The Art of Improvisation

How nimble are you?  How well do you think on your feet?

When life hands you lemons in a moment can you make the proverbial lemonade?  Or do you freeze up like a deer in the headlights?

As leaders, we’re expected to rise to the challenge of sudden stress and change and deftly maneuver to the best possible outcome.  This skill is the art of improvisation.

Looking back, I remember many lessons in my secondary school and college days when teachers and coaches put me in a position that helped me hone this skill:

  • Sports – Making quick decisions or get the stuffing knocked out of me.
  • Speech class – Getting up and speaking extemporaneously on some random topic (e.g., “What is the orange stuff on Cheetos made of?”)
  • Drama – Delighting the class during improv hour (e.g.,  “you are a small flower emerging from your seed, stretching to the sun”)
  • Music – No notice random improv solo time during Jazz Band (e.g., “1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, Jason-2-3-GO!”)

For me, these are mostly fond memories, although I must admit that that I think there were a few times that a slightly disturbed coach or teacher took wee bit of pleasure in watching my eyes get the size of navel oranges when I was suddenly face-to-face with a challenge that required IMMEDIATE action.

At the time, I never thought how important learning this skill was. I failed many times, but learned with each failure and success.  And more and more over time I began to succeed as I continuously honed this skill.

Life is highly dynamic. And improvisation is a skill that helps us deal with dynamic variables.  It requires spontaneity, grit, creativity, flexibility, innovation, and sometimes serendipity.  It requires an element of “gut feel” and intuition.  But most importantly, it requires ACTION.  Without action, we are back to being the deer in the headlights…and that just never turns out good.

In life, there are limitless applications for the art of improvisation; relationships, parenting, sports, music, work, etc.  However, I want to focus now on how we apply this to the workplace.

Interestingly, in contrast to our schooling years where this skill is taught through a variety of lessons, it is rarely talked about in the workplace.  But necessary?  Absolutely!

I have a favorite quote by Tony Robbins, “You can’t always control the wind, but you can control your sails.”  I paraphrase this often for mentees by saying, “You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you CAN control your reaction.”  That reaction often involves improvisation.

But what is improvisation? There are many definitions like extemporaneous action, impromptu behavior, in the moment response to an unplanned stimuli, or my favorite – “winging it”.

So how does improvisation manifest itself for us as leaders in the workplace?  Leaders are expected to lead the team to whatever the goal may be, often regardless of the variables.  Therefore, a leader must be an expert in dealing with the dynamics.

What happens if your CEO stops you in the hallway and asks you a random question?  How will you respond?  What happens if you’re in a meeting with a client or customer and they unexpectedly tell you that they are dropping your account?  How would you react?  What if your PowerPoint freezes up while delivering a critcal presentation?  What will you do? Would you panic?  Or would you overcome?  These are all situations that may require some level of spontaneity, grit, creativity, flexibility, innovation, gut, intuition, and action.  In other words, improvisation.

A quick caveat – although we are focusing on it in this post, improvisation isn’t the answer to everything.  A good leader also knows which situations require improvisation and which require more time, thought and planning.  As an example, if you try to “wing it” when delivering an executive presentation, speaking at an analyst conference, or conducting a media interview instead of planning and preparing, you may find yourself in hot water.  However, improvisation may come in as you have to deftly answer an off the wall question during that same situation.

So is improvisation really “winging it”? My opinion is ‘yes and no’.  There is an element of being able to quickly process information (the variables), determine a course of action, and then act.  This may be the “winging it”, quick agile response, or improv portion.  However, it’s not all happenstance either.  While some would say improvisation is about doing things without preparation, I would argue that improvisation (with a good outcome) is based largely on preparation.

I remember doing a live media interview with CNBC on my company’s response to Hurricane Katrina, when Maria Bartiromo asked me a left field question about the financial impact to the company.  I’m not a financial expert and this was not in the plan or topic list for discussion.  Quite frankly, for a split second, my heart jumped in my throat.  However, because of great preparation by my dear friends on our corporate affairs team, I didn’t skip a beat as I told her “I don’t know.  That is not my area of expertise.” and brought the conversation back to the response efforts.  Good preparation led to a good outcome even though I had to improvise.

Here are some ways you can hone your improvisation skills:

  1. Build a solid foundation.
    • Know. Know what you should know.  Have your core knowledge and skills down pat.  You need to have a good foundation from which to respond, act and make decisions from.  Know your business.
    • Prepare. Think through scenarios before they happen.  Role play in your mind (or with others) how you would respond to unexpected challenges, questions, or actions.  Mentally and/or physically practicing through the various options helps you narrow down potential decision paths and makes your reaction time quicker.  There is also an aspect of developing muscle-memory (like in sports) where given a certain situation, you react a certain way, although you need to remain flexible so you don’t only have “one response” to a given situation.  Think through options (e.g., If they say or do X, then I could do A, B or C ).
    • Expand…your mind that is.  Get other’s perspectives on how they would handle a given situation.  Learn from other’s experiences.  Challenge the way that you think.  It will help you have a greater repertoire to pull from when the time comes.
  2. Breathe. Unexpected occurrences can sometimes knock the wind out of you or take you aback.  So, if you have it, take a second to take a deep breath (you may need more than one – but don’t do it too much or you will hyperventilate).  Seriously. From a physiological standpoint, your ‘fight or flight’ instincts have likely kicked in and your brain needs the oxygen to help process information under stress.  From a leadership standpoint, your people need to see you as “the rock” – calm, cool, confident and collected.
  3. Act! – You won’t always have all the information or time you need to make a decision.  But, at some point (usually sooner rather than later) you need to come up with the best course of action and GO!  Act! Trust yourself. I’ve often told people that for all the time you put in to thinking, planning, and preparing with all of your skill, experience, and ability, if you don’t act, you didn’t accomplish anything.

Now with all things, everything is based upon the variables and you need to respond and react appropriately with good judgment.  Improvisation is only one of many skills that a good leader needs to keep sharpened, but a very important one to put in your locker nonetheless.

So, how sharp are your improvisation skills?




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