Want to innovate? Shift your mindset

Improv pro John Sweeney brings tools from comedy to THINC! event

Posted on Mar 31, 2017 :: Connections
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

When a comedian is on the stage doing an improvisational sketch, the last thing on his mind is failure.

“We’re actually not thinking at all — we’re surfing,” says John Sweeney, co-owner and executive producer of the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, billed as America’s oldest satirical comedy theater.

Training the brain to push aside fear is what drives improv comedy, he explains, and innovation calls for a similar mindset.

Sweeney takes his more than 20 years of improv experience to businesses to show people how they can shift their mindsets and become more innovative. He has shared his ideas with companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, General Mills and United HealthCare, just to name a few.

On May 11, Sweeney will keynote Insight’s annual THINC! event at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Communication Arts Theater, Menasha. His talk is sponsored by Nicolet National Bank, which has brought Sweeney in to talk to employees in the past. Mike Daniels, president and CEO of Nicolet Bank, attended St. Norbert College with Sweeney, where they played football together.

“He has a unique way of using humor along with his years of improv experience to deliver his message,” Daniels says. “You leave his presentations feeling as if you were more entertained than at a speech, and what you picked up is useful and applicable to what we as business leaders do daily.”

Sweeney is “definitely one-of-a-kind,” Daniels adds. “And believe me, we are all glad for that!”

Sweeney has also recently published a book, “The Innovative Mindset: 5 Behaviors for Accelerating Breakthroughs.” In the book, he and co-author Elena Imaretska explore how recent neurological research indicates that during improv, the brain deactivates the area involved in self-censoring and lights up the region that allows free-flowing self-expression.

“Our default mindset is that of fear,” Sweeney explains. “Coming up with a new idea or approaching a new angle to a product or a new sense of entrepreneurship — the brain is going to say, ‘I’ve never tried this before, therefore I will put it in the do-not-try-it category.’ The brain doesn’t have the ability to quantify the risk between coming up with a new idea and jumping off a cliff.”

After he graduated from St. Norbert in 1988, Sweeney worked almost seven years in corporate real estate, based in Minneapolis; his claim to fame was negotiating the lease for the world headquarters of Polo-Ralph Lauren in New York City. He began taking improv classes, where he met his wife and also “fell in love with making people laugh.”

The late Chris Farley of Saturday Night Live — who attended Edgewood High School with him in Madison — encouraged him to audition at the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theater (BNW).

“Chris called me and said, ‘You’re working your butt off and I just signed a $300,000 contract to show my butt crack on Saturday Night Live!’” Sweeney performed with BNW almost two years before taking a job with The Second City comedy group in Chicago.

In 1997, Sweeney and his wife, Jenni Lilledahl, bought the Brave New Workshop from founder Dudley Riggs, who started the theater in 1958. BNW now employs 116 and continues to produce all-original sketch comedy and improvisation revues year-round. They also oversee the Brave New Institute, a training center for improvisation, with more than 2,000 students.

The theater’s corporate services division, Creative Outreach, works in corporate and office settings to help improve creativity and employee cultures by applying the principles of improv. Services include keynote speeches, customized entertainment and team-building workshops.

Sweeney also has a website named after his “alter-ego,” Jiggly Boy, featuring his comedic performances as a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball fan. He’s had more than 320 million hits globally and 10 million hits on YouTube. He donates the revenue from the website jigglyboy.com to Smile Network International, which funds cleft palate surgery for children in Third World countries.

“We decided to take that innovative mindset and fuel it by this sense of service,” Sweeney says. “You’re always asking, ‘What can I build? Who can I help?’ People get a kick out of the video but it’s about the power of that mindset.”

“The Innovative Mindset”

In their book, “The Innovative Mindset,” John Sweeney and Elena Imaretska describe how employees can practice simple, measurable behaviors to put them in what they call the “Mindset of Discovery.” The “Big 5” behaviors are:

Listen: Be present, open and aware

Defer judgment: Pause and accept the potential of ideas and opinions

Reframe: Use what you have to move forward

Declare: Be authentic and clear, speak your mind

Jump In: Develop a bias toward action, avoid analysis-paralysis

Technology & Human Innovation Networking Conference


3-6 p.m. Thursday, May 11 |  UW-Fox Valley Communication Arts Center 1478 Midway Road, Menasha

Tickets: $45 through April 30, $55 in May; $60 at the door

To register: https://insightonbusiness.com/events/thinc-2/

Insight Innovation Awards to be announced at THINC! May 11

Now in its sixth year, THINC! — Technology & Human Innovation Networking Conference — connects business and idea people with the insight and resources they need to grow our regional economy.

THINC! is designed for CEOs, presidents and community and education leaders, as well as innovation executives, manufacturers, venture capital and angel investors from throughout Wisconsin. The event shines the spotlight on innovation in Northeast Wisconsin in a format that provokes, inspires and energizes people to build on — and invest in — ideas to advance the regional economy. The annual Insight Innovation Awards are presented each year at THINC!

Nominees for 2017 Insight Innovation Awards:




Kerber Rose

Paper Transport

Shea Electric

Evergreen Credit Union


Advantage Machine

Appleton Group

enVision Performance Solutions

Great Northern Corp.

MatchBack Systems


Orion Energy Systems

Performa Inc.

Reynolds Packaging

Consolidated Construction

Samaritan Counseling


Bill-Ray Home Mobility

Carnivore Meat


Foresite Benefits

ITP Information Technology 

Navitus Health Solutions

Reynolds Presto Products



Utech Group

About Margaret LeBrun

Co-Publisher, Executive Editor View all posts by Margaret LeBrun →