Leadership – the art of improvisation

In her fabulous book, From Workspace to Playspace, Pamela Meyer, extols the benefits of developing a play culture within an organisation. As a facilitator and consultant using applied theatre techniques, games and activities to help organisations innovate and transform, I read her book joyfully! I am often asked, how will playing help this organisation? How can it help create better leaders? And my answer is that it is not just playing as in setting up a ping pong table for use during breaks, or a few balls of colourful play dough during meetings – although these can be great fun! It’s about the mindset. A mindset that welcomes experimentation, new possibilities, spontaneity, safety to express ideas, plenty of room for failure and adaptation, humour, all part of an indispensable skill: improvisation. Improvisation is ‘…the ability to react honestly, in the moment, at the top of your intelligence,’ says Bob Kulhan, CEO of Business Improvisation (www.businessimprov.com), a US company that specialises in corporate improvisation programs. Kulhan, an adjunct professor at the Fuqua Business School at Duke University makes clear connections between improvisation and the skills needed by leaders and change agents in organisations. With many organisations struggling to adapt to the relentlessly shifting economic environment and accommodate the increasing expectations for personal fulfilment of employees, improvisation is an important skill. The ability to be ‘nimble, flexible, adaptive…to tweak focus…get the best out of people in mid-stride,’ says Kulhan, is unquestionably valuable. Meyer agrees. Referring to her research she writes that executives and managers reported being called to improvise as much as 2/3 of the time. As she rightly points out, this is an enormous amount of time on a task for which most people are inadequately trained. Playspace, or what can also be called the aesthetic space in theatre speak, offers the opportunity to develop the leadership skills offered through improvisation.

First, to improvise it is necessary to be able to listen and to be flexible; to be present and to recognise what is in the space and allow it to emerge.

Otto Scharmer, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an award-winning designer of leadership programs. He calls this kind of awareness ‘presencing’. A ‘letting go and letting come turning point’ in which there is a consciousness of the real obstacles and awareness of the willingness to work together and co-create a desired future.

A mindset welcoming of play offers the safety necessary for this to occur. This is a space where it is safe to take risks, step into unknown areas and experiment.

In improvisational theatre there are certain principles adhered to in performances, one of these is that ‘mistakes are invitations’. In other words, there are no mistakes, only opportunities for players to be more creative and break patterns. Similarly, in a culture that nurtures a mindset of play, looking beyond existing patterns and embracing challenges, are approaches that will lead to innovation and transformation at all levels of the organisation.

In terms of leadership this may mean giving up the power, control and status that comes with an assigned role, and allowing the ‘true force’ of transformation emerge.

Second, the more chance to improvise the more confidence arises in individuals to deal with the unexpected. Conversely, the more confident a person feels, through practice, the more willing to improvise and explore ‘alternate possibilities’. It is a win-win scenario that reinforces itself with time.

The fact is that in spite of a dominant belief that all has been analysed, planned and is ‘under control’, improvisation is an integral part of strong leadership and successful organisational development.

“Uncertainty will always be part of the taking charge process”

Harold S. Geneen