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Improvisational Leadership: Learn To Think On Your Feet

Techniques from the theater teach you to be flexible, to handle the unexpected, to improvise when circumstances change, and to be accepting of others. Business is about planning and control, but it’s about planning and power in a constantly shifting world. Improvisation—being fully focused and active in the moment—is the goal, helping executives sharpen their […]

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Improvisational Leadership & Learning To Think On Your Feet

Techniques from the theater teach you to be flexible, to handle the unexpected, to improvise when circumstances change, and to be accepting of others. Business is about planning and control, but it’s about planning and power in a constantly shifting world.

Improvisation—being fully focused and active in the moment—is the goal, helping executives sharpen their leadership presence.

Growing numbers of corporate leaders believe that improvisation, the ability to change direction at a moment’s notice, is critical in a fast-changing global economy. Nimble companies can gain a competitive edge. Executive leaders are turning to jazz and theater for that training, according to an article originally published by The Conference Board several years ago.

Encourage Experimentation

Drawing on research from psychology and neuroscience, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking argues that great decision-makers don’t need to process mounds of data or engage in endless introspection—they can make difficult choices in the blink of an eye. Snap decisions made on instinct, Gladwell claims, are often more reliable than those rooted in research and planning.

Indeed, the rising preoccupation with impromptu, intuitive decision-making is causing experts in organization theory to question the so-called bureaucratic model, which relies heavily on research, planning, and control.

“To be innovative, managers—like jazz musicians—must interpret vague cues, face unstructured tasks, process incomplete knowledge, and yet they must take action anyway,” says Frank J. Barrett, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and a professional jazz pianist. In a paper published in the journal Organizational Science, he argues that the bureaucratic model is inappropriate to a global economy.

Improvisation in business is more common than critics are willing to admit. People in organizations are often jumping into action without clear plans, making up reasons as they proceed, and discovering new routes once an action is initiated.

Improvisation thrives best in a management culture that encourages experimentation. It’s most likely to succeed in organizations that are loose, fluid, and flexible, in which individuals can play different roles, and where team members know they can take risks.

Although many tout the value of improvisation, it’s hard to measure its effect on corporate performance by such traditional indicators as profitability, market share, or product quality. Improvisation is by definition spontaneous and creative—thus unpredictable. The evaluation process, therefore, should be one in which the performance of groups and individuals is measured not by expected bottom-line outcomes but by how well they respond to unforeseen opportunities or problems.

Be “In The Moment”

Traditional elements of the most effective programs include techniques for being “in the moment,” staying positive, listening actively, and taking risks.

Be “in the moment.” People are said to be “in the moment” when they’re focused, undistracted by past or future events, and alert to their surroundings. It means you’re engaged in progressive thinking.

Stay positive. Effective improvisers don’t say no and don’t ask why. They stay positive, generously “accepting the offer,” and then build on it. Call this the “yes, and” approach, similar to brainstorming techniques that affirm ideas and add to them.

Listen actively. Like most of us, business leaders might be poor listeners. However, active listening is at the heart of improvisation. Just like a jazz musician, you’re totally into hearing what you’re playing, and you’re listening to how others are responding to you.

Take risks. Inherent in any organization that values improvisation is the risk of failure. Just as jazz musicians hit “wrong” notes, the challenge is to convert missteps into new directions. Rather than assuming failure and attempting to correct or backtrack, press on.

Timing is critical when managing improvisation within a company. The best time for using improvisational skills is at the start of a project when people are brainstorming to generate ideas, rather than at the end when plans are being distilled and managed more traditionally.

Leadership might require the ability to think on your feet. Senior executives who accept improvisation as a reality of doing business are convinced that it better positions them to expect the unexpected, profit from their mistakes, and respond to change.

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