Applied Improvisation

“Improvisation May Be the Key to Successfully Managing Change” prof. Orlikowski, MIT

How do you adapt to a quickly changing environment?
What do you do when time gets compressed and you still have to deliver?
How do you support creativity and innovation in your organization?

An increasing number of professionals is being trained in improvisation skill and mindset. It helps them to play with their changing environment instead of trying to control it. It creates freedom to act, and to be creative in uncertanty.

What is Improvisation?
Improvisation is the degree in which composition and exection converge in time (Miner, 1998). It has has a background in Jazz and theatre. Jazz musicians play a certain piece (for instance Take Five), and improvise along the way. Improvisation actors take it to the next level by asking their audience for input. They use this to create completely new stories, songs and games. The optimal co creation with the customer. You could say that they are innovators on stage. Applied Improvisation or Business Improvisation refers to the translation of these capabilities to the professional business workspace.

The rules of improvisation

So how do they do it? For the reader that never has seen improvisation theatre: please have a look at this short scene from the American improvisation group ‘Who’s line is it anyway’.

You could say that they are dealing with a difficult and unexpected environment: two old ladies which do everything wrong. They are capable of creating a wonderful scene for their audience anyway by following the basic rules of improvisation:

  1. Accept the situation as it is. You could wish that your environment would be different (and probably better), but the simple fact is that it is as it is. So just accept it, and see the possibilities.
  2. Add something to it. Act. Add what is needed to the current situation. So if there is nothing, just start by doing something and add to it what is logical. Follow your intuition, because most people get stuck in thinking.
  3. Make the other shine. Enjoy what your partner, customer, or fellow actor is doing and help them to make it even better. So don´t focus too much on yourself or what the other could have been better in your opinion
  4. Stay in the here and now. Everything that you need is here and now. This is also called bricolage. Be prepared for what is coming, and stay focused on what is happing. “The past is history, the future is a mystery and Today is a gift. That is why we call it the present”.

Playful Mindset

A characteristic of improvisers from all over the world (Applied Improvisation Network) is that they are very open for new things. Most of them act as entrepreneurs because they like to create new things and are able to cope with uncertainty. They learned this most of the time by playing jazz or improvisational theatre, but there are more and more professionals in organizations who use the mindset of improvisation to create flexible frameworks that help other to play with their environment.

What can I expect for my organisation?
De Baak is connected to the Applied Improvisation Network, and has a lot of experience in applying improvisation in organizations. Most practitioners experienced the fun and serious focus that are connected to improvisation. An program will always contain a lot of playing together, and debriefing on the difficulties in the own environment. Best Practices from the past are:

  • Teamcoaching: developing skills and mindsets for teams to build trust, becoming a creative team, and coping with uncertainty.
  • Personal Leadership: Helping professionals to play with their environment (or audience in case of a Presentation training), and to converge planning, acting and learning to become flexible.
  • Creativity & Innovation: Being able to find new possibilities, and creating minimal frameworks that facilitate innovation.

De Baak uses Applied Improvisation in the professionalizion of their own employees. "Eat your own dogfood" the Americans would say.

Rutger Slump, program director Innovation
blog Let's play Innovation!


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