Strategic Improv

Tomorrow’s healthy organizations must make innovation routine. That’s a natural consequence of organizations becoming increasingly knowledge intensive while the half-life of knowledge also continues to shrink.

Routine innovation requires a shift from scripted responses to widely distributed improv capacity.

At first glance this is a straight reversal of organizational best practice. Organizations succeeded and scaled by transforming craft into standard operating procedure. The logic of the industrial revolution was anchored in scripting and standardization. We programmed technology and people to produce products and services at scale. We programmed people when the technology was too expensive or insufficiently flexible. As the technology evolved, we dispensed with the people whose work was now programmable.

Over time, this increases the proportion of people in organizations whose work is to do the design and programming; the script writers flourish until there are no more scripts to write. Concerns about AI and robotics boil down to script writers—programmers, analysts, data scientists, advertising creatives, etc—anxiety over whether or when they will write their final script.

What happens when the audience—or the market—demands performances faster than the scripts can be written and produced? There are three answers. The first is to speed up the writing and producing of scripts. The second is to settle for lower quality scripts. The third is to learn how to work without a script—to improvise.

The first approach seems to be business as usual for most organizations, the second, sadly, is appearing more and more frequently. It is the third which most interests me.

There’s a classic piece of career advice offered to those starting out, “fake it until you make it.” This is advice rooted in a scripted world where experts are thought to be those with the most robust collection of scripts. I think a more relevant view of expertise comes from a definition offered by Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, “an expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

From this perspective, an expert is someone who knows how to improvise safely in new situations.

If you grant this as a working definition of an expert, then experts are not those with the largest collection of memorized scripts. Beyond the scripts they have accumulated, they have learned a meta-skill. Beyond a deep understanding of multiple scripts, experts understand the structure and components of scripts so well that they can invent a new script in the moment in response to particular situations and moments. In short, they can improvise.

One of the mistakes that brought me around to this line of thought happened during a visit with a highly desired prospective client. We had gotten an introduction to this Fortune 500 organization through an academic colleague. Cracking open this account could keep multiple teams busy for years; we brought three partners and our CEO to the meeting.

After introductions and some talk about our general qualifications, one of the prospective client executives laid out a problem they were wrestling with. We pulled out our solving a strategic problem script and started working the problem in the meeting. Actually, a pretty solid way to showcase our expertise.

But, we were in script mode. The script runs all the way to an answer to the problem, which our CEO divined and promptly shared. We launched into a soliloquy when being fully in the improvisational moment would have led us back to a dialogue about the relationship we both desired not the transaction in the moment.

We never did any work with that client. We learned an immediate lesson about script selection. I’m still teasing out the implications of taking an improv point of view. I believe that the improv perspective is more suited to the mix of problems we now face. I believe that perspective is learnable. I suspect that it is not teachable but may be coachable.

One thought on “Strategic Improv”

  1. I’ve been loving your musings of late, Jim.

    This idea about scripts and “script mode” resonates pretty well for me. In script-mode, it seems we are working under the assumption that there is a solution and we know what it is. Just do a little pattern matching to find the correct script and apply. Very little in the way of validating the existence of the problem or whether the client sees it the same way.

    Maybe this idea of the improv mode forces us to back away from our favorite solutions and really finding the problem – the problem that is holding back the organization in question from getting what they want. Step back even further to check if they can clearly articulate what they want.

    Thanks!

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