Co-creating with improv, monsters & robots

People who make their living as “creatives” are all too familiar with the panic of a blank page or canvas. As Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” But no matter what we do for a living, we can all relate to the pressure to create something new and different.

“Nothing is more terrifying than needing a fresh new idea.” says Delight 2015 keynote speaker Gary Hirsch. “And the best new ideas come from co-creating with others.”

Gary is a co-founder of On Your Feet (OYF), which trains businesses to innovate through improvisation. On Your Feet does a lot of work with designers, marketers and C-level executives, helping them to think and act like an improviser. At Delight 2015 they shared improvisation techniques with participants, guiding them through a series of fun co-creation exercises throughout the day.

Collaborating to co-create

Photo by Wonder Knack

Colliding and connecting to create new ideas

“There isn’t anything new under the sun, but there are new ways of combining things,” Gary says, explaining that you can have two random things that you bring together in new and unique ways. This is what co-creating with improv is all about. He says improvisers have a special way of thinking about it, colliding ideas together and then connecting them. These collisions happen all the time, but to create something new with them you have to be available and notice them. And this is not something that just happens in improv.

“I’m talking about in life, in work, when you’re trying to create new ideas, when you’re sitting around the table with your post-it notes trying to squeeze the best thing out of the pore of your forehead,” Gary says. “You want to still play with your ideas, you want to collide them, you want to stay out of judgment as much as possible until you have to make those decisions. Because judgment can cut off some really great stuff.”

Here are a few of the lessons from improv that Gary shared at Delight and that we can all learn from when looking for our next great idea.

Improvisers are trained to let go of their agenda

Gary: If you’ve been to meetings where you’ve got a lot of people in the room it can just be a bit of an agenda-fest. People are just waiting for their ideas to come out, and then they say them. They don’t really listen to anybody else. But what improvisers have is the ability to behave in a way for more heads to be better than one. They may come into a situation thinking it should be about one thing, but somebody else may make a different choice and have a different idea, and they are available to be changed by it. If you do that in a meeting or in a brainstorm or in a collaborative environment, you might learn something new. You might get surprised, and surprise and newness in those conditions can be really valuable.

Improvisers focus on the other person

Gary: They don’t spend a lot of time worrying about themselves. “Did I say a smart thing? Was I funny just then?” The reason they can’t worry about themselves is that as soon as they do they’ll miss information. Literally miss it. This totally applies to life and work and business. Most people don’t listen because they are way too worried about what they’re going to say next. Behaving in a way that you’re available to be changed and focusing on the other person will get you new stuff.

Improvisers are very good at using other people’s stuff

Gary: Improvisers see everything as an offer, as an opportunity, and they don’t really worry about whether it’s good or bad. They use other people’s ideas and they demonstrate that they are using them to those people. You can take that same concept and think about it in the context of working with a colleague. If I use your stuff, you’re going to want to work with me more and vice-versa. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, it doesn’t mean you have to be the person that says “yes” to me all the time, but I’ll know that you’re in flow with me when you use my stuff, and that’s what improvisers do really well. When you behave like an improviser, things shift.

Surprise and delight are byproducts of co-creation

Gary: Improv actually puts a bull’s eye on the delight aspect of it. Because when you watch people behave in the way I just described, when they are actually listening to each other, when they are happy to embrace mistakes, when they really want to be where they are—it’s delightful to watch somebody do that. That is a piece of delight because they are taking something that the rest of us would think of as a giant mistake and turning it into opportunity. It’s delightful to watch people who want to be where they are. I mean just think about that for a second. When you are in a customer service interaction and you’re with somebody, I don’t care what you’re buying, you might be buying plumbing supplies or kitty litter or Starbucks. If that person wants to be there, there is a visceral emotional impact to you who are interacting with them. And you know it, you feel it.

One of the ways Gary co-creates—with people all over the world—is through his Bot Joy project, which he describes as “a tiny (and sometimes giant) robot army programmed to bring you joy!”


Gary has painted robots on more than 30 thousand dominos, as well as large murals in Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, and Madrid, Spain. “Bots allow me to find all sorts of ways let go of my art so I can see what delightful and surprising things can emerge without my planning or control,” Gary says. He brought 200 Delight Bots to share with attendees at Delight 2015, each with “Operating Instructions” on the the back:

  1. When someone in your life delights you, hand them this Bot.
  2. Take a photo of them with this Bot and post it to #botjoy and #DelightConf.
  3. Ask them to pass the Bot on and pay it forward the next time they are delighted by someone else.

Gary’s Delight Bots were a huge hit, as you can see in these photos and tweets:

Happy to share a DelightBot

Photo by Wonder Knack



Tweet with photo of 2 Delight bots on Delight program Tweet with photo of Delight bot in a terrariumTweet with photo of Delight bot and Salt & Straw ice cream

Delight happens when you are part of the story

Unlike traditional marketing communication, where brands broadcast and you consume whatever they give you, delightful brand experiences make you part of the story. “When you have the chance to interact with brands or organizations and they listen to you—and you can see your ideas reflected in what they do—that is delightful,” Gary says. “So I think co-creation is inherently delightful when you participate in it.”

To learn more about how improvisation can help you to come up with original new ideas—and see where monsters fit into this picture—watch the video of Gary’s keynote and take a look at his slides.

Top photo by Stephen Kozik.