The ability to improvise, a rare skill to develop

N°219a – Synopsis (8p.) – Agility
The ability to improvise, a rare skill to develop
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Great jazz musicians have developed amazing improvisation skills. How can one draw inspiration from them to develop the teams' capacity to react to the unexpected and to adapt in real time to any circumstances?

In late 2010, at the peak of the economic crisis, IBM surveyed over 1,400 chairmen in 60 countries about the challenges they encountered in managing their company. Did they want their organizations to be more rigorous and disciplined? Did want people to understand their customers better? Get a better grasp of the implications of market globalization? For 60 percent, the crucial question proved to be, “How can we develop the creativity and innovation skills of our organization?” In crisis environments, the ability to adapt in real time and take advantage of situations despite uncertainty appears to be an increasingly critical factor in the success—even the survival—of a business.

Paradoxically, many companies that would like to be more responsive exert major efforts precisely to ensure that their employees do not improvise! Strategic plans, skills planning, detailed programs, operational procedures, etc., all testify to the fact that disciplined frameworks are paramount in most organizations. However, experience shows that people who are allowed to improvise find it easier to take constructive initiatives with their backs to the wall. They show a greater ability to cobble together solutions from scarce materials and on low budgets and thus bounce back from failure.

Fortunately, improvisation is a skill which can be learned. Jazz bands offer a highly instructive parallel to identify the requisite mindset and practices. Three lessons in particular emerge from this analysis:

- Create a psychologically safe environment. Improvising requires people to momentarily abandon the safety of their habits. This cannot be done without management encouragement and support.

- Lay the groundwork for improvisation. A clear framework channels creativity and provides an invaluable shared frame of reference to avoid chaos.

- Regularly create opportunities to improvise. Like any skill, the ability to improvise develops with practice.

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