation Master Through Riffing And Improv

We live in a “VUCA” world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Thriving in this environment means continually adapting as new contexts emerge. One of the best ways to develop the necessary flexibility is to become adept at co-creation, a form of collaborative innovation. In this article, I provide pointers on how to master co-creation through riffing and improvisation.

Co-Creation Defined

At its essence, co-creation is when you work closely with experts and stakeholders (customers, partners, colleagues) to develop new ideas and solutions for products and services that create a competitive advantage and economic value for your company. 

The underpinning spirit of co-creation is that, rather than develop plans in isolation, you invite other people to collaborate. Yet, collaboration can be hard. The more people you add into the mix, the more personalities and opinions you have to contend with. Things get messy and the process sometimes feels inefficient. This is true, especially if there isn’t a good framework to manage innovation, which I cover in another article, Structuring Innovation: A Formal Process. However, often, co-creation is uncomfortable because you haven’t developed your design thinking. To flex that muscle and master the art of co-creation, we can draw inspiration and insight from the worlds of jazz and improvisational theater.

Riffing and Improv Explained

My wonderful husband, who knows me better than anyone, would say that I’m not qualified to write this article because I can’t easily abdicate control. I think that’s true of many people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t continually develop our capacity to work cooperatively with other people and build off one another’s ideas. That’s what riffing and improv are all about.

Let’s start with jazz. At its heart, it’s music largely characterized by riffing, which is composing on the spot. The singer or instrumentalist invents solo melodies and lines over the chord progression. Similarly, improvisational theater (or “improv” for short), is a form of live performance in which the plot, characters and dialogue of the scene are created in the moment. Often, the actors take suggestions from a participatory audience and build off of one another to create a compelling narrative. 

Co-creation is no different than jazz or improv. You must be present, resilient enough to embrace uncertainty, and connect deeply with one another so you can riff, allowing previously unknown solutions to emerge through collaboration.

My Initial Exposure to Co-Creation

My father was in the music industry and managed some jazz greats, including Miles Davis. As a child, I often toured with the acts and witnessed, night after night, the art of riffing at its finest. No set had the same song list, and no song was ever played the same way twice — yet each performance held its unique beauty. Miles once said, “To keep creating, you have to be about change.” He also said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” This is the soul of co-creation—the notion that to innovate you must be willing to evolve, and that to evolve you must be willing to take chances and postpone judgment.

Later in life, as my career progressed, I found it challenging to spark innovation at the c-suite level and sought out like-minded individuals who could expand my thinking and collaboration repertoire. At this point, I met the folks at THNK, an executive leadership program that provides the tools to uncover new ideas. 

During my time working with THNK, I came across an article authored by Robert Wolfe, Lieselotte Nooyen and Menno van Dijk entitled, How To Start Riffing: 9 Pointers for Co-Creation. While I can no longer find this article online, I’d like to share insights I recall from it as they form a magnificent primer on how you can train yourself to co-create. 

Insight 1: Riffing is Hard Because of Our Ingrained Habits

Our preconceived notions and business practices are blockers that get in the way of being open to building upon other people’s ideas. There are four unhelpful, albeit common, thoughts of which we should be mindful as we start to collaborate, to overcome them:

  • I don’t know what to do, and I don’t like that.
  • I want to control this process, and I don’t feel in control.
  • A lot of these ideas seem crazy, and I should play it safe.
  • This isn’t working, so I’m mentally checking out.

To counteract the natural blockers of our ingrained habits, we need to cultivate the following mindsets — insights 2-4.

Insight 2: Creativity Flourishes Between People

There’s really no such thing as the genius in the room. It’s all about the collective. In his book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, Keith Sawyer debunks the myth of the isolated genius and presents sizable evidence that innovation is most often the result of collaboration. He contends that most breakthroughs are the products of “invisible collaborative webs.” 

So, if you’re like me (and probably most people) and gravitate towards controlling your environment, how do you embrace interaction and the process of people building on one another’s ideas? The THNK team suggests you can accomplish this with the following three actions.

Stay Connected With Others

Have you ever been in a meeting and mentally checked out? Why do you think that happened? It most likely occurred because you felt it was an ineffective session or couldn’t control the conversation and outcome. Our brains switch off as a defense mechanism when we don’t want to be present. When confronted with the desire to shut down, the THNK team suggests you do the exact opposite — actively engage and lean into the process (even physically with your body language). This forces you to connect with others and you might experience a surprisingly positive outcome.

Share vs. Abdicate Control

Most people think that when you collaborate, you’re abdicating control. This is not at all the case. Instead, creative leadership is an inclusive process where you share responsibilities and outcomes. In this environment, the team embraces the belief that each member will play an active role (i.e., stay connected) and have equal control. 

Build Upon Each Others Ideas

The people who tend to have the most difficulty sharing control are managers. If this is you, a large part of your day is spent focused on getting the most out of your teams while driving towards a hard metric, such as gross margin, EBITDA, etc. You actively distribute work to maximize output. This is one of the reasons co-creation can be so difficult to embrace—because you’re asking team members to overlap functions, combine creative inputs to trigger new ideas and advancements, and build upon each other’s ideas. Yes, it’s a less efficient process but it has a time and a place when you seek breakthrough concepts. The result is a co-created product or service born of melded contributions. Very few people in the world are geniuses and, even if they are, they may never have that eureka moment, but the collective genius of the group can achieve breakthrough after breakthrough.

Insight 3: It’s Impossible to Lose When You Collaborate

How many times have you been in a meeting and spent most of your time thinking about the next brilliant thing you’re going to say instead of actively listening? How often have you been annoyed and filled with envy as a team member makes the point you wanted to make, or says something brilliant you wish you’d thought of first? Conversely, I’m sure you’ve also had moments when you’ve held your tongue or edited your thoughts for fear of appearing ignorant. We’ve all been there. This is a win/lose mindset where we feel like we’re pitted in a contest against our peers, and it’s counterproductive to co-creation. Don’t worry; there are several techniques to help you get into the right riffing mindset of “it’s impossible to lose”.

Accept that Ideas Have No Owners

The win/lose mindset evaporates when you accept that no one owns an idea. It takes ego out of the co-creation process and allows you to start building upon one another’s contributions. Sawyer has a point to offer on this topic. He says, “Don’t worry about who gets credit. When a team genuinely collaborates, everyone ends up being more creative.”

Embrace Mistakes

Many people are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, especially in front of their colleagues. The beauty of co-creation is that, if no one owns the idea, you can’t be held accountable for a poor one. It’s freeing. And the folks at THNK suggest you should do one better and, not only be willing to make a mistake, but celebrate and share mistakes so others can learn from and build upon them. 

Sawyer also counsels that you shouldn’t expect every idea and every project to pan out. But he also says, “Know when to cut your losses and move on.” In truly innovative organizations, co-creation happens in a controlled environment where you can acknowledge mistakes and learn from them to identify the path that will lead to a breakthrough solution. 

Be Bold and Courageous

When co-creating, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Don’t play it safe. Be engaged, speak up, offer crazy ideas, push the boundaries of what both you and your team members have done before. Unsurprisingly, Sawyer concurs with the THNK team. He suggests that you should, “Put yourself in an environment that rewards failure. Creativity is risky; successful creative people are also the ones who fail the most often.”

Insight 4: Creativity Requires Both Sides of Your Brain

As leaders, we make data-led decisions, zero in on issues and follow the most expeditious paths to arrive at solutions. And this makes smart business sense the majority of the time. Yet, it’s important to engage our creativity. There are three ways you can do it.

Trust Your Instincts

In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell explores the subject of intuition. He posits that, frequently, spontaneous decisions, or intuitive judgments, are more sound and successful than carefully considered ones because intuitive perception seems to have access to knowledge that is not always (or readily) consciously available. No matter how pragmatic we are, everyone has had at least one moment when a gut feeling just felt right, and turned out to be the correct course of action. Tap into your intuition when riffing and look inward to guide you in the right direction. 

Practice Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is an ideation methodology where you investigate numerous, seemingly unrelated ideas in parallel. It’s a spontaneous, free-flowing, non-linear exploration where you discover weak signals within the industry and actively seek out contrarian perspectives. Why do we do this? Because it’s difficult to see the forest through the trees. If you don’t shift to a macro focus, every now and then, it’s impossible to see the bigger picture and the big idea.

Engage in Combinatory Play

Einstein developed a technique where he combined two or more concepts, insights, etc. into a new idea. He called this practice, combinatory play. And Steve Jobs is famously quoted as having said “creativity is just connecting things”. You can do this too with your team by taking two or more unrelated ideas and merging them. And that’s at the heart of improv. At first, the concepts might seem in opposition to one another, but if you try a mashup, you might find they work together and create something greater than the sum of their parts.

To Summarize

Co-creation is an essential skill in your creative leadership toolbox. You can get started by abdicating ownership of ideas, sharing control, building on others’ contributions, embracing mistakes, pushing outside of your comfort zone, casting a wide net for inspirational influences, and combining seemingly disconnected ideas. While it can be challenging to temporarily silence the problem-solving side of your metrics-driven brain, nurturing your ability to riff and improvise will allow you to collaborate without ego and, ultimately, cooperatively develop breakthrough solutions.

Amber Bezahler

B-school Meets D-School

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