When most of us think about improvisation, we think of theater. We think of acting in a role that isn’t connected with reality. We think of the need to be funny, even silly. At best, it’s frivolous and fun. At worst, it’s anxiety-producing. (“She’s not going to make us do role-playing, is she?” several people asked with considerable dread when I told them this month’s Thrivability Montreal guest, Belina Raffy, would be speaking about using improv in organizations.)
But, in fact, improvisation is as natural and commonplace as breathing. We all improvise constantly in our every action and reaction. We never really know what’s coming at us next, and so we respond in the moment, every moment.
The challenge is that we think we can predict and control everything, especially in our organizations. Our mechanistic worldview tells us we can. And historically, relatively simple, steady markets have reinforced that belief. As a result, our ability to respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances – our ability to improvise – has gotten rusty. And so have we.
But the true promise of improvisation is that it helps us move beyond a mechanistic paradigm to one that honors and embraces life. It literally holds the key to being less rusty and more fully thriving and alive. And paradoxically, in becoming more fully alive, we become more effective according to all the measures that the mechanistic paradigm holds dear – especially in our organizations.
Why should this be so? Because improvisation is the way life works.
Here’s what I mean. Living systems (like plants and people and companies) appear to be static things, but in fact, it’s more accurate to think of them as pattern and process. They create themselves continuously through ongoing interaction with their environment. And their environment is constantly throwing new, unpredictable things at them. So what do they do? They respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances. This is how all the parts of your body manage to maintain homeostasis (and you!), for example, even as you spring sudden changes of temperature, strange new foods and weird chemicals on them. They improvise.
In our bodies and in other living systems, this creative process happens naturally, in the moment. In our organizations, however, we’ve short-circuited this instinct, choosing instead to stiffly predict and control. But our capacity to improvise is not lost completely. It resurfaces in rare moments of peak performance that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” In these moments, he says, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” What he’s describing is nothing other than improvisation at its best.
In a book called Second Wind, basketball legend Bill Russell describes his own moments of flow and improvisation:
Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even a mental game, and would be magical…. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level… At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened. The game would be in a white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive – which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.
As we recognize ourselves and our organizations as living systems, we see that these moments of improvisational flow aren’t magic. They’re our birthright. They’re the way we’re wired to operate. But we’ve lost the ready capability to tap into that mode of operation.
And that’s where Belina comes in (as well as others like her). With help, we can relearn that way of engaging with the world, individually and collectively. And it feels amazing, alive – and powerfully effective.
In fact, the reality is that we have no choice but to develop our ability to improvise. In the past, our organizations could get away with managing actions in predictable ways. Things were decidedly slower and less complex. But now, more than ever before, we’re faced with the need to respond creatively and collaboratively to the unexpected. Against all odds, we have to anticipate what’s coming next before it happens. As Bill Russell said, we need to be able to sense how the next play will develop. In other words, what’s required is the heightened awareness, the playful engagement and the flow of improvisation. Indeed, it’s little wonder that improv holds the solution: the word itself comes from Latin roots meaning: “to see beforehand, prepare, provide for (a future circumstance).”
And there’s more. Beyond the organizational level, Belina explained during her time in Montreal that the overarching problems humanity faces are so complex and require such a high degree of creativity, collaboration and inspiration that improv may be the only effective means of solving them. Rational, linear, individually-generated solutions are simply not up to the task. The challenge will be to find ways to play together even in the face of unthinkable disaster.
At every level of impact, the true power of improv comes with a profound shift of mind. As Joseph Jaworski notes in his book Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, “It’s about listening for what’s needed, trusting that you’ll be able to respond. And this leads to flow.” It’s about “participating with life.”