Innovation: No pain, no gain?

Bumper stickers, cubicle walls, and email footnotes are just some of the places you might see clichés such as:

  • no pain, no gain
  • nothing worth having comes easy
  • tough it out, you!

And I wonder, these sayings are either the work of an athletic coach, or… someone who cares about real, sustained change.

Perhaps they are one in the same.

Up and down your organization you will find people with different tolerance levels for pain. They will recognize it somewhere along the scale from an unnecessary evil to a requirement for growth and renewal.

Some say “bring on the change!”, and others hide under their desk. Left under our own devices, how many of us would willingly seek out and go after change if we knew how hard it would be?

Leading through change means recognizing that yes, there will be pain. Instead of ignoring it, we can help navigate others through it by asking “where is this coming from?”, and “why?”.

Two lessons from Improvisation comes to mind when thinking about leading through change: commitment and trusting instincts.

When we embrace change as a practice, we learn to recognize the good pain from the bad pain. Ignoring the bad pain in favor of commitment doesn’t do anyone any favors.  We don’t have to be the “change” hero that results in a broken leg or worse.

But when we see the momentum moving in the right direction, the aches and pains that comes with all things new, can, under the right guidance and mental know-how, remind us that it’s all in the name of, you guessed it… the game.


A new way to think of change

In an Improv scene, a movie, a story, or a great presentation we find resolution by completing this sentence,

 “and ever since that day”…

What changed?

This change is brought about by what we call a tilt. Something a character says, does, expresses, and admits to, etc in a scene.

It is our goal in an Improv scene to be open to change and to actively seek it. This change then answers the question, “what was different about this day”.

As innovators, creative problem-solvers, leadership coaches, managers, trainers, and facilitators we push positive change.

“And ever since that day”….

The tilt, the catalyst for change, comes from being hyper-aware to what offers and ideas have already been expressed. What is around us that we can use? What are our characters feeling, expressing, and wanting and what honest reactions and desires can we pull from to help our characters organically grow and evolve?

We can think of it this way:

Once there was…
And every day…
Until one day…
And because of that…
And because of that…
And because of that…
Until finally…
And ever since that day…

Improvisers want to be changed. The static scene and character that stays the same from beginning to end is not our friend.

To embrace change is to ask… “and ever since that day”… and to see the world of possibilities that appear when we making even one small tilt pushes us in a direction we couldn’t have predicted.

Your brain on training – what your initiatives need to consider

David Rock… well, he rocks. His neurological research reminds us to ask this important question – in designing organizational transformation initiatives, are we taking into account the way our brains work?

Here are two must-have tips:

1. It’s all about insights

Knowledge is gained through insight, not necessarily transmission and passive knowledge transfer.  Our training initiatives need to encourage more time for self-reflection, de-briefing, and the ability to make connections.

We tend to form new connections when we are happier, which can be encouraged by helping people focus on solutions instead of problems.

The more we want people to change, the more we need to recognize, encourage and deepen their insights. These insights should be generated from within.

We are capable of forming more insights if interactions and initiatives at work trigger our reward stimuli as opposed to threat stimuli in the brain.

2. Social Triggers – S.C.A.R.F.

The brain predisposes us to resist some forms of leadership, training, and interactions, and to accept others based upon whether our brain views them as a threat or a reward.  In fact, much of the motivation regarding our behavior is driven by this system of rewards and threats.

When we feel threatened we tend to adopt an avoid response. When we notice a reward, we tend to have an approach response.

Threats can reduce cognitive performance and decrease our effectiveness. However, the approach response generated by rewards is synonymous with engagement and positive emotions. A growing body of research shows this state increases dopamine which activates the learning centers in the brain, allowing us to perceive more options when trying to solve problems.

David Rock states, there are FIVE important social triggers at play in our brains during every interaction:






What are some practical and trainable tools companies and managers can use to minimize threat, and maximize reward through these social triggers? 

Status – Build self-awareness of status  (behavioral shifts towards either dominance or submission). Use specific, genuine praise. Start Positive to minimize threat of status differential.

Certainty – Provide clear expectations, break down training or change initiatives into steps.

Autonomy – Provide clarity of purpose, increased control over events.

Relatedness –  Increase trust, connection and empathy at work.  After all, relatedness is imperative for collaboration.  Create and initiate safe social interactions.

Fairness –  increase transparency, honesty, and level of communication and involvement around business issues.

In designing training initiatives, we need to consider more than just the different ways adults learn. How can we adjust the way we approach, market, and deliver training programs with an eye  towards increasing insights and rewards,  and decreasing threats? It can be done, especially with Applied Improvisation and the self-awareness skill-building we take part in.  For me, realizing the neurological implications when our certainty is threatened provides an interesting framework for teaching others how to be comfortable in the unknown.

What Matters Now – Building Organizations for the Future

I have been spending a lot of time with Gary Hamel’s Management Innovation portal: On this site are videos, stories, ideas, and conversations about building organizations for the future.

Hamel argues we must work to reinvent management because the organizations of today are facing challenges that are truly unprecedented and unfortunately, our management models of the past are no longer relevant.

Organizations of today are burdened with accelerating change and hyper competition.

In order to thrive, companies MUST become more adaptable, creative and innovative – but perhaps most importantly, they must also create an organization where employees are willing to bring their gifts of innovation, creativity and passion to work every single day to help combat these challenges.

What can you do at your organization to help bring out the best in your employees? At DreamWorks I worked to create lasting culture change at my company by teaching employees new skills and a new framework for collaboration and communication.

I started small with a test group of employees, built up to a presentation where I invited the entire studio, spread my message through word of mouth and demonstrated these new principles in a non-threatening way. I succeeded on a measurable scale as someone who was not in a management role.

Seth Godin might talk about it like this :

As Hamel notes, we as human beings are already adaptable and resilient. So many of us already have the qualities that many of our organizations lack.

What can you do to create a more engaged and purposeful workplace, where employees feel empowered, motivated, and willing to use their gifts to help build a strong organization for the future?