Improvisational strategizing

There's a time for making big plans and a time for winging it. The trick is to know which time it is right now. Corporations, institutions and NFP's may have departments for formulating strategies. They will say it's always time for making big plans because their paychecks depend on it. However, it's time for improvisation when situations are in flux.

Real Time Strategy (RTS) games are my favorite genre of the games I play on computers. Playing them teaches me, when scheming how to obtain higher scores or reach higher levels, that any big plans I concoct are doomed. The games have enough AI built in to detect my predictable conduct and then throw a monkey wrench into my "best laid plans". Games help us evolve into resilient strategists amidst turbulent situations. We learn to wing it in ways that work. That's very different from acting carelessly or hopelessly.

Chapter Six of Garr Reynold's first book: Presentation Zen, he reveals the wake up call he got in this regard. Working for Sumitomo in Japan in the mid-90's, he encountered the case-by-case approach used by managers. This contradicted his fondness for goal setting and executing plans. But as he became involved in designing presentations for clients, he realized the wisdom in relying on improvisation. His appreciation grew to include much more complexity, variability and unpredictability in clients, their messages and their audiences. He became a better designer by letting go of preconceptions, plans and big ideas. He learned to empty his mind and let what comes to mind serve the present situation.

This week on the Harvard Business Review blog, Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: Adopt a Cow - Strategy as Improvisational Theater. When actors depart from scripts or jazz musicians mess with the sheet music, they do what we need to do when improvising strategies. Kanter explored this in her recent book: Evolve - Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow. She gives us lots of links in her blog post to further this idea of winging it effectively..

One other resource for improvisational strategizing is a book by Rob Austin and Lee Devin: Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work. I found this book to be chock full of great ideas. Here's a few worth considering as we become more improvisational:

  • relying on emergence
  • replacing sequential processes with iterations, cycling
  • turning the concept of control upside down
  • embracing uncertainty instead of protecting against it

Now let's see if we can make up today as we go along.

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