Group Innovation
ATD Blog

Innovation Is a Group Sport

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

One of the misconceptions about innovation is our popular notion that genius is individual. Someone blessed with ability and talent becomes an overnight success through raw talent. You either have it or you don’t, and when you do, you’re a lone wolf. But the reality is that great innovation, just like great improvisation, happens in groups.

In my new book, Go With It: Embrace the Unexpected to Drive Change, I look at how applying improvisation to innovation and change management leads to better outcomes. In my research, I’m reminded how often there’s one name associated with an innovation or invention, yet there was a team behind the effort.

For instance, the very symbol for the big idea, a lightbulb, was invented by Thomas Edison. But he didn’t create it by himself. Edison usually worked in a laboratory funded by a corporate sponsor, and surrounded by countless scientists; he was said to have had more than 30 assistants! The lightbulb only came about through a series of inventions that lead to a great breakthrough.

Now, the improv connection. It’s funny, but when I tell people I did improv, they assume I meant stand-up comedy. The little stand-up I did wasn’t very good, and it filled me with terror. I’m in awe of stand-up, because good or bad, you are out there all alone.

In contrast, I couldn’t wait to get to my next improv gig because I knew I’d have a team—I’d never be alone on stage, left out to dry and manage an unhappy crowd by myself. By the same token, if we rocked, I’d have a whole ensemble with whom to celebrate! Every moment of creation felt richer and more alive to me because it was an in-the-moment collaboration. Because we were working together, we could play off the many surprising, creative, and wonderful things that came out of the weird brains of my improv friends.


Truth be told, even stand-up performers rarely do all their work alone. They have friends and collaborators, people who watch and give them feedback, and writers who create content for them to deliver. The amazing comedy and creativity that audiences see onstage is the product of intense group collaboration.

We need to realign our misconceptions about innovation. It’s a group sport, and the greatest innovators act like an improv troupe. Although innovators often drive their ideas with tenacity through hardship, they rarely do it alone. Many people picture famous innovators alone, in their lab coats, being struck by a great idea. However, many of the most famous “loners” were surrounded by collaborators.


No matter where you are in your organization, don’t shoulder the burden of innovation and change by yourself. Reframing our approach to think about innovation and change as a team sport takes the pressure off any one individual, creates opportunities for collaboration, and ultimately leads to faster, better innovation.

Want to learn more? Join me at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the session: Improvisational Innovation: Small Behaviors for Big Change.

About the Author


Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which helps companies transform behavior through interactive training. With a presence in five cities, ImprovEdge’s client list includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Legg Mason, Cardinal Health, Novo Nordisk, and Turner Broadcasting. Karen is also a number 1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, and recipient of the Stevie Silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012, as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for Outstanding Woman-Owned Business. Her second, award-winning book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over, was published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler. 

Karen’s first life was as a professional improviser and actor. She trained with Chicago’s legendary Second City, performed in more than 100 theatrical productions, and was featured on radio, TV, and film. She lived a second life as a successful executive in network engineering. Finally, she became an entrepreneur. Karen is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the United States and internationally. She is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. 

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