Improvise Your Way to Clarity

The major reason why improvisation works is that the musicians say an implicit yes to each other  – Frank J. Barrett

As with jazz soloists, so it is with organizational leaders. The competent ones hit the right notes, but the great ones are distinguished by how far ahead they are imagining and how they strategize possibilities, shape the contour of ideas, adapt and adjust in the midst of action, and resolve organizational tension.

What we need to add to our list of leadership skills is improvisation — the art of adjusting, flexibly adapting, learning through trial-and-error initiatives, inventing ad hoc responses, and discovering as you go.

Curious about the origin of “improvising,” I found the following in the dictionary:

French improviser, from Italian improvvisare, from improvviso sudden, from Latin improvisus, literally, unforeseen, from in- + provisus, past participle of providēre to see ahead

Sometimes you just have to improvise your way to clarity.

The major reason why improvisation works is that the musicians say an implicit yes to each other.

Because jazz improvisation borders on chaos and incoherence, it begs the question of how order emerges. Unlike other art forms and other forms of organized activity that attempt to rely on a pre-developed plan, improvisation is widely open to transformation, redirection, and unprecedented turns.

So it is with many jobs in organizations. They require fumbling around, experimenting, and patching together an understanding of problems from bits and pieces of experience, improvising with the materials at hand. Few problems provide their own definitive solutions.

Jazz improvisers focus on discovery in times of stress.

This is what improvisational leaders do. They come at challenges from different angles, ask more searching questions, and are born communitarians. They’re not going for easy answers or living off of old routines and stale phrases. Instead of focusing on obstacles (a form of negative self-monitoring), they create openings by asking questions that entertain possibilities.

Critically, too, improvisational leaders assume that the improv will work: that the mess is only a way station on the path to a worthwhile destination.

The message here is powerful: start by asking positive questions; foster dialogues, not monologues; and you can change the whole situation, maybe even your life.

 

Adapted from Say Yes to the Mess, by Frank J. Barrett

Say Yes to the Mess

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