Organizational Improvisation refers to a way of working under conditions of time pressure and uncertainty that is not based on the application of any existing routing or procedure, but on taking action directly and exploring solutions one step at a time. Another way of describing it is working without any time gap between planning and executing. Because time is not available, whatever action is taken automatically becomes part of the plan, and is used as a basis for subsequent actions.
Organizational Improvisation in practice
Organizational improvisation, when executed well, has incredible advantages with respect to usual ways of working when it comes to handling unknown and unfamiliar situations. Usually, when facing anything unknown, our first instinct is to retreat and seek safety. It’s a modern version of running away when facing danger – an instinct that saved every prehistoric ancestor we had.
In a modern context, however, seeking safety does not necessarily work. If we seek safety in routines or tools that we are good at using to feel competent and professional, we will have zero chances of success if the context is new and unfamiliar. Add this to time pressure, and our only choice is to develop a plan of action on the spot, literally while executing it – in other words we need to improvise with what we know and using what we have at hand.
Working in these conditions replicates in real life what happens in improv. We need to take action and move towards executing a good plan taking it in steps. Just like in improv theatre, organizational improvisation also needs specific conditions to leave us with high chances of success. This is a concept I also explore in my workshops.
Conditions for success
If you want your team to go ahead in an organizational improvisation setting, you are asking them to make the choice to forego their instinct to seek safety, and be on board with the idea of trying different approaches and seeking different solutions under pressure… there is no other way of putting it: you need to work on their culture first. You need to lead in a way that allows your team to freely organize their work the way they see fit and have the freedom to take competent risks, without having to care for formalities or procedures. Basic servant leadership is in other words strongly tied to this way of operating.
If you want to take it one step further, that is not just having your teams try out this way of working but also be successful at it, you need to train them. We are talking about going against a basic instinct and asking people to put the group before themselves in a situation that their instinct perceives as dangerous. If you want to go down that road without giving your team the right skills, well… good luck! Fortunately leadership trainings or teamwork workshops based on applied improvisation can help.