Mindset of Discovery

As the owner of the oldest comedy theatre in the US, John Sweeney is a natural innovator as well as a successful businessman. In his forthcoming book The Innovative Mindset, John shares 5 behaviors known to help us embrace the 'Mindset of Discovery' and in turn spark innovation, maximize productivity and increase profitability.  

Rooted deep within the practice of theatre improvisation and tested by a long journey of entrepreneurial growth, John introduces a well versed but non-rehearsed way to apply this fascinating new mode of thinking. 

 The following is a collated and edited synopsis from John’s latest book The Innovative Mindset: 5 Ways of Accelerating Breakthroughs written together with colleague and fellow improviser Elena Imaretska.

The definition of the ‘mindset of discovery’ emerged from more than 55 years of improvising off and on stage at the Brave New Workshop. Without this kind of mindset, it’s nearly impossible to create and collaborate at the rapid pace our stage requires with the added stress of a live audience. We would have failed as a business at growing and prospering had we not embraced this mindset.

Improvisation has been a force in my life for 23 years and I have found it to be an amazing vehicle to practice the behaviors and mindset needed for successful innovation.

The mashup of improvisation in the corporate world has been a part of my life since 1992. I had begun to take improvisational classes as a way to take a break each week from what was beginning to feel like what some people call the grind – essentially, the burnout of the day-to-day activities of a pretty typical corporate job.

And then, once a week for three hours, I would find myself in an improvisational acting class in a tiny storefront theater. There were weeks when it felt like I was stepping through an alternate dimension portal. Improvisation was an art form, with its rules of engagement, cultural norms, and its operational and logistical manufacturing process. It was what I know now as the culture of “Yes, And!”

Performance improvisation is a wonderful metaphor, an amazing piece of science, humanity, and process that we can dissect and learn from.

After six years in corporate real estate, I spent four solid years reading, listening, practicing, and performing the art form of improvisation without any other distractions my life. Many times the combination of class, practice, and performance would take up 60 to 80 hours of my week.

Reaching the top of the corporate real estate game, and then again as a successful owner and director of The Brave New Workshop, America's oldest comedy store, I recognised the value that can derived from the art of improvisation. I then realised that the best way to share what I had learned was to become a professional speaker and teach businesses how to apply the skills of improvisation to overcome business challenges.

To date I have featured as a corporate speaker at over 2,500 events, helping an extensive range of clients learn the methods and understand the all important message behind them.

Embracing a Mindset of Discovery

There is only one aspect of our examination of improvisation that I would ask you to embrace. Even in its imperfection, even in its flawed process and oftentimes-imperfect results, if one is to be successful in performing improvisation, the single most important thing he or she must do is to embrace and live the mindset of discovery while on stage. That approach is equally important to succeeding in the business world. In fact in our 15 years of working with leading Fortune 500 corporations we have found that the mindset we choose is critical to our ability to innovate. 

In order to keep the many stressors of modern life at bay and create a space for innovation, we have to be intentional about where we focus our attention and what lens we use to process information. We like to think of that filter as our mindset.

As psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck brilliantly points out in her book, “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”: “Mindsets are just beliefs. They are powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.” (Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, 2008).

We embrace a few powerful assumptions when we’re in the mindset of discovery; specifically, we believe that:

  • Mistakes are a great source of inspiration and learning.

  • Change is fuel -- not an obstacle.

  • Ideas and honest opinions have value that we should celebrate, not judge.

  • We all have the power to create change and impact those around us.

  • We don’t need ALL the information to just begin.

These assumptions fuel a very productive and happier state of being. We tend to be much more confident, agile, curious, accountable, and authentic when we’re operating in the mindset of discovery.

5 Behaviour Gains from a Mindset of Discovery

The confidence stems from a healthy relationship with risk and “failure.” It’s easy to succumb to the fear of failure and attempt to spend disproportionate time on preventing mistakes and ensuring everything is perfect. But mistakes will inevitably take place – and the people who are able to focus on the learning and move on are in a better place to keep trying to achieve their goal instead of giving up.

That agility is rooted in the belief that irrelevance and stagnation follow if we don’t change and grow. People in the mindset of discovery don’t seem to be as set back or even surprised by change. They see the next circumstance in their life as simply a piece of information, and defer judgment on it in order to process it and find how it can help them move forward.

Their curiosity is based upon a sense of openness – a desire to gather a wide breadth of information, perspectives, and experiences. It’s not a passive level of curiosity; rather, it’s an aggressive, investigative, almost inexhaustible need to learn, find out, and experiment. That curiosity shows itself in how these people communicate with others as well as in their ability to jump in and engage with a situation – or, in the context of innovation, begin to try things out.

The accountability is a manifestation of the desire to co-create and a belief that one has the power and ability to make an impact. Moreover, it’s rooted in the capacity to see conflict as a productive process, which can lead to a better outcome. People in the mindset of discovery are not afraid to engage and “mix it up” if need be. They know that friction of ideas, opinions, and points of view doesn’t have to be full of contempt and negativity, and prefer to be active, doers, and contributors rather than passive observers.

Finally, authenticity is a refusal to conform – and a celebration of diversity and a bold declaration of one’s point of view, values, and opinions. Authenticity rests on the assumption that diversity of thought is the key to finding a better solution as well as creating a rich, interesting society and that pretending to be someone else does not serve anyone. 

We Are What We Practice

I’ve had the privilege to experience three dramatically different worlds throughout my life – competitive college sports, the performing arts, and business. One thing that has always stuck out for me is the difference in how the concept of practice is implemented in those three worlds. In sports and in arts, we tend to practice most of the time and execute far less frequently.

And then there’s the world of business, which demands that we wake up, drink our cup of coffee, and execute, execute, execute all day long. When we are asked to improve, to learn new skills, and to meet our professional development goals, we hardly ever get the time or support necessary for meaningful practice.

For real improvement and meaningful behavioral change, we need a plan that’s integrated into our daily lives. We need something that provides the opportunity to practice and reflect on the new skills and behaviors.   

There are five behaviors that we believe can increase the time we spend in the mindset of discovery. Those simple yet powerful behaviors -- which we call “The Big Five” -- are:

  1. Listen: Be present, open and aware
  2. Defer Judgment: Pause and accept the potential of ideas and opinions
  3. Reframe: Use what you have to move forward
  4. Declare: Be authentic and clear, speak your mind
  5. Jump In: Develop a bias towards action, avoid analysis-paralysis

John’s new book delves much deeper into how adopting the discovery mindset is the foundation stone to accelerated innovation. The book is available for purchase through Amazon from October 26, 2015.

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Mindset of Discovery

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