Creative Problem-Solving Through Applied Improvisation-

8 min readJun 18, 2017


Solving problems, whether they are interpersonal, social or organizational, is a complex challenge. The intersection of roles, relationships, status, personal experiences, economic and social/cultural forces come into play, and seeing the complexity can help to reframe, rename and redefine problems in ways that can reveal creative, strategic pathways to dealing with them. Problem-Solving Therapy models in psychotherapy are linked to the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles of focusing on the here-and-now, prioritizing goals and breaking them down into small, gradual steps while working to recognize negative and destructive thinking patterns. Applied Improvisation is a creative process that hones the ability to deal with complexity and shift out of a conventional approaches to situations and into a creative, expansive mindset.

Improvisation cultivates a way of thinking that turns on the willingness to say “yes” — to play with ideas and with others — rather than judge or analyze. The rules that guide this kind of engagement generate positive emotional connections in groups while strengthening the “muscles” associated with successful collaboration and creative thinking under pressure. Unrehearsed, unedited interactions guided by clear structure and agreement, followed by cognitive reflection and discussion of the thoughts and emotions that rise up in awareness bring the here and now into focus. More than solving a specific dilemma, the goal is developing a creative mindset that expands the way we view and understand problems. Spontaneity rises up naturally through improvisation warm-ups and research shows that as spontaneity increases, anxiety decreases and cognitive ability is enhanced. This psychological and emotional state is what we need to look at situations with new eyes and respond to problems in novel ways.

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other peoples’ findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with reality, and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality, the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression.” Viola Spolin

The improviser’s mindset is nimble, agile and intuitive and able to grasp possibilities that show up through moment-to-moment interaction. Neuroscience described in Harvard Business Review shows that direct experience and action followed by reflection in a positive social environment strengthen new neural pathways that produce ideas and new perspectives. “If mindsets can change us, maybe we can deliberately choose our mindsets to improve our abilities,” according to science writer Ozgun Atasoy in “Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities Beyond Normal Limits” in Scientific American. According to research cited in the article, “we can choose to adopt a mindset that improves creativity, for instance. People who think of categories as flexible and actively focus on the novel aspects of the environment become more creative.”

“The second appproach to a problem must come from the opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

Simple, often nonverbal games exercises, through which participants realize a sense of being accepted without explanation or judgment, generate social bonds and spontaneity. When defenses are reduced and connections develop among group members, more content-driven games are introduced. The improvisation rules of “yes…and” — acceptance, receptivity, agreement, working with what is given and experimenting with different ways to make something work — produce a shift in mindset. It is this shift that can yield new thinking and an empowered capacity to try something new.

Exercises and games for shifts in mindset and creative problem-solving
The rose and the thorn
Produce connections within the group and increase the sense of emotional safety;
Practice looking at the same idea, event or situation from 2 different perspectives;
Acknowledge the difficulties that people in the room are facing;

Each participant shares about a recent event, situation or experience that has a “thorn” — a stressful, painful or difficult dimension — and a “rose”- something about this that is also valuable or useful.

Zip Zap Zop
Warm up to a state of play;
Build up the sense of safety in the group through giving and accepting;
Demonstrate the way energy moves from person to person in a group and everyone is responsible to do their part;
Shift out of overthinking analytic mode into here-and-now;
The group stands in a circle. The leader asks everyone to repeat the pattern of saying “Zip! Zap! Zop! in that sequence. The activity is a way of sending energy to one another in the circle using the word, a simple hand gesture that “hands” the energy off to someone, and eye contact. Say “Zip” while clapping hands and passing the energy to someone in the circle who then says “Zap!” while clapping hands and passing the energy to someone else, who says “Zop!” and passes it to another person who starts over with “Zip!” The idea is to make a strong commitment to the move, really connect with the person to whom we are sending the energy, use the whole body, stay alert. Try to get a rhythm going. Then add variations before resuming the Zip Zap Zop pattern When the energy comes to a player they can add:
Making a toast — saying “toast!” and raising an imaginary glass .
Freak out — everyone runs around screaming and takes a new place in the circle
“I have a puppy” — mime petting a puppy and everyone moves close to see and pet the imaginary puppy
Variations can also include — ask group members for their favorite movie, play or book. Choose a word or phrase from their movie, play or book and a movement that expresses it, e.g. someone chooses the movie Frozen, so the phrase “let it go” with a sweep of the arms is added. Then another member says their favorite movie is Jerry McGuire, so the phrase “show me the money” with a fist in the air is added to the choices. This becomes a way to connect group members and find out something about their tastes and passions.

The group identifies 3 iconic figures who inspire everyone in a similar way, e.g. Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers. A strong identifiable pose is created to represent each of these individuals. The group breaks into teams of 3. In the style of “rock, paper, scissors” the leader of another group member counts out loud “1, 2, 3 pose!” and on “pose” each player assumes one of the postures. The goal is to get one of each icon represented at the same moment.
Get out of overthinking and jump into a physical experience that connects the players in a shared goal;
Experience the “high” of a “win” that can be experienced when the goal is achieved;
Observe what happens internally over the course of a few or more attempts to achieve the goial;
Identify internal shifts as each turn progresses, which are attempts to achieve the goal as the game proceeds;

This game is a non-verbal way to connect players in a common goal. The “problem” is a simple one but there is really no strategy or cognitive process that will help realize the goal. It requires simply trying. The willingness to keep trying until the goal is achieved. And it taps into a different pathway of connection between people, an intuitive, unspoken connection that develops when we play together. This “sense” of being connected to others is cultivated by playing games and an almost magical awareness of what the group is moving toward is what makes improvisation possible. It is also the mental and social process that drives creative problem-solving.

That’s Not Funny
Play with the tension of opposites, which expands creative thinking;
Explore how paradox stimulates creative thinking;
Explore looking at a problem or situation from the opposite perspective;

Two players begin a conversation, one sentence at a time, about a topic chosen by the group or leader. The idea is to make sure that nothing that either player says is funny in any way. A third player listens closely and if a line in the dialogue makes anyone laugh, the third player says “buzz!” loudly, the player that said the funny line is tagged out, the next person in the circle takes their place and picks up the conversation. This continues until scene is called.
Variations: After the skill-building exercise, choose a topic that relates to change or growth, e.g, “That’s not possible” — the dialogue is about something that a person wants but is not possible. Any time a player says something that sounds like this dream is possible gets buzzed and another player steps in. Other variations might be “things will never change” or “there is no hope.”

Experience a co-creative process;
Practice putting yes…and into action, which produces a cognitive shift ideal for problem-solving;
Practice active listening and communication;
Practice a collaboration skill that can be deployed to develop a creative mindset in groups

Two players begin the story, another player takes the role of editor/director, and the other group members fill in by doing cutaway scenes based on the dialogue that develops between the main characters.
In the style of a documentary, two players introduce one another to the group, assigning a role, traits and a relationship, e.g.
Player 1: This is my best friend Jack, he planned the best bachelor party for me, he knows how much I love Disney,”
Player 2: yes this is Ben, he loves Disney. His user name is Mickey Mouse on every website.
Player 1: I’m on a ton of websites. Jack is a hacker but I’m sure he never hacks into my accounts.

Editor/director: Cut to Ben hacking into accounts and talking about it with a couple of software engineers. Two or more players jump into that scene and develop it until the editor/director cuts back to the main characters, who must integrate the information developed in that scene into their dialogue. Each opportunity to find out something that relates to and deepens the story is taken by cutting to a scene that expresses and expands on it.

For a helpful guide through a therapeutic process useful for problem-solving using CBT, click here. Both Problem-Solving Therapy/CBT and Applied Improvisation engage the creative mind to look at the same thing through a different lens as a tool for making effective and sustainable change.

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is President of Lifestage, Inc, and host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a show that features true stories — with a twist — told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds. Follow:




LCSW, CGP, CPAI, writer/performer, storyteller, storytelling coach. Improviser on team AURA at Magnet Theater in NYC. Storytelling coach for individuals & orgs