Improvisation and Innovation

In an age of continuous (and discontinuous) change,it is generally agreed by business academics that an organisation’s best defence against extinction is to become a Learning or Agile Organisation. Continuous learning and agility requires creativity and improvisation skills to face new situations. I was recently reminded by a client that, over 20 years of practice, I have helped individuals, teams and organisations learn creativity and improvisation using music, drama and art, relating these lessons to the hard realities of businesses – machines that prefer order over the unknown and unknowable.

The question I am often asked by clients is “How do you plan to improvise?” Not only can one plan to improvise, it is essential – in the words of Paul Simon:

“Improvisation is too important to be left to chance”

Somewhat paradoxically, improvisation relies on discipline if something is to emerge from the process, rather than endless doodling. So, here are my 5 top principles for improvisation in music with relevant parallels for business innovators:

  1. In music it helps to start in a new place from time to time – e.g. switch to an unfamiliar instrument or start a piece from a different point – for example drums not words. In business, to make new things to happen, sometimes it’s important to break the innovation template, rearrange it so that you start from a new place.Innovators are uniquely able to help businesses redesign or break the template, depending on the degree of change that is needed
  2. Start new musical compositions earlier. This allows for things to develop organically rather than along the usual lines.  This is one of the most difficult parallels to find in business as time is considered crucial and things are often done at the last minute, leaving little room for ingenuity.  Equally anyone who is serious about innovation in business makes time to start new enterprises early to allow ideas to ferment and mature.
  3. Leave pauses for reflection in music composition. This allows new approaches and perspectives to emerge.  At work this means building in slack time into a project allows for innovation to creep in. This is consistent with Wallas’ (1926) notion of incubation in the act of creation as discussed in my new book “Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise”. Innovation leaders ensure that their people reflect and learn along the way in projects using coaching, mentoring and other approaches that induce a state of mindfulness.
  4. Listen intently to your work and listen anew for things you had not at first heard. Listening is a directly transferable skill in developing new products and services in business. Again, it’s something that all great leaders model and provide when people are too busy to hear what’s being said.
  5. To improvise, you need to use mindfulness AND mindlessness in music – stay focused on the piece and stay in the moment.  Occasionally try things that seem crazy at first – give these ideas greater space to develop. Focus is essential for business, yet it’s not sufficient if your business is innovation. You must welcome the unknown and unknowable into your company if you are to produce sustainable advantage.

So, try a little improvisation at your next meeting and plan to forgive yourself and others if it feels a bit shaky the first time round.

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  1. By Enterprise Architecture

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