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Improvisation as a management skill to benefit from uncertainty

“Because we started planning our world we started to believe the world is plannable. But it’s not. We need a new approach.” Ralf Wetzel, Professor of Organisation and Management at Vlerick Business School explains how applied improvisation techniques help organisations not only to survive but thrive in the current environment.

The only constant is change

In today’s increasingly globalised world turbulence has become the norm. With the ever-more rapid changes in geo-politics, the environment and technology, the only constant is … change. Wetzel: “We’re living in what the US Army War College dubbed a VUCA environment: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Few foresaw the financial and economic crisis. And when it hit us it was impossible to predict how things would evolve, yet companies were supposed to determine what step to take next.”

Old recipes no longer work

The dominant management science approach to strategy or change management taught by most business schools and universities is a rational one, based on forecasting, modelling and rigorous planning. However, it has now become a handicap rather than a help to deal with ever-faster change, as Wetzel points out: “It provides the illusion of control. Whenever someone draws up a plan, they’ll inevitably have a hint of expectation that the plan will be followed through. But if something unexpected disrupts that plan, they’ll be thrown off balance and instead of dealing with the new situation, they’ll ‘freeze’.”

The numbers tell the tale: up to 70% of rationally planned change management and strategy implementation projects fail. This leads to frustrations, change fatigue and loss of trust and engagement, as a result of which companies lose their agility to adapt to their changing environment.

The arts to the rescue

Are we all doomed to fail then? Wetzel believes there are alternative ways to deal with VUCA conditions. In his coaching and teaching he draws on an unexpected source: improvisation, as known from jazz and theatre sports, for example. The latter is a form of improvisational theatre set up as a competition. Two groups of actors go on stage, unprepared, asking the audience to suggest random words. With these words, each group tries to concoct as compelling a story as possible. The group captivating the audience the most wins.

Tricks of the trade

“It’s quite impressive how fast these actors can make sense of random information. They do this by following a few ostensibly simple principles that seem to go against those of rational planning and strategising,” says Wetzel. “At the core of improvisation is the ‘yes and’ principle. It comes down to accepting whatever comes your way, which is exactly what improvisation artists do on stage. Whatever the audience throws at them, they use it without questioning. The first actor takes the plunge by starting the story while the others in turn build on the story as it stands. Rather than suggesting alternatives or thinking the story through first, they accept what is and add something to it, no matter how tiny. But that’s not all. They focus on the here and now – by sensing instead of thinking and rationalising. And they are open to others and confident in taking risks.”

Valuable management skill

These improvisation principles are equally applicable in a business environment – improvisation is not just blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. Wetzel: “Because it’s about listening, building on the contribution of others and being comfortable in uncertain situations, adopting an improvisation mindset leads to better interaction between people and enables faster and better decision-making.” Applied improvisation is already put to great use in post-disaster management and intercultural conflicts, and it is increasingly used to help develop agile leadership and agile organisations.

Innovation booster

Applied improvisation also boosts innovation. Wetzel recalls examples from his own practice: “We had people brainstorming their organisations’ strategic challenges or new products they wanted to launch and whenever they used the ‘yes and’ principle, they were pushed out of their individual comfort zones more quickly, which led to more novel approaches and ideas. Imagine what could come out of it if you were to adopt a similar mindset when co-creating with customers, suppliers and other third parties, bringing even more different ideas and opinions to the table.”

The power of failure

Applied improvisation is an effective tool that is universally usable, but Wetzel has a word of caution: “The power of improvisation lies in the failure. We’re not trained, however, to fail in public.” So the crux is to create an environment in which people feel safe – only then will they dare to open up and allow themselves to fail. Such an environment is created by offering opportunities to be playful. Wetzel again: “When playing, kids improvise all their way to get to grips with the VUCA conditions of their own world. We’ve been asked to substitute that by rational planning. But we’d better re-learn.” And he concludes: “Once you’ve mastered the principles of applied improvisation, you’ll realise that uncertainty is nothing to be afraid of. Quite the contrary: it’s an opportunity!”   

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