I am an ultramarathon trail runner. When I run in a race, I must make sure I have what I need to keep running for 30+ hours. I cannot rely on an aid station to have the food I need to settle my stomach or extra toilet paper for when nature calls. Plus, there are the miles and hours between aid stations that I must be self-reliant.
In a recent race, I realized that my improvisation and creativity are essential tools I rely on often. For instance, I improvise substitutions for items I do not carry. I’ve used zip-ties as hair ties. I’ve used duct tape on blisters and on a rip in my shorts. The most useful item I carry is a bandana. It keeps my hair out of my eyes, it holds ice that I can put on my neck when it is hot, it serves as a bandage if I fall, and it is a flag if I’m lost. I’ve used it to help filter water and to keep flies from buzzing in my ears. It’s been a tissue, a napkin, and a belt. Yes, I use a lot of creativity to solve problems that arise during those long, isolated treks through the woods and mountains.
This application of creativity is no different when facing issues at work – and I don’t mean using nail polish to stop a run in pantyhose or using a binder clip to keep your computer cords organized. I’m talking about real business issues.
What happens in a quarterly meeting when your boss singles you out to offer solutions, only to decline them in a sales meetings? How do you save a project that is due tomorrow when your team lead just reported that it’s behind schedule? These are problems that need immediate and decisive solutions. The good news is that you can often get by with a temporary solution until you have time to study the underlining cause of the issue and determine a permanent solution, just like I do when I trade my bandana in for rubbing alcohol and a bandage at the next aid station.
The Science Behind Improvising
The key to good, creative, improvised solutions is to focus on the immediate problem. When I use duct tape on a blister it is solving the immediate problem of finishing a race with a blister. It is not solving the underlying issue of what caused the blister. I will focus on that issue after I finish the race.
This quick response to an immediate issue requires one part of your brain to relax and another part to take over. Research conducted at Johns Hopkins University shows there is a part of the brain that is assigned to impulse control. We often call it our conscious brain – or our conscience, like Jiminy Cricket. It is the part that makes us think about the consequences before we gobble up the extra-large chocolate chip cookie. It also helps us sensor what we say so that we do not say something offensive or silly. The unconscious part of our brain is the part that makes rapid-fire connections about things we see, hear, and experience, which leads to great improvisation.
The research at Johns Hopkins University shows that jazz pianists, who are famous for their ability to improvise piano compositions, are better at shutting down the conscious part of their brain and activating the unconscious part. Great comedians are another group of people that can shut down their filter and deliver off-the-cuff comedic acts.
Imagine being able to flip a switch and shut off the filter that makes you remain quiet in a meeting because you do not want to sound silly. Some of the greatest and most creative ideas came from people that flipped that switch. Think about it. Someone once said in a meeting “I think that pet rocks would be popular with the kids.” Then there is Steve Jobs who said that he wanted to put a computer in every house, and this was when computers were as big as and more expensive than a house.
The good news is that with practice you can learn to flip that switch and become better at improvising. A good exercise is to think of a problem at work and quickly write down every solution that comes to mind. Do not sensor your ideas and do not stop writing. When the ideas stop, then look through your list and weed out the impractical ones and focus on how you can implement the others.
To find out more about the study conducted at Johns Hopkins (in layman’s terms) and about how improv is used, check out the article by Big Think.