Strategy, Innovation & Leadership

Three principles for achieving change through improvisation

By Jan de Vuijst | March 24, 2016 | 5 min read

Managers involved with change projects often take steps too quickly and turn to immediate action. But to establish real change, one must dare to improvise. Dr. Jan de Vuijst, professor at TIAS, describes three principles which leaders can use to help them escape from the routine.

In a classic study, Simon (1956) distinguishes between "optimizers" and "satisficers". The so-called optimizers can be endlessly occupied with the best possible preparation for a decision. They weigh up all aspects so as to be sure of arriving at the optimal choice. They keep on driving in circles until they have identified the optimal parking stall (and maybe notice to their disappointment that it has been taken by someone else in the mean time).

The satisficers take a decision as soon as the criteria have been fulfilled. That doesn't mean that they just decide anything, because their criteria can be quite demanding, but they don't look for more than they need. The first or second reasonable parking stall will suffice. After all, the criterion is parking (afterwards they sometimes notice to their disappointment that they have to walk a lot further to reach their actual destination).

Leaders are doers

In a similarly classic study, Mintzberg (1975) showed that line managers are not so much systematic and deliberate planners, but especially want to and are able to take action in reaction to events in their immediate vicinity. They are also held to account for what they have done and the results that they have achieved. So line managers are often doers, strongly result-driven. They want to and can get started quickly and often that is why they have become a line manager.

This willingness to take action is a great leadership talent. At the same time, certainly with changes in an organization, it is their biggest pitfall: an appetite for results.

Exploring options

Once, for the benefit of an organizational change, the purpose of the change has been established and an inventory has been made of the actual situation (so the start and finish of the change are unambiguous), another important step has to be taken before a result or a decision is possible: exploring the options on the route from start to finish. However, in some organizations the management skips this phase out of pure enthusiasm. As soon as they have a picture of the goal and the extent to which that differs from the reality, they immediately start to speculate about a solution. That is called an appetite for results.

Sometimes the line managers involved immediately start to distribute tasks and make a budget for that one solution. Anyone who does it like that, usually unwittingly, often feels a tinge of disappointment: they seemed like new ideas, but the flip charts show old words, well-known concepts, solutions which have been tried before. The new idea loses is gloss, the process loses is attractiveness, becomes irrelevant. Creativity is needed here, treading uncharted and unfamiliar roads, even if only in the mutual exchange of fictitious scenarios.

Dealing with uncertainty

Besides management's appetite for results, there is another important reason for not wanting to consider unfamiliar possibilities for too long. A very human reason: our brain doesn't like it. Traditionally, our intelligence and intuition are focused on certainty, a route, a solution, a plan. The reality is of course that organizations increasingly need to learn to deal with uncertainty.

Traditionally, we try to avoid improvisation in an organizational context: we cling to systems, processes and procedures, preferably "lean". But organizational change requires improvisation and creativity. As this is so difficult and to a certain degree unnatural, the leader must pay separate and focused attention to it: after all there are options to explore for getting from "here and now" to "there and then". That demands improvisation.

Improvisation is literally about that which was not (im-) before (-pro-) seen (-vision).The leader's task in the "options stage" is partly to teach all stakeholders and allow them to improvise, to make them feel comfortable in a situation which they initially experienced as vague, ambiguous, chaotic.

Yes to he mess

Frank Barrett handles aspects of improvisation in Yes to the mess (2012). Barrett is both professor in Management, with a background in organizational psychology, and a talented jazz musician. He uses insights from the jazz world in a surprising way in order to explore the tension between using improvisation to innovate and being subject to rules. Barrett identifies seven principles for successful improvisation and applies these to leadership; influencing people as positively and constructively as possible. The seven principles are handled in De Vuijst (2015), we will mention three here.

1) Unlearning

A routine is so tempting. That is why certain jazz musicians purposely try to play differently from a previous occasion. Every time they recognize something, they start again or make a sudden change, each time with the risk of something going wrong. And yet in the most favorable scenario improvisation leads to real renewal, just because of the courage of letting go of routines and accepting that you don't know where you are going. 

One of the instruments which the leader can use in helping to unlearn and break through the tempting routine, is continuing to pose almost naive questions. These are quasi-stupid questions: "and just imagine" questions, "what if" questions. 

2) Saying "yes" to the mess

Line managers sometimes have to face an enormous mess which they themselves have nothing whatever to do with. There is a virtually uncontrollable urge to clear up the mess, to solve problems, to open up new channels in the chaos. Some even suspect that this is the legal basis for their salary. 

However, Barrett follows an ancient principle from psychology, and which is often also the starting point for psychotherapy or coaching: accept the mess. Whatever you encounter, it is not right, it is not wrong, it is just what there is and what you accept as such in the first instance. Don't clear it up, but say "yes" to it and then get to work with it.

The parallel with jazz musicians is that they too sometimes listen with increasing amazement to a fellow-orchestra member who takes a completely inexplicable turn while improvising. The art is to accept that turn and to go along with it, instead of trying to return to the original key or melody in a panic. Actors also improvise, follow the principle that you go along with what the other is doing – not opposing it, but saying "yes".

3) Accept mistakes

It has nearly become a cliché in organizations to say that mistakes are allowed, that you learn from them, that complaints are "a gift". But in daily practice, it is not really the intention that you make mistakes. Mistakes can have nasty consequences for your career and it is not appreciated if you are the subject of a complaint. Yet it is not without reason that it is often said that "mistakes are allowed". Every organization recognizes the wisdom of that. We can only develop ourselves, preferably from experience, by noticing what does and what doesn't work, what is and what isn't accepted.

There are of course situations where mistakes are unacceptable, even as a learning principle. No mistakes are allowed in the administration - they can even have legal consequences with for instance banks or accountants. In a different type of orchestra from jazz, in the classical symphony orchestra, a mistake is a big embarrassment. Accidentally playing out of tune in a symphony is unacceptable. Except of course during a rehearsal. The musicians know when it is a rehearsal and when a performance. Mistakes may be made during rehearsals, because they stimulate better ensemble, but during the performance they are not allowed.

The leader distinguishes between situations where mistakes are intended to promote learning, and situations in which mistakes are unacceptable. Sometimes the problem is that the urge to conceal mistakes is so deep-rooted, that even during sessions which are intended to be open (brainstorming, at an outside venue, creative sessions) mistakes are avoided. In any case they are not admitted to. Nobody wants to seem stupid or clumsy - often this is the initial association with making mistakes. What a blessing it is if the leader has the courage to admit that he or she has done something a little clumsily, would do it differently now, and has learnt something from a mistake. Now the others may too.

Change through improvisation

Whoever is unable or unwilling to improvise, will not establish any meaningful change. In a generic approach to change, the GROW concept, the G stands for "Goal", the purpose of the change. That comes first. Then comes the "Reality" as a starting point for the change, only then come the "Options" to bridge the gap between the goal and reality as described here. Only then comes the "Way forward", the decision about the change itself.

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