What is Business Improvisation?

Improvisation is the ability to access creativity in the moment and under pressure, to resolve or direct the resolution of a situation to meet your objectives. It is the ability to converge composition, creativity and execution to achieve success.


Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships and in doing so, brings forth meaningful and original ideas, forms, methods and interpretations.


Business improvisation is not “winging it” nor is it blustering your way through a situation. In fact improvisation is a skill that is mastered through preparation, practice and patience.


Imagine harnessing your creative energy at its highest and applying it to your most stressful and intense moments, to shine when others collapse or choke. Accessing that creativity by utilizing business improvisation would certainly be a significant competitive advantage and is already embraced and employed by many successful business people. The good news is that business improvisational skills can be learned behaviours and even better news – we are going to look at some of then now.


How Business Improvisation Works

A great analogy for understanding business improvisation is improvisation in music, also known as Jazz. In a typical jazz song, the musicians agree to play a particular song, in a specific key at an agreed upon tempo or speed. One instrument plays the ‘head” or melody to establish the song for the listeners. After the head is played, several musicians take turns playing improvised solos; at some point a musician establishes the melody again and the song ends. This is a simplified description of what is actually a very complex process.


There are a number of important lessons that can be drawn from the jazz analogy. First, the musicians must know their craft. They’ve practised for years and studied scales, musical theory and other musicians’ techniques.


Second, they know the chord changes of the song and the notes of the melody. There are many places in the song where improvisation can take place, however they always occur within the boundaries of established key, tempo and chord progression.


With these as the background, solo improvisations can occur in real time, in ways that are rarely the same. The solos appear to be effortless and spontaneous within a framework that, when done in concert with the rest of the musicians, create true art.


In business improvisation the same premises apply. In order to successfully improvise you must know the material, you must be prepared, and you should be a master of the content you’re presenting.


The Business Improvisation Process

There are four basic steps in the improvisation process: Attention, Accept, Adapt and Advance.


1. Attention or listening is the simplest, most important step and unfortunately the one most often neglected. Listening without judgement and “mind chatter” is very difficult. One factor that makes listening difficult is that we can comprehend at a rate between 300 to 500 words per minute while the average speaker talks to us at a speed of 150 to 200 words per minute. In the gap between what we hear and what we process, our mind wanders.


Paying attention and listening are the first steps in the business improvisation process. They are essential to gathering information about the situation in which you find yourself. Do not engage your analytical processes at this stage as they will only generate mental chatter and distract you with premature judgements.


 2. Acceptance is the next step in the process. It can be difficult for some business people because it requires us to let go of judgement and control. This is counter-intuitive for many people, particularly those who tend to be “take charge” individuals. Be that as it may, accepting a situation for what it is, not attempting to control or judge it, and using the new information as an input into the revised decision-making process is essential to effective improvisation.


The acceptance step also means understanding and playing within the rules of engagement. In other words, there is an agreement amongst the players on the framework, the objectives and the ways in which people will work to achieve common goals.


3. Adaptation. Now is your chance to apply your cognitive and creative skills in order to achieve the objectives, in spite of the changes engendered by the current situation.


By paying attention, listening and accepting certain realities, we are now in a position to blend salient facts with our creativity and adapt to the new situation. Holding onto old solutions in the face of new challenges is counterproductive; letting go of outdated approaches and adapting to new solutions is the key to survive and thrive in the global economy.


4. Advancement is about effective communication. It is offering something that moves the situation forward. A suggestion, an idea, a change in body language, all can advance the solutions created in the adaptive step of the process. The message is ‘I’ve listened, I understand and accept, I’ve thought about it and here is what I think’. This is also the opportunity to move the situation into a new direction.


Let’s Not Forget About Preparation

One final word about this process – preparation. This is really the essential first step, but exists outside the ongoing iterations of business improvisation. This step is an essential component of any successful endeavour, and while not an element of improvisation, is a critical precursor to its execution.



Business improvisation is poised to be the next “killer app” for organizational growth and performance. It is an incredible tool designed to enhance the skills and productivity of an organization’s most valuable asset- its people.


Investing in the performance of the moment, during crisis and under pressure, is the next frontier for maximizing ROI. Learning the skills of business improvisation and employing them in the market place will enhance a leader’s success in navigating through the unexpected and achieving results in an uncertain world.


Business improvisation – a harmony of composition, creativity and brilliant execution. The sweet sound of success.


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