And in this corner, Improvisation…

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about bureaucracies and both the necessity for what they do (permit large organizations to actually work) and the problems that they create (stasis, stagnation, inefficiency). This week, I want to post about improvisation. I referenced Professor Stephen Asma’s essay on improvisation. He did a far better job of describing improvisation than I could, and I recommend that you read his essay. But, for those of you who are interested in my take on improvisation or who don’t have the time/inclination to read the professor’s essay, here’s how I see it.

Improvisation isn’t just pure ad hoc reaction. There are, I think, two major factors in being able to improvise well – understanding the “rules” that govern improvisation in any specific domain and having lots of experience in that domain. (By “rules” I don’t mean a formal set of written rules such as those that govern bureaucracies, but rather the generally recognized ways in which people can collaborate in non-standard or unplanned ways to achieve their goals). Professor Asma uses jazz improvisation as his model, and I’ll use football. When an experienced quarterback takes the snap and drops back, he frequently sees the play unfolding differently than planned. He now has to improvise to some degree. If he has a lot of experience with his receivers (including his running backs who are in their “receiver mode”), he knows that they will; 1) try to space themselves away from defenders (e.g. get open), 2) move downfield, 3) stay away from their teammates so as not to confuse the situation, 4) move to the same side of the field that the quarterback is moving, and 5) come back to the ball if its thrown to them. None of those rules are in the official football rulebook, but they are the “rules” used by players to recover from a play that has been disrupted by the defense. Exactly what each receiver does isn’t covered by those “rules’” but they permit effective improvisation.

If you’ve ever watched five-year olds play youth soccer, you’ll be familiar with the term “cluster ball” where all the players rush to wherever the ball is. With experience and an understanding of the rules for improvisational soccer, that behavior goes away and is replaced by more sophisticated and effective movement by both offenses and defenses. Like improvisational American football, improvisational soccer is elegant and efficient – and the keys are both knowing the “rules” and experience.

What does this mean for organizations?

Improvisation can be enormously powerful since it enables employees (at every hierarchical level of the organization) to respond to the exigencies of the situation in real time. However, as Professor Asma explicitly noted in his essay, there is both good and bad improvisation.

Bad improvisation happens when people don’t have domain-specific experience and don’t know the “rules” for improvising in that domain. For example, I can tell a good joke. I’ve even done some impromptu stand-up comedy (and gotten good laughs), but I don’t really have the experience or know the “rules” to deal with hecklers or an audience that’s reacting like a bunch of stunned mackerels. I can’t really improvise in the stand-up-comedy domain.

Good improvisation, in contrast, results from people with a great deal of experience in a domain and with a deep understanding of the rules of improvisation in that domain. I was able to successfully improvise in the domain of defense program management. In that domain, I knew the “rules,” and I had years of experience and practice (not to mention excellent mentors and role models). For the long-term Noble Reader of my blogs, this may sound like the foundation for valid intuition, which I have addressed in previous blogs, and I agree. I think that there is a great deal of overlap between intuition and improvisation.

Leaders have a huge role in good improvisation:

  • Leaders are likely (but not guaranteed) to be among the most experienced in the domain and therefore most likely (but, again, not guaranteed) to be able to improvise well – and to recognize good improvisation.
  • Leaders need to create environments in which people can learn the “rules” and gain the needed experience to become effective improvisers.
  • Finally, leaders must create the foundations for organization-wide, effective improvisation.

I feel compelled to explore that last bullet. What the heck does that mean or is it just another throwaway line like Gary Hamil’s recommendation to “figure out what replaces bureaucracies after you kill them”?

Here’s what I think:

  • Leaders need to have their bureaucracies because that’s what runs the organization when everything works as planned. They also need to have a strong continuous improvement culture, mentality and process to dynamically evolve the rules by which the bureaucracy works.
  • Leaders need to implement an educational process (education is providing people with the cognitive skills and toolkits to adapt to the evolving environment) that is focused on:
    • Establishing a common vocabulary to enhance communication within the organization.
    • Creating aculture that understands and appreciates that projects, programs and plans often go astray (as Bobbie Burns observed in his To A Mouse –

“But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!”)

and must be recovered/fixed/gotten back on track by innovation and improvisation.

  • Teaching people about improvisation, the rules and gaining the experience to improvise well.
  • A culture that understands failures and appreciates that new and different failures are a learning moment.
  • Creating an organizational knowledge value stream that captures new knowledge and makes it appropriately available within the organization.

This is largely the educational process that Helmut Graf von Moltke the elder implemented 150 years ago in the Prussian (later, German) Army and General Staff as I recently posted in a discussion regarding Elon Musk’s memo to Tesla employees in communicating outside the hierarchy. Von Moltke and the General Staff he created expected problems to be resolved at the lowest level possible, and he created a concept for doing that, as well as the vocabulary to unambiguously communicate the problem and solution. That’s what organizational improvisation should be about – fixing things at the lowest practical level and communicating clearly about the improvisation.

The bureaucracy and bureaucratic rules handle the routine and problems are responded to, when necessary, by improvisation in adherence to the “rules” of improvisation within the domain of the problem. That, Mr. Hamil, is the solution – not killing the bureaucracy and somehow reinventing organizational leadership. Perhaps some day bureaucracy will go away, but “it is not this day.”




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