23. Improvisation, a survival skill today and tomorrow

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Improvisation, a survival skill today and tomorrow

In brief: Improvisation means deciding in action when faced with an unexpected and unplanned-for event. It is deliberate and occurs without advance planning.

It means creating something new based on something that already exists. It is not creating something out of nothing. You use what you have at hand, but in a different way.


Jazz musicians improvise. They work with others on gigs.  They are in continual musical conversation tossing melodies and themes back and forth, each adding something to the previous one. They take turns doing solos and the music they make is far better than what any one of them could produce alone.

“The major reason why improvisation works is that the musicians say an implicit yes to each other.” (1)

Like jazz musicians, gig mindsetters are at ease with improvisation. This is essential to organizations. But many work cultures are not conducive to gig mindsetters.

In The Gig Mindset Advantage, I talk about what’s needed and why: “The work culture must be flexible, with a minimum number of layers and processes limited to only what is essential. Above all, there must be a willingness to accept experimentation and to learn from failures.

“Improvisations range from small to major. Some will result in changes in how work takes place in the future. Others will prove to be short-lived, appropriate only for that particular unexpected event. The value of improvisation can be judged only after the fact.

“Improvisation takes place when you are faced with an urgent, unexpected, and unplanned-for event and you try something new based on what you have available. It requires speed and happens in real time, with no time for reflection and planning. (This is not they way most people are comfortable working!)

“There are three common myths about improvisation we need to avoid:

  • Improvisation is an amateur having fun.
  • Improvisation is innovation.
  • Improvisation is an accidental mistake that turns out to be a great new product or service.

“One famous example of an accidental mistake is the Post-it Note, which resulted from a failed attempt to create a super-strong adhesive for the aerospace industry: the weak, pressure- sensitive adhesive ended up on the sticky notes that we all use today. Other lucky accidents are the discovery of X-rays, quinine for curing malaria, Teflon, and superglue. And we may be able to put brandy on this list: by some accounts, it was accidentally discovered by a Dutch shipmaster who heated up wine to concentrate it for easier transport, intending to add water to it upon arrival. Needless to say, it was enjoyed in its concentrated state when the ship arrived!”

The gig mindsetter is often erroneously perceived as a self-centered rebel.

They do have “self” behaviors such as independence, self-confidence, self-led learning, autonomy, confidence to challenge the status quo, readiness to take initiatives and responsibilities.

But at the same time have “others” behaviors such as eager to work with different people in fluid team situations, willingness to work out loud and to integrate feedback from outside the project team into projects, high awareness of what is happening around him/her, and extensive networking and interactions with people inside and outside the organizations. These “self” and “others” behaviors are complementary and conducive to improvisation.

Most organizations do not have work cultures that are conducive to improvisation.

Today improvisation is increasingly important, business critical even, because it is less and less likely that decisions can be made based primarily on extensive research and analysis.

Benchmarking, for example, is based on the past, whereas, decisions need to be made in face of future unknowables.

As I say in The Gig Mindset Advantage: “The capacity for improvisation must be grown inside the organization. It cannot be delivered by external consultants. It involves having a culture willing to rethink the way things are done. It requires challenging the status quo through actions and not just words. It requires accepting the need for speed. All this is part of the gig mindset.

Building an improvisation-friendly organization involves four key requirements that combine to make people free to operate faster and with confidence.

  • An experimental culture
  • A low-bureaucracy work environment
  • Minimal structure with mental not physical controls
  • Swift trust

1 – Experimental culture

One man I spoke to who worked at a company in the insurance industry shared that his company is facing new competitors and struggling to define their next steps. I asked if he felt free to experiment with new ideas.

Him: Experimentation would not work in my company.

Me: Why not?

Him: Because management has a long memory, and no one wants to be remembered over the years as someone who failed in an experiment.

2 – A de-cluttered,  low-bureaucracy work environment

For most organizations, bureaucracy is their long-standing spinal cord. It is based on the division of labor according to roles, specified ways of making decisions and carrying out projects, and clear lines of authority, as reflected in the management structure. In some circumstances these constraints are necessary, but many times they result in blocking or slowing down experimentation, creativity, and new potentially positive initiatives.

3 – Minimal structure with “mental” controls

Organizations have controls based on one or more of these criteria. The first is important, but hard to make happen in practical ways people can live.

Both the second and the third diminish the capacity to improvise. (2)

  • Culture, vision, values
  • Direct supervision
  • Standardization and coordination mechanisms

4 – Swift trust

Trust is usually built as people work together, but in today’s global, virtual workplace, that is often impossible. “Swift trust” is not based on a history of interactions and shared experiences, as is the traditional concept of trust. It occurs when a group or team immediately assumes trust from the beginning and adjusts along the way as circumstances dictate. (3)

So, pragmatically speaking, let’s look at what you can do.

How would you answer these five questions?

1.   Do you work with agile budgets, where money is allocated step by step on the basis of multiple short- term checkpoints, rather than as a preset annual budget?

2.   Are people encouraged to develop their own projects on company time without specific permission needed?

3.   Do you have a system whereby management can authorize people to develop new ideas based on formulating in advance the outcome they want to achieve, but without needing to specify method and detailed steps beforehand?

4.   Does your organization have flexible procedures for customer-facing people, letting them adapt based on context?

5.   Are there mechanisms for formalizing successful improvised work practices?

Continuity, not breaking, but new when needed

As I said at the start of this article, improvisation is creating something new based on something that already exists. It is not creating something out of nothing. You use what you have at hand, but in a different way.

What are your takeaways? What have you experienced that you can share with us?

Please share via Twitter @netjmc or my website.

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Much of the text in this Inside Outsider issue is extracted and adapted from The Gig Mindset Advantage, which, of course I encourage you to buy if you haven’t already! If you’d like multiple copies, for example for your team or group, get in touch and I’ll connect you to my publisher for a bulk discount.


1 – Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, Frank J. Barrett.

2 – The concept of sets of control is part of the minimal structure concept summarized by Miguel Pina e Cunha, João Vieira da Cunha, and Ken Kamoche in their 2003 article “Organizational Improvisation: What, When, How and Why,” International Journal of Management Reviews

3 – “Swift Trust and Temporary Groups,” by Debra Meyerson, Karl E. Weick, and Roderick M. Kramer, chapter 9 in Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research by Roderick M. Kramer and Tom R. Tyler

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