Review – Alan Alda on Communications and Improv

Book Cover imageIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Alan Alda

I’ve been working through a line of thought about the growing importance of improv thinking to dealing with organizations and innovations in the current environment. In this book, Alda lays out  advice on how we might do a better job of communicating in our work and improv plays a central role.

Alan Alda’s rumination on communications grew out of his work as the host of the PBS series *Scientific American Frontiers*. As the host, Alda was faced with helping deeply technical experts explain what mattered about their work to mere mortals. Alda brings a perfect mix of a curious layperson’s perspective and a trained actor’s craft at communications. It’s also an entertaining and illuminating mix.

A naive view of acting and of communications is that the work involves learning and delivering a script. We learn our lines and recite them when the moment arrives. Alda dispenses with that illusion immediately; 80% of his advice involves listening and observation skills and techniques. The remaining advice talks about story telling, but that advice is rooted in how to tell stories that take advantage of how we expect stories to play out and not mislead the listener or reader. In other words, how do we put stories together that anticipate and raise the questions our readers will have.

Alda, of course, is a consummate story teller himself. There is no blinding flash of insight or advice that is startling or unexpected. What he provides instead is an artful example of how well his advice works in the hands of an experienced pro.

Stealing practice time from performance

Stage view Bright lights“Standby Cue 103.”

“Go Cue 103.”

We had about two minutes left in the finale. Twenty five dancers filled the stage, the music director was in the pit with another twelve musicians, I was stage right talking to the lighting crew via a headset and the stage crew via hand signals. In about thirty seconds, I would give a “Warn Cue 104” followed by a Standby and a Go.

It was the final night of our ten-city tour and we were performing in a lovely theater at New Trier West High School in Winnetka, Illinois. There’s a story about the space I’ll save for another day. Steve, the only performer not yet on stage tapped me on the shoulder. I looked away from my cue book. Steve was in his costume dressed as the Statue of Liberty—another story for another time.

Ok. He’s about to make his entrance upstage center. I’m not sure why he’s interrupted me.

Until he turns around.

Steve is not actually wearing his costume. He’s taped it on so that it looks normal from the front. From behind he’s naked from head to toe.

I miss giving the warning for Cue 104, but do manage to get out the Standby and Go in time. I then warn the crew to keep their eyes on the next 90 seconds. We set up and execute the next half dozen lighting cues, the band continues to play, and Steve makes his entrance, which starts from upstage center and proceeds downstage to the edge of the orchestra pit. As Steve passes each row of dancers, that row misses a step and recovers.

The finale ends, the curtain falls, and cast and crew breaks into hysterics.

Juvenile? Certainly. Unprofessional? Not really.

One of the payoffs of rehearsal and constant practice is the capacity to go with the flow. And to know when you can tweak the flow without interfering with the audience’s experience. It was the final number in our final performance. The steps were muscle memory at this point. Letting me know at the last moment was more of a gift to the crew than a needed warning.

One thing that puzzles me about ordinary organizations is how they develop capacity to respond to the unexpected, to go with the flow successfully. The magic we see on stage or on the athletic field demands time dedicated to practice and rehearsal. It is the practice and rehearsal that creates the capacity to adapt. That time is built into the process.

Ordinary organizations don’t build this into their process. Learning and rehearsal time is limited to occasional training experiences or stolen moments of on-the-job training. The rare major systems rollout may get planned training and support time.

Conventional wisdom says that people in organizations resist change. What they resist, sensibly, is demands for polished performance without rehearsal. By ignoring the role of rehearsal and practice, organizations end up with lower levels of performance. Rehearsal happens but only by disguising some performance time as a mediocre form of rehearsal. Neither practice or performance is effective.

Taking the half-life of knowledge seriously

I’ve made the claim that the half-life of knowledge is shrinking in most domains. We often frame this from the perspective of the increasing volumes of data and information we are called on to assimilate, but there is something worth teasing out by thinking in terms of pace instead of volume.

One of the first places I encountered this notion of the accelerating decay of knowledge was in reference to its impact in engineering fields. James Plummer, Dean of Stanford’s Engineering School, observed that

“The half of life of engineering knowledge is three to five years. As dean, I used to tell students it doesn’t matter what we teach you because it will be obsolete when you graduate, so go out and have a good time.” The Engineers of the Future Will Not Resemble the Engineers of the Past

He’s right if you think of his teaching responsibility as installing an up-to-date and accurate body of knowledge. While he nods in the direction of life-long learning, he doesn’t say anything about how life-long learning should differ from the way it has been organized in formal educational settings. Our naive assumptions about how learning works are anchored in our experience in schools and classrooms; there’s stuff to be learned, an expert to teach it, and a timetable to follow. At the other extreme, there is on-the-job training with little or no structure or guidance.

We see some attention to the notion of learning how to learn. Most of that, however, focuses on how to do a better job within the structures of courses, classrooms, and schools we feel comfortable with. The proliferation of new channels for learning—Khan Academy, Udemy, MOOCs — stay within the broad outlines of that comfortable structure.

None of that addresses the question of how to approach learning when the knowledge landscape is in constant flux. What do you do if you need to pick up a new skill before someone writes the book or the course you need in this structure? How do you manage your learning when figuring out what you need to learn is the first order of business? Worse, everyone else is in the same predicament; new knowledge is accumulating and old knowledge becoming obsolete faster than the systems we know can adapt.

There is one example I can think of for managing learning under these conditions. That is the world of doctoral students in evolving disciplines.

The assumptions about knowledge and learning baked into work at that level match the environment much more effectively than the assumptions built into studies at earlier stages of learning and knowledge acquisition. That change in assumptions, in fact, is one of the traps that students fall into when they try to make the transition into doctoral level work. It isn’t that the work gets harder. The work doesn’t conform to the practices that worked for acquiring and demonstrating your mastery of a known body of knowledge.

First, you discover that the consensus on what constitutes the relevant body of knowledge is in flux and always will be. As a fledgling expert in the field a doctoral student is now expected to develop a point of view about where the knowledge edges are; eventually, you are expected to push beyond them. In stable fields, you have the luxury of limiting your search for answers to the authoritative texts. In the worlds we are discussing now, you are forced to seek out and make sense out of primary sources. Behaviors that once would have gotten you in trouble–questioning sources, arguing with your teachers, disputing conclusions–are now skills to be developed. You must learn to develop your own models and conclusions to make sense of new data as it appears.

This leads to the second key difference; there are more experts to know of and they disagree. The good ones expect you to disagree with them. Learning is less about finding a master whose feet you can sit at and more about finding colleagues to travel with. Learning takes on the flavor of conversations with challenging people.  Conversations imply that you should expect a balanced distribution of questions, answers, hypotheses, and evidence. Asking “will this be on the exam” becomes a     question you must answer for yourself.

Finally, you must develop map making skills. You are in new territory, out where the dragons lurk. You need to keep track of where the sinkholes and oases lie. This will keep you safe on your own journey and give you something to compare notes on as you encounter other travelers drawing maps of their journeys.

Learning to solve for pattern

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels“We need you back in the office now, Anthony’s team just got fired.”

I was at lunch. Back in the office, we were running a training simulation where a team of consultants was engaged in an assessment project for a hypothetical client. Over the course of a week, the consulting team interacted with the client by way of email, phone calls, and a handful of face-to-face meetings with client executives. The client executive roles were filled by retired executives who we paid to play the parts of CEO, CFO, and CIO.

Somehow, Anthony’s team of consultants had provoked the client CEO to fire the team on day 2 and demand that they vacate the premises. This was not a scenario we had built into the design of the simulation. How do you get fired from a  simulation? It was one of the more memorable “teachable moments” I had encountered.

We broke character and I facilitated a debrief of the “firing” that offered the junior members of the team a peek into the dynamics of managing client relationships they wouldn’t otherwise see and gave us a path back into the simulation for the remainder of the week.

It also started a deeper train of thought about how to get better at working in dynamic, high-stakes, settings. That proved important beyond the bounds of training as the environment continued to become more dynamic and the stakes continued to rise.

We designed this training simulation with help from a group at Northwestern University called the Institute for Learning Sciences. It was a group accustomed to building carefully scripted and automated training simulations for organizations such as Accenture and Verizon. They were  also accustomed to project budgets that looked more like our annual revenues than our budget.

Our resource limitations forced us to focus on design principles and forgo sophisticated technology features. We shifted the balance toward something that was more structural outline and less line by line script. We used a mix of technology and experienced support staff behind the scenes to shape and go with the flow as the simulation played out. Our goal was to create a learning environment that prepared people for the real consulting environments they would soon have. When our new consultants went out into the field for their first real assignments, we got the feedback that mattered. Our consultants were ready for what projects and clients threw at them.

The environment our consultants encountered was also changing. All organizations were dealing with accelerating innovation in strategy, technology, and organization. We had created our company on the belief that this acceleration would continue and would demand more responsive approaches to cope with and take advantage of that acceleration. The idea that the half-life of knowledge and expertise was shrinking was no longer an issue on the horizon. It was becoming a central feature of our day-to-day work.

Our training design was born of resource limitations. As much by luck as by design we had stumbled on deeper lessons for our work. We were learning how to navigate environments without a script and without rehearsal time. We were developing perspectives and practices oriented to an improv logic as the world demanded more responsiveness and adaptability.

I’ve come to believe that navigating this environment requires a shift in perspective and a set of operating practices and techniques that can be most easily described as improv adapted to organizational settings.

The shift in perspective moves from a world of connecting the dots to a world of “solving for pattern”. I borrowed the phrase from essayist Wendell Berry. It asks us to step back from the immediate details and view problems from a higher, systemic, vantage point.

Connecting the dots thinking is simplistic; find the picture hiding in the data and the details and select the appropriate script to respond. Google the term “bedbug letter” to see a classic, although possibly apocryphal, example.of connecting the dots.

Solving for pattern seeks to understand the driving forces that can explain the situation at hand as one instance of a class of similar situations. Instead of selecting a script that matches the immediate problem, solving for pattern looks for leverage points within the structure of forces where smaller nudges can trigger disproportionate responses.

As you make the shift to solving for pattern, you find yourself in a much more dynamic and collaborative environment than your likely comfortable with. If you’ve given up on the idea of a pre-existing script to work from, you must now learn how to create an actual conversation in the moment. This is the essence of improv practice in the world of theater.

Improv is something that can be learned and finding an improv class to participate in wouldn’t be a bad idea. For our purposes, it’s more useful to explore how we might adapt improv practices and mindsets to ordinary organizational settings.

Good improv practice is anchored in presence and focused attention. The fundamental rule is to agree to interact and agree to keep moving forward. In improv parlance, that agreement is referred to as “yes, and…” Adapting that mindset in an organizational setting calls for accepting that all players in a conversation have something to add.

What that also implies is a responsibility to bring as much as you can to add to the conversation and  commit to learning all that you can to better understand what everyone else in the conversation is bringing with them. This advice may seem contradictory; you must be prepared to both teach and learn at the same time. In a script world, you can simply accept the answers of specialists or insist that your specialized answers be accepted without modification.

In an improv world you must be prepared to “show your work.” Not to force your conclusions onto the conversation, but to enrich the conversation in search of a better collaborative answer. There are practices and techniques that can make the learning and the sharing easier to manage. But becoming comfortable in the mindset is essential.

Unexpected Aha Moments – Review – How to Take Smart Notes

Cover Image - how to take smart notesAhrens, Sönke. 2017. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers

It’s always exciting to discover a book that generates a cascade of “aha” moments. I certainly didn’t pick up Sonke Ahrens’s *How to Take Smart Notes* expecting that result.

I’ve kept notebooks and journals in various forms for decades. They’ve contributed significantly to the quality of the work I’ve been able to do. Nonetheless, Ahrens convinces me that I have left a lot of value on the table. More importantly, he makes the case that I can recover and extract much of that value with a change of perspective and some manageable adjustments in my practices and workflow. I don’t need a wholesale reengineering of my systems or infrastructure and I don’t face a massive conversion of previous work. I do face adjustments and the usual discomfort of building new habits, but on a clearly manageable scale and timeframe.

Notes as first class knowledge assets

The first aha moment is the notion of thinking of some notes at least as a permanent and evolving knowledge asset. Ahrens argues that there are three categories of notes:

1.   Fleeting notes, which are only reminders of information, can be written in any kind of way and will end up in the trash within a day or two.

2.   Permanent notes, which will never be thrown away and contain the necessary information in themselves in a permanently understandable way. They are always stored in the same way in the same place, either in the reference system or, written as if for print, in the slip-box.

3.   Project notes, which are only relevant to one particular project. They are kept within a project-specific folder and can be discarded or archived after the project is finished.

The first and third categories have been a part of my work practices for as long as I can remember. It is this middle category and the approach to building and maintaining it that I find intriguing and promising. It promises a solution to some enduring frustrations. Those frustrations may not be evidence of limits imposed by my ADD or fundamental moral failures. Instead, they result from some missing ideas and practices those ideas enable.

During my doctoral student days and consulting years I kept chronological notebooks as part of my work practices. I did that based on the advice and example of Jerry Pournelle and Jerry Weinberg, both of whom turned out prodigious amounts of quality work and were gracious in reflecting on and sharing elements of their work practices. As computing technology became personal and portable, I began to do much of my note taking and writing development at the keyboard. As part of that practice, I used WordPress to create a blog as a commonplace book on my local computer. These notebooks and their digital equivalents have been useful enough that they have remained components in my current work.

A corpus of notes is its own knowledge asset

If the notion of a permanent note is the first aha moment, the second is to view the growing body of notes as a separate knowledge asset. Until now, specific projects have provided my primary organizing structure. Blogging is a step in the  direction of a prospective knowledge asset, but only partially so. Blogging is a kind of ongoing project whose outputs I have thought of and treated as final deliverables.

I’ve struggled with what to do with ideas that are still “cooking” and don’t yet have an obvious home. I’ve used various tools with varying levels of success but tools don’t dictate good practices or how best to use raw materials.

Maybe I missed school that day, but I never encountered good examples of how the leap from random ideas to finished product might work better. Way back in the day, people talked about index cards and cutting manuscripts into little pieces to be rearranged. Never made sense to me. Later, text editors and word processors made the mechanics of writing easier. I became and remain a fan of outliners and mindmapping tools but they didn’t offer guidance about how to think about the contents they contained.

What I lacked was a good data model. One of my advisors in my doctoral days talked about journal articles as “bricks” in the wall of knowledge. I never got what went into making a brick much less where it went on the wall. Ahrens concept of a permanent note is derived from the  paper-based system of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann he labeled a Zettelkasten. Luhmann developed an interesting system for maintaining and working with his ever-expanding corpus of notes. There is, of course, a thriving Internet sub-culture devoted to divining the whys and wherefores of this strategy and adapting it to a technological world–it’s easy to see how a Zettelkasten maps naturally into a world of hypertext.

The risk to avoid is the tempting rabbit-hole of experimenting with new tools and debating the arcana of indexing and branching strategies. Seeing a note as a permanent and fundamental knowledge “particle” is the aha moment. It’s certainly a more fine-grained level that now exists in its own right. These notes are not a temporary container that is only useful until the final product is finished. A collection of permanent notes becomes a thinking tool to work out and develop new thoughts and lines of thought.

As such, notes can’t simply be pointers back to a piece of secondary research or the barest sketch of an argument to be fleshed out in the draft of a larger deliverable. Permanent notes “are no longer reminders of thoughts or ideas, but contain the actual thought or idea in written form.”

If I still kept physical books, this one would already be dog-eared. Instead, I’m developing and exercising new skills for extracting the thoughts from this container and using them to expand my own thinking. Right now, I’m clumsy and unskilled but I can see how to get better.

Connecting the dots encourages bad thinking

Connecting the dots is one of those common metaphors that we don’t think about very much. When we do invoke it, however, it leads us astray more often than it helps.

The premise is that the elementary school activity of revealing a hidden picture by drawing lines from one numbered dot to the next teaches us something transferable about problem solving. The pleasure of reading mysteries and detective stories flows reinforces the same message. There are a series of clues lying about waiting to be found; rearrange and connect them in the right order to reveal the culprit or foil the terrorist.

When the bad guys succeed, we criticize the good guys because they failed to arrange the obvious dots into the now obvious order. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but that obscures a more important critique of the method and its premises.

Connecting the dots makes one of two assumptions about the end of the process. Either, there is a picture to be perceived when the dots are connected in the right sequence. Or, there is an answer to the story or riddle when the facts are arranged in order. Both of these assumptions lead us wrong in the real world. First, they presume a single, correct, answer; this works for puzzles and simple problems in math, nowhere else. Second, they presume a single, correct, ordering of the dots.

At best, which isn’t very good, connecting the dots is a label for retrospective sense-making masquerading as a problem-solving strategy. Possibly useful if your goal is to divert blame. Useless as a thinking strategy.

Managing personal learning in a VUCA world

man hiking in forestSpinning a new consulting firm out of older, bigger, ones is a common story—no different from the founding of a new religious sect in a schism with the past. A charismatic leader and a few faithful followers declare a new revelation and start preaching from a new street corner.

When we started Diamond we all had experience in large professional service firms.  We were driven by things we didn’t like and wanted to fix and by opportunities we saw being ignored. We were less aware of the unique issues connected with being small and vulnerable.

Coming from big firms, we knew that training and knowledge management were important capabilities. As the only person who seemed marginally qualified, I was handed both problems and the hats of Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer. I had no staff and only the promise of a budget.

We lumped these two functions out of the reality of limited resources. In the organizations we had come from and knew, these functions were distinct. They demanded lots of resources and had grown from different origins and histories.

The decision rooted in our constraints generated insights that have become more relevant over the past twenty plus years. I want to start with the individual consultant—one of the prototypical knowledge workers that drive today’s organizations.

Alvin Toffler predicted that successful knowledge workers would be those who could “learn, unlearn, and relearn.” We live in the world he predicted. What we need to know as knowledge workers continues to grow at the same time that the half-life of our knowledge base continues to shrink.

The reality of this environment means that as a knowledge worker, you can’t count on organizations to be responsive enough to support your learning needs. They face the same problem you do and their problem is magnified by issues of scale.

Conventional strategies for learning break down. You can’t keep going back to school. You can’t afford the time and schools are as slow or slower to adapt their curricula to morphing demands as the organizations you inhabit.

Old avenues for learning in smaller, more up-to-date, chunks still exist and new avenues are appearing. If anything, the proliferation of options—YouTube, Udemy, EdX, Coursera, Khan Academy, workshops, seminars, webinars, ebooks—threatens overload more than relief.

What’s a reasonable path forward? I think it includes an explicit and dynamic personal learning plan coupled with a coherent set of supporting learning processes and practices. A learning plan should build on understanding how learning works, a view of your base of knowledge, and expectations of what skills and knowledge need developing.

Learning processes and practices provide the scaffolding and support structures that would otherwise be provided by the formal schooling environments that aren’t available. They will likely include:

  • reflective practice
  • cohort of co-learners
  • journals/journaling practice
  • reference management system
  • systematic note taking and management

What you might correctly infer from this is that I am actively engaged in updating and formalizing my own plans and practices. I’m curious who else finds this a journey they might like to join?

Review: Tim Wu’s The Curse of Bigness

cover photo -Curse of BignessThe Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. Tim Wu

Tim Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School, probably best known for coining the term “network neutrality.” In The Curse of Bigness, Wu turns his attention toward the growth, concentration,  and accumulating power of a handful of global corporations. He makes an argument that this growth is not an unalloyed good, that market forces by themselves are insufficient to counter the negative consequences of amassing power, and that current government policy is aggravating these consequences rather than ameliorating them.

Wu’s approach is to revisit an earlier era of rapid growth and power accumulation in the U.S.—the Gilded Age at the beginning of the 20th century. That era and its excesses provoked a compensating government response in the form of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the policy decisions on how to interpret and enforce it. Wu is no fan of the Chicago School’s legal or economic reasoning. Here’s one example that captures Wu’s point of view and demonstrates his skill with language to boot;

Jumping from theory to reality in a novel way, the Chicago School then asserted that that which did not exist in theory probably did not exist in practice. Robbing banks is economically irrational, given security guards and meager returns; ergo bank robbing does not happen; ergo there is no need for the criminal law. Exaggerated only slightly, this premise has been at the core of Bork-Chicago antitrust for more than thirty years

Income inequality and increasing concentration of wealth has been a topic of much debate. The Curse of Bigness offers a brief and compelling argument that these results are not an outcome of natural law but of decisions about how and whether to enforce actual laws. I wish that he had some more reassuring thoughts about whether our current political processes can bring about that change in perspective, but this is worth your time regardless.

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.

Learning to sail

biremeIf we’re lucky we connect with good mentors during our careers. I first worked with Mel in the late 1970s. Our paths intertwined over the years; I moved from Boston to Chicago to become one of his partners in the consulting firm we founded in 1994. He was CEO and holder of the central vision of what we became. I was Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer, which was a very grand title when we were 25 people; it became more representative as we grew to over a thousand in the next several years.

One of our points of disagreement crystallized on a drive home after another long day. His critique was that I cared too much about insight. As he put it, “95% of the people in most organizations are just pulling on the oars, they don’t need insight.” My response was to ask where did sails come from if everyone was pulling on the oars?

Mel was anchored in a classic individual contributor/hierarchical manager model of organization. Success depended on faithful execution of the scripts; managers monitored and controlled, contributors rowed. New ideas appeared infrequently and by magic; after careful vetting, new scripts were written, rehearsed, and deployed.

Organizations that survive and thrive do so because they are well-adapted to their environments. When environments evolve slowly, so can organizations.

Those environments don’t exist anymore. The current term of art is that today’s environments are VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous. Yet the show must go on; the curtain rises each day and the audience awaits.

The usual response is to row faster. A new script is written—or found, quick rehearsals take place, and we hope the audience is tolerant of the cast and crew’s mistakes.

The better answer is to reorient to an improv mindset and learn how to act more responsively and in the moment. This demands more of everyone in the organization. No one can be content to simply learn their lines or wait to execute their cue.

In the old scripted world, you could set up the joke and plan the special effect. It is a place of grand vision broken down into tactical execution.

An improv, VUCA, world exists between those two poles. The grand vision must relate to the audience/market’s interests and responses in the moment. Tactical bits must be selected and sequenced to move in the general direction of the evolving vision.

This calls for performers who can straddle the divide and support crew who can assemble platforms, bridges, and illumination in real time. Developing skill and competence in this dynamic performance demands more capable performers and practices designed to be adaptable.