I’ve been made to think recently about the importance and power of improvising, and how it applies to leadership. I’ve always admired musical improvisation, as there’s so much involved. It also feels different from how many people view organisational life. After all, an organisation needs to be organised.
But the reality is that organisational life also demands the skills of improvisation, especially at the top. The leadership activities of an organisation look scripted, with lots of scheduled meetings and plans laid out long in advance. What really happens is a lot of improvising, responding to the unexpected, and making decisions quickly with limited information. Improvising is an executive talent.
Rules of executive improvisation
Improvisation is deceptive because while it looks like the rule-breaking, it is only successful when you are completely familiar with the rules.
The apparent freedom of improvisation comes from knowing what the rules enable and how constraints help. What rules might be helpful to you in becoming a more effective executive? Here are three ideas:
Know your instrument
Great improvisors explore their instrument. Off stage, they practice their scales and arpeggios, their riffs and tough patterns. They do the boring grunt work of keeping in shape when there’s no applause. They also explore the depths of their instrument, the alternative fingerings, the different sound qualities available and the extremes of range. That way everything is available when they want it on stage.
Your instrument is you – your innate talents, your mind and your personality. Get to know it, by seeking out growth challenges, noticing your strengths and experimenting with new ideas. This is where a meditation practice gives you the strength to stay balanced in moments that could throw you.
Know the rules
To be effective in your role means knowing the rules in depth. Not just the overt, written rules of the organisation’s culture, but the hidden rules that underlie every group’s activities. Learn also the universal rules, the scientifically based ideas that explain why some groups are effective and others are not. These aren’t just the rules of leadership but the rules of collaboration, innovation and participation.
Treat the rules as constraints, like those of 12-bar blues, that help your colleagues coordinate with you, and help you contribute without having to worry about certain questions. Questions such as ‘what’s next? Is it my turn? What notes can I play?’
Break the rules
Great improvisers know the rules so well, they can break them to great effect. They know why the rules are there, how they set the frame and how they hinder innovation. So they break them in just the right spot, in just the right way, to generate something new, while still moving towards the goal. They are able to maintain the integrity of the whole piece, and the whole genre, while extending its possibilities.
You also have that option. When you understand the core Tasks of your role you can break the existing rules to explore rules that work better. Rules about meetings, communications, documents, timing, competition, and decision-making that need to change for new circumstances. That’s why some executives only have meetings standing up, use agendas sparingly, seek collaborative projects with competitors, run design sprints with junior colleagues or introduce mindfulness as an organisational habit.
Of course this is up to you. There are plenty of roles where it’s important to perform well according to the script or score that’s already laid out. Strategy, consistency and persistence are important.
However, real growth and improvement mean going out to the edge and expanding it. That’s where improvisation is a valuable approach, and in executive life, as in music, can be the mode for discovering a new path forwards.
Choose a couple of rules – about meetings, decisions, communications or people – and develop an improvisation strategy. Experiment, take calculated risks, break the rules and discover how to be a better leader.