Agility demands a balance between planning and improvisation

Mar 14, 2010 by

In my previous post I made reference to a book called “Rework.” One of the assertions put forward by the book’s authors is “Planning is guessing.” It’s easy to see how critics could jump on this but the authors of Rework are pretty clear that they are referring to long-term planning. What’s most interesting is their claim that “Plans are inconsistent with improvisation.” They point out that you must be able to improvise to take advantage of opportunities that come along. I’ll add that you must be able improvise to handle unexpected problems. Of course we each deal with small problems every day but how do you prepare for the problems that generate extreme change?

United States Army officer Major Brian L. Steed refers to situations of extreme change as aberrations. In his book, Piercing the Fog of War, Steed studied seven famous battles in which unrecognized extreme change had a profound effect on victory or defeat. Aberrational events are not simply confined to war. Epistomologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to aberrational events as Black Swans and wrote at length about the concept in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The term Black Swan comes from the 17th century European assumption that “all swans are white” simply because no one had ever seen a black swan. This assumption fell apart when black swans were found in Western Australia in the 18th century. Taleb classifies Black Swan events as having low predictability and high consequence. People attempt to rationalize such events retrospectively by finding ways to explain how they could have been or were predicted. This illusion of retrospective predictability is a form of cognitive bias known as the hindsight bias. We are often encouraged to expect the unexpected yet this seems somewhat nonsensical. If you could expect the unexpected then it wouldn’t be unexpected. Expecting the unexpected is really about being agile enough to respond to unexpected problems when they occur.

In the sport of rallying, the navigator or co-driver helps prepare the driver for what lies ahead by reading off “pacenotes.” This is a form of planning. Yet no pacenotes can give them foresight of aberrational events. A perfect example is the time Federico Villagra and his co-driver Jose Diaz were driving their Ford Focus RS WRC 08 in the first stage of the World Rally Championship Portugal Rally. Racing through the Patagonian hills, they rounded a turn, crested a small hill and drove straight into a herd of wild horses crossing the road!

In business, a similar event would be the sudden appearance of a new competitor with the ability to completely outclass all existing players. The entrance of Google into the Internet search engine business is such an example. Such aberrational events can shock a system and render it unable to respond. Events of a catastrophic nature can produce similar shock. Think about how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 had a sudden, dramatic effect on economics and on people’s lives around the world. These kinds of events are simply outliers and they are very hard to predict and plan for although you can build generally robust systems and organizations that may have a better chance of weathering such storms.

The kind of planning that can be problematic is the highly detailed micro-planning that can limit agility. Ultimately success depends on a balance between planning and improvisation. In music performance you can plan ahead by composing the notes that each musician may play and then rehearsing the act of playing the parts together as an ensemble all before the big performance takes place. If you’re not going to do this then you must be able to improvise the notes to play. Improvisation is not just for jazz musicians although jazz musicians employ it to a large degree. In recent years classical pianist Gabriela Montero has been reviving the lost art of classical improvisation.

Even in jazz performances improvisation may be employed in varying degrees. In a jazz orchestra performance improvisation may only be utilized by specific musicians in certain sections of the music. In a small group performance such as that of a trio or quartet, the musicians might improvise most of the time but even then they are working within a framework of chord changes and playing or at least beginning in a predetermined key and usually with a predetermined tempo. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to practice free improvisation on a regular basis and even more fortunate to get paid for it. In these sessions, which admittedly only employ two or three musicians, we perform for a dance class and play with almost no planning for almost two hours with short breaks. Each piece varies in length between three to ten minutes and begins with the musicians having no idea of key, tempo, meter, groove and or melodic ideas. We determine those things during the course of the performance. Last year and this year I attempted to evolve this concept even further by having a much larger group of musicians perform with the same lack of planning. The results were wildly successful but only because each of the participants was experienced enough in the art of improvisation and understood the need to employ such important principles as putting the health of the ensemble and its performance ahead of their own individual creative explorations, quickly building and maintaining trust and respect, listening and exchanging ideas, and taking the initiative to lead at appropriate times.

The less planning you can do the more agile you can be. However less planning requires that you compensate with strong improvisation. The ability to improvise depends not only on the talents of team members but on the specifics of each situation. You might be a strong improviser but if you’re working with others who may not be able to readily respond to your unplanned actions, you risk destabilizing your team’s efforts. Improvisation may also be unwise when there is a great deal at stake or when an activity is particularly fragile or sensitive to change.

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