One of the most commonly held beliefs is that it is a bad idea to improvise in the midst of a crisis.
The ongoing pandemic has led quite a few organizations to improvise, in other words, to adopt innovative strategies in real-time, with no prior planning. In a short time, educational institutions were forced to adopt remote learning, enterprises switched to teleworking, several retail companies entered the e-commerce market, factories shifted their production to manufacturing face masks and ventilators, and businesses with corporate clients started to sell directly to end consumers.
Organizations have to develop flexible structures and improvisation skills in order to survive and thrive
Under these circumstances, leaders in politics, science, healthcare, and business are required to develop strategies in minimum time, without the luxury of data collecting and analyzing or of pilot development and preparation. In such cases, strategy comes close to improvisational theater which does not follow predetermined roles or a plot, as is the case of classical theater. Although improvisation creates connotations of lack of discipline and of random, ad hoc reaction, it is naive to overlook the rules and practice required to be effective:
Market vigilance. The key driver in improv theater is intense attention to the spectator’s reactions and synchronization with the troupe members. Accordingly, enterprises should develop the capacity of alertness to subtle signals from their environment. The constant flow of information on all levels of the business is the compass to the synthesis of the suitable reaction, for lack of a detailed plan. Enterprises improvising successfully are constantly working to bring down silos between departments and with the external environment.
Flexible structures, clear priorities. While organizations try to control the behavior of their employees with detailed job descriptions, in reality a simpler job description enables employees to develop initiatives when facing unforeseen circumstances without the delays resulting from approvals and complex formalities. As uncoordinated initiatives are sure to lead to chaos, understanding of the corporate objectives and principles by the employees is an important prerequisite for improvisation.
Risk-tolerant culture: Improvisation by nature includes an increased risk which, unless organizations can tolerate it, undermines the self-confidence of employees in trying out new solutions and ideas. The acceptance of small and smart “failures” and a subsequent appetite for experimentation and learning are the most crucial elements in the creativity and liveliness of the theatrical performance.
Famous examples of improvisation create the impression that it only happens in rare, emergency situations such as the legendary landing of the US Airways Airbus by Captain Sully in the Hudson River in 2009, following a severe collision with a flock of geese; the dramatic rescue of a nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake and an ensuing huge tsunami in 2011; or the epic rescue story of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton from a shipwreck in the Antarctic in 1915. Yet, crises happen far more often as organizations are frequently forced to face new types of competitors, flimsy consumer behavior, and disruptive technologies. If the new normal at the dawn of the 21st century is regularly facing irregular situations, organizations have to develop flexible structures and improvisation skills in order to survive and thrive.