I’m a big advocate of the value that the skills of performance improvisation can bring to the corporate world and know many others that share this view. However, I find that many talented improvisers struggle to find the ‘angle’ or the ‘pitch’ to bring their skills into businesses in a way that really causes sustained behavioural or cultural change (also meaning a deficiency in repeat business for the poor improviser!) Often the value proposed is framed around learning new tools and processes to nurture creativity, improve listening/communication skills or collaborate in times of ambiguity. These are all genuine, valuable benefits but the majority of the time, if improvisation does manage to get on the leadership development agenda, it ends up being a one-off event and the lived experience fails to move from the classroom to the boardroom. Worst still, “improv” ends up being treated as yet another ‘tool’ that is added to the mountainous corporate toolbox.
I too have wrestled with this conundrum for a few years and have come to the conclusion that, before we even start to scratch our heads working out how to truly blend the experiences of improvisation into the day-to-day corporate world, we need to ask ourselves a far more profound question – what on earth are these things that we call organisations anyway?
Over time, I have come to believe that organisations are social processes – simply a bunch of human beings engaged in a rather complex process of relating that is as predictable as it is unpredictable. It just so happens that these processes have resulted in the creation of value – products or services that others desire and are prepared to pay for, so we have adjusted the way we relate to each other in order to maximise our ability to create, trade and do business. Over time we have chosen to call this particular configuration of our relationships ‘an organisation‘. If we hold this description to be true, then we begin to realise that our organisations are an ongoing social improvisation and the skills of performance improvisation move from being a sometimes helpful tool to being a way of navigating and thriving in the complexity of corporate life. Whereas the majority of business education trains leaders for what should happen in organisations, improvisation can help us become good at working with what actually happens. As the pace of change and complexity of our interactions continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, it is apparent that organisations that will thrive in the future are not those that are good at predicting but those who are masterful at adapting. One of my favourite quotes, from economist John Kenneth Galbraith, summarises the futility of investing too much time and energy on predicting the future “The only purpose of economic forecasting is to make astrology look credible!”.
Whilst this perspective has become intuitive to me, it is quite different to the predominant perspectives of organisational life and inherently difficult to articulate to others. So, with this challenge in mind, I have recently taken not to the wisdom of organisational academics to help me articulate my perspective but to the popular cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants.
I typically begin workshops on the subject of change or improvisation with the following short video clip of Spongebob planning and then hosting a party:
Putting to one side whether people love/hate Spongebob and the fact that a sponge hosting an undersea party is a whimsical fantasy, I ask participants who have watched the film “What was stupid, silly or ironic about that video?” I typically get responses such as “You can’t control a party in that way” or “He tried to script every little bit of the stuff you just cant script” or “The plan sucked all the fun out of it.” We come to realise that Spongebob is trying to script a social process that is largely improvisational – parties are social processes. I then ask the group to name other social processes (such as a pub, a theatre, a football match) and then social processes at work (such as meetings, offices, factories). After a short while folk normally come to realise that EVERYTHING is a social process and therefore, at work, we are immersed in a continual corporate improvisation.
Once one has started to get one’s head around this perspective and worked out how it may have challenged our previous beliefs as to the nature of our organisations, the idea of putting ourselves through experiences where we develop our spontaneity muscles further, thus reducing our fight or flight anxiety response to the corporately unknown becomes an important part of our ongoing personal development.
And then…what do you know? There are a plethora of very talented improvisers just itching to help out.