Improvisation or Agile?

1 A reflection on improvisation within organizations

An overarching definition for Improvisation could be as described as “Improvisation thus involves dealing with the unforeseen without the benefit of preparation” (Hadida, Tarvainen, & Rose, 2015, p. 440). The article “A Consolidating Review and Framework” by Hadida provides an extensive list of definitions for improvisation in organizations. Time, deliberate action and information are the most commonly used elements for improvisation derived from a comprehensive list of publications ranging from 1990 to 2011. These three elements can be summarized with the following attributes: 

  • Time: immediate, unforeseen, real-time or as it unfolds. 
  • Action: a reaction to an action, intuition guiding action, invention and spontaneous creation or behaviour. 
  • Information: lack of prior knowledge, lack of insight or precognition, without planning, unanticipated factors or just simply doing something in a new way. 

Improvisation is difficult to be positioned into a single universal container as stated by Hadida because improvisation is seen differently in various contextual settings, which result in a lack of a universal consolidating framework for improvisation.

2 How can improvisation be fostered?

To help select the degree and level of improvisation most suitable to a specific situation, Hadida makes an effort to provide a degree/level framework as a dynamic analytical and diagnostic tool. Hadida’s framework measures the degree and level of organizational improvisation. On the one side, the degree of improvisation ranges from minor improvisation which is referred to as a spontaneous reaction to more structural improvisation or similar to changing the rules or framework for a situation. On the other side, Hadida differentiated an engagement in improvisation from individual improvisation to improvisation between two people or improvisation among a group of people. Hadida suggests that by understanding a situation the level and degree framework helps to understand how improvisation can be applied.

In addition to a framework, a culture for improvisation is essential. An article by MIT Sloan and a TED Talk of Morris (“The Way of Improvisation,” 2011) suggest that creating suitable conditions for improvisation by providing an organizational culture that accepts change positively and is empowered to make local decisions, an organization that has more frequent face-to-face meetings coupled with a sense of accountability and responsibility, and an organization with agile management approaches, techniques, and tools. Notable is that the level of accepting failure is less explicit with MIT Sloan. However, all three sources suggest that the fundamental for improvisation to foster in an organization is the readiness to accept failure, a willingness to learn from mistakes and openness towards change. Hadida refers to his framework and points out that in established organizations a structural and organizational improvisation may still be unlikely. Virtual or scrum-like teams, open innovation systems and existence for flexible working hours are providing a foundation for organizations to support improvisation. 

According to the MIT Sloan article a level of Improvisation can also be dependent on the background or experience of a team, interpersonal skills of team members and the motivation of a team. MIT Sloan focuses primarily on the positive outcomes of improvising teams. Although Hadida also refers to publications by Crossan, Sorrenti and Cunha implying that improvisation rests on the background and experience of a person. Hadida does highlight the possibility of an unsuccessful or negative outcome by improvisation and harm caused through unskilled improvisations. Hadida points to publications that even refer to potential psychological burnout resulting from over-improvisation, perfectionism and over expending resources, energy and time that cannot be maintained or sustained over time. It can be concluded that a new incident to be improvised upon should be difficult enough to pose a challenge and to create a state of mind favourable of creating a flow. However, Hadida continues referring to publications by Kamoche, Cunha and Weick which indicate that an overemphasis on improvisation can hinder the development of experience-based teams.

A preliminary neuroscientific research study by Limb focuses on trying to understand where inside a brain improvisation is triggered (“TEDxMidAtlantic 2010 – Charles Limb – 11/5/10,” 2010). According to Limb preliminary findings, improvisation triggers similar brain activity which is responsible for language and speech. Thus, improvisation is a skill that can be learned as pointed out by Giardella in an interview on improvisation (“Using Improvisation to Develop Leadership,” 2013). To do the thing one is most afraid of, high stake listening as if the life of a topic would depend on it, being in the moment and saying yes to the unexpected are core skills for improvisation mentioned by Giardella. Having a relationship to the other person and making them look good, knowing what the other person wants and at any moment to be able to say “yes and” are improvisation skills that can be trained. According to Giardella, mistakes should not matter and therefore more emphasis should be put on how to rebound from a mistake or to focus one’s attention to the upcoming task. 

3 Reflections for improvisation in a fast-paced business context

Improvisation needs frames and rules that are favourable to allow creativity to be funnelled and channelled. Such rules need to be challenging and allow for an outcome to be unpredictable. As with a good game, the best player cannot always win. Thus business improvisation can work and create something new if combined in a setting where the element of play exist (“Using Improvisation to Develop Leadership,” 2013) or aspects where gamification is present. Improvisation just as innovation is an organizational style that has to be lived and embraced. If an organizational culture does not accept mistakes, does not allow for ambiguity, is focused on micro-management or where management tries to keep control and takes credit for the success, then innovation or improvisation will not enfold. In many traditional companies, readiness for failure is against common management principles. Education and Training of staff are tools to limit improvisational responses. Additionally, processes in companies are in place to limit failure and to guide inexperienced staff to deliver towards an organization’s desired outcome. Legal or punitive implications for a company are also avoided if processes are followed, which ultimately limit improvisation.  

Structural improvisation could possibly be accepted in a business context if the consequence of failure is better for the company than no action or response at all. For example, in a crisis situation of a company, a bad press response is better than no response at all. Therefore, improvisation could be considered a last resort. Businesses have developed over time resting on experts and their knowledge on how to do things. The risk of failure resulting from an improvisation could be considered a too high of a price to pay. In highly technology-dependent environments such as the fintech industry, predictive and redundant systems are in place to eliminate the chance of the unforeseen events. The MIT Sloan article states “[…] teams […] be informed about and willing to take risks, and not overly fear potential failure.” Which leaves a lot of room for interpretation of the level of fear or failure accepted by management. In conclusion, though market dynamics are increasing the speed by which companies need to respond. Nowadays there is less time for planning less time for change management projects and thus decisions are made on the go. An agile business style is fundamentally an improvisational approach. Ranging from spontaneous improvisation in daily activities to structural improvisation when new business models are born.

References and Literature

Hadida, A. L., Tarvainen, W., & Rose, J. (2015). Organizational Improvisation: A Consolidating Review and Framework: Organizational Improvisation. International Journal of Management Reviews17(4), 437–459.

TEDxMidAtlantic 2010 – Charles Limb – 11/5/10. (2010, October 12). In TEDx Talks. Retrieved from

The Way of Improvisation. (2011, November 19). In TEDxVictroia. Retrieved from

Using Improvisation to Develop Leadership. (2013, February 25). In MIT Sloan. Retrieved from