Improvisation as a Way of Dealing with Ambiguity and Complexity

2010 Volume 13 Issue 3

As “process” becomes less relevant in today’s flexible organizations, can organizational improvisation produce “emerging best practice?”



“The Times, They Are A-Changin,”[1] Bob Dylan said, or rather, sang in 1963, but as an anthem for the 2000s, he was right on the button. Organizations are changing, and changing quickly, and managers who do not recognize—and more importantly—react, to this emerging truth, will struggle to compete as markets become more demanding and competition intensifies.

Change is driven by a number of inter-related phenomena, notably:

  1. the turbulence of environments;
  2. the need for organizations to respond quickly to changing environments;
  3. increasingly sophisticated, demanding, knowledgeable, and discerning customers; and
  4. the shortening of product and service life-cycles.

Put simply, we as consumers want more choices, better quality, faster and more convenient delivery, and all at a lower price!

This requires significant change on the part of traditional organizations, and we have seen a shift away from hierarchical, “command and control,” micro-managed operational styles toward an organizational model based on “flattened” hierarchies, increased flexibility and local autonomy, the increased importance of inter and intra-organizational networks, of and self-directed, self-designed work. However, such a radical shift in organizational “style” also requires major changes in the way in which culture, motivation, commitment, and trust are addressed. Essentially, work is becoming less “formalized,” more “complex,”[2] and more “improvisational.”

This leads to a view that improvisation, which developed from Karl Weick’s early work on “sensemaking,”[3] and which has evolved through comparison to jazz,[4] and theatrical[5] improvisation, can assist in this shift. Improvisation has been accepted both conceptually[6] and empirically,[7] and has a genuine contribution to make in resolving the issues of complexity[8] and ambiguity that organizations are grappling with in these turbulent times.

Indeed, employees are arguably becoming more like entrepreneurs, or maybe “intrapreneurs,” in that they are often expected to innovate in “real time” within their organizations to resolve issues as they arise. This is the essence of improvisation, and it is also linked to an emerging area known as effectuation,[9] which involves problem solving through human actions in environments that are essentially unpredictable.

Components of Improvisation

So, what is improvised work about, and more importantly, what are the “components” of improvisation?

In 1998, academics at the University of Wisconsin[10] identified and documented three elements of improvisation: creativity, intuition, and bricolage.[11]

In other words, improvisation involves using an element of creative thought, combined with an intuitive feel for what will assist in the resolution of a particular problem. Bricolage, which essentially means “utilizing the resources at hand,” indicates that the improviser has only limited resources to apply. Bricolage comes into play because it is unlikely that the improviser in a given circumstance will have time to mobilize additional resources. This is a significant limitation at times when organizations are trying to achieve increased performance with reduced means.

Improvisation is also closely linked with time, and in particular the pressure to achieve a demanding or compressed timetable. Improvisation in this context is defined as: “…the degree to which composition and execution converge in time.”[12] It follows from this that the less the time between the design and implementation, the more that activity is improvisational. This temporal link between two activities is important in judging the degree of improvisation required in the activity.

Arguably, there are other constructs that link with the concept of improvisation, including “socialization,” given that group-based activity arguably produces more “robust” improvisational interventions, and “prototyping,” in that there are strong parallels between improvisation and new product development.[13]

In 2001, four additional elements or “constructs of improvisation” emerged from the literature[14]: adaptation, innovation, compression, and learning. Adaptation refers to the “adapting” of one of a personal store of previously successful interventions or improvised routines to assist in resolving emerging requirements. Adept and experienced improvisers innovate at the personal level in order to leverage previous practice and existing routines to solve organizational problems. Compression shortens intended timescales in order to deliver or resolve problems in less time. Learning is the outcome from successful, and indeed from unsuccessful, improvisation, in that effective interventions can join the personal library of successful improvised applications of the experienced improviser. Learning from less effective improvised activity is equally important.

Improvisation Ecology

It is evident that experienced and adept improvisers can circumvent routine and process, and deliver resolutions to problems quickly and effectively. In organizations where the culture and working styles are supportive of improvised work practices, employees can quickly develop a store of effective interventions that can be adapted and re-used. Often, this skill is linked with “experience” i.e. “this is an experienced manager.” This can however require a degree of risk tolerance that some organizations find difficult to engage with.

The next step is to capture successful improvisational activity and “codify” it—and in doing so, make the shift from “tacit” to “explicit” knowledge, that can be shared within the organization for wider benefit. This requires that the organization supports and encourages improvisational activity, and has a culture that does not denounce or worse, punish “failure.”

This is essential, as one of the outcomes of research in this area is that in many organizations, “failed” or ineffective improvisation is stigmatized, leading many employees to improvise “surreptitiously.” Moving away from “planned” activity involves discarding the shared responsibility that comes from consensus-based planning, and it exposes improvised activity to intense scrutiny. Lack of organizational support can therefore drive effective and adept improvising managers “underground.”

A Taxonomy of Improvisation

Given the importance and likely influences documented in this section, it is useful to develop a taxonomy of improvisational competence to assist with the management of complex and challenging work.

Figure 1: Improvisation Characteristics – Creativity -v- Analytical Adaptability

In Figure 1 a simple matrix is proposed that classifies activity along two axes: “creativity” and “analytical adaptability.” The intention is to assist organizations to identify situations where improvisation could reasonably be beneficial. The matrix can also help to understand what practices and procedures are relevant to organizations in similar regions of the diagram.


The creativity axis is characterized as high and low. High creativity is associated with dramatic change, numerous risk events, and situations with many unknowns. These changes should be fundamental and more than simple incremental variation and cost escalation.

Analytical Adaptability

This axis recognizes the fact that improvisational work needs to be based on and linked with traditional analytical tools and techniques, such as the production and analysis of decision-making data (e.g. to estimate costs and scheduling). However, particularly early in the planning cycle, much creativity may be required in data collection and analysis. Questions to be answered include: Is the data typical, or did special conditions hold? Is the design facing major revisions? Are the underlying assumptions no longer valid?

If the answer to these types of questions is “yes,” then we ask the fundamental question, “Can improvised activity assist?”

In Figure 1 the vertical axis describes the level of creative challenge, which can be high or low. The horizontal axis describes the level of analytical adaptability, which again can be high or low.

For the purposes of this matrix, creativity can be considered as an “assumption breaking process,” in that it defies the acknowledged and accepted paradigm in a specific area or for a specific process.

On the other axis, analytical adaptability is considered as a “tool breaking process,” in that it defies the acknowledged and accepted paradigm for the tools and techniques. Analytical adaptability is required when the processes or the cost and schedule data are unpredictable—that is, significantly outside of their expected bounds—and the tools and techniques generally associated with activity planning appear to be predicting results well beyond a simple cost or schedule overrun. It is now appropriate to move to an explanation of the matrix.

An example from the IT sector will be given for each quadrant in the matrix, in order to contextualize the concept.

Box One: High Creativity, Low Analytical Adaptability

Smaller non-profit organizations tend to fall in this category. Non-profits often encompass creative arts organizations conducting fund-raising projects or putting on performances. They typically require considerable creative energy, but the activity often resembles previous efforts: previous fund raisers or previous performances. Therefore, while this requires considerable creativity, the analytical aspect is often similar to previous efforts and is therefore low on the analytical adaptability scale. Web page development for new markets would fall into this quadrant.

Box Two: Low Creativity, Low Analytical Adaptability

Here we have work such as incremental software maintenance and Information Technology (IT) activity, which requires relatively low creativity. Maintenance work typically inherits characteristics from the already existing parent system, which presumably has existed for a while. Therefore, relatively low creativity is also required, since maintenance changes are unlikely to require a redesign of the underlying system.

In box two, we do not expect the activity to require much in the way of new or innovative tools to analyze the project. Maintenance activity typically exists in a regime where the processes and tools are already rigorously defined, and the team is expected to follow existing protocols.

Box Three: High Creativity, High Analytical Adaptability

The pharmaceutical and drug industries characterize activity with both very high creativity and highly adaptable analytical requirements. New drugs require research and development, which is unpredictable, and calls for high degrees of creativity. Drug development is both highly regulated and expensive, so there is a great deal of analytical work to plan the development, and closely monitor the cost and schedule during the trials and acceptance. A high degree of analytical adaptability is also required to manage the project through the lengthy process with its many changes in direction. Strategic IT systems would fall within this quadrant.

Box Four: Low Creativity, High Analytical Adaptability

Here we have activity with very high analytical requirements but low creativity. Many types of Department of Defense and other large public sector projects fall in this category. The government imposes many and varied standards and procedures. While data reporting and analysis requirements in this category of activity are significant, the work is developed to a very specific and pre-existing scope statement, on which compromise and the use of immature process is rarely possible. Backroom accounting systems would also fall within this quadrant.


The logical outcome from this matrix is that creative improvisation is likely to be more evident, and indeed more effective, in certain environments. In some domains, considerable analytical creativity can be brought to bear to evolve new and innovative ways to allow adept and motivated employees to develop new ways of achieving required activity. An example of this is the development of the Grameen Bank, where bricolage and significant creative leeway is required to circumvent and adapt traditional banking models to operate effectively in a “third world” environment.

The skill in improvisation is in knowing when to relax the framework that surrounds proscribed activity in organizations, and when to impose a greater degree of rigor and structure. Realistically, this will depend on two factors:

That is, employing creativity will depend on the degree of trust and confidence that strategic managers have in the ability of employees to improvise effectively. As this trust and confidence increases, the degree of rigor and structure can be relaxed.

Managing the tension between improvisation and control is a challenge for modern organizations, but is one that needs to be addressed. Evidence suggests that traditional routines for “micro-managing” organizational activity will not deliver the flexibility and agility required in modern organizations, and will not resolve the ambiguity and complexity that are inherent in modern organizational work.

This tension is real, and complicates the relationship between proscribed activity and improvised creativity. It is apparent that those organizations that successfully manage the tension between process and improvisation effectively will benefit in the turbulent organizational environments that make up tomorrow’s challenging business landscape. As an example of this, innovative organizations like Grameen Bank are demonstrating that rethinking traditional business sectors can generate dramatic change from very small beginnings.

[1] Dylan, Bob, “The Times They Are a-Changin” (Columbia Records, 1963).

[2] For an interesting exposition of complexity in organizations, Ralph Stacey’s work on organizations as “complex adaptive systems” is highly recommended reading.

[3] Weick, Karl E., The Social Psychology of Organizing [2nd edition], (Addison-Wesley, 1979).

[4] Hatch, M.J., “Exploring the Empty Pages of Organizing: How Improvisational Jazz Helps Redescribe Organizational Structure” Organization Studies, 20, no. 1 (1999): 75-100.

[5] Vera, D. and M. Crossan, “Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for Organizations” Organization Studies, 25, No. 5 (2004): 727-749.

[6] e Cunha M.P., J.V. da Cunha, and K. Kamoche, “Organizational Improvisation: what, when, how and why?” International Journal of Management Reviews, 1, No. 3 (1999): 299-341.

[7] Miner, A.S., P. Bassoff, and C. Moorman, “Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 46, (2001): 304-337.

[8] Lewin, R., Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, (New York: Macmillon, 1992).

[9] Effectuation is outside the scope of this paper, being an interesting subject in itself. However, for more information on effectuation, see Sarasvathy, S.D., Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise (Cheltenham, Glos: Edward Elgar, 2008).

[10] Moorman C. and A.S. Miner, “The Convergence of Planning and Execution: Improvisation in New Product Development,” Journal of Marketing, 62, No. 3, (1998/July): 1-20.

[11] Bricolage can be literally translated from the French or Spanish to mean “do-it-yourself,” and in this context, it means doing the best job you can with the human, physical, and financial resources that you have at your disposal at that time.

[12] Moorman, C. and A.S. Miner, “Organizational Improvisation and Organizational Memory,” Academy of Management Review, 23 No. 4 (1998): 698.

[13] See note 10 above.

[14] Miner, A.S., P. Bassoff, and C. Moorman, “Organizational Improvisation and Learning: A Field Study,” Administrative Science Quarterly 46 (2001) 304-337.

About the Author(s)

Stephen A. Leybourne, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Boston University, and has published widely on improvisation in organizations. Prior to joining his current institution, he completed his PhD at Cardiff Business School, and then taught for seven years at Plymouth Business School, both in the UK. Leybourne's research has been recognized with "best paper" awards at the AOM conference in Atlanta in 2006, and at the 18th World Business Congress in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2009. He is an editorial board member of the Project Management Journal, and is particularly interested in improvisational activity within the project domain. Before joining academia, Dr. Leybourne was a senior executive in the UK banking sector.

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