The hidden virtues of improvisation


Improvisation in companies is generally considered in two very particular forms. Either it manifests itself to make up for a lack or failure in planning. The improvisation In this case, it participates in the maintenance process of a device that is by nature imperfect, acting as an oil in the gears. Either it expresses the incompetence of the one who, not knowing how to do it, manages as best he can, using only his spontaneity and his so-called "common sense".

Or, if there's one area where improvisation is king, it's jazz. In fact, it attracted the attention of the management sciences more than two decades ago. And what he teaches us seems to be at least partly opposed to this vision of improvisation in business.

In jazz, the rules are silver, improvisation is gold.

First of all, jazzmen renowned for their improvisations are considered to be outstanding musicians. Improvisation is even consubstantial with the spirit of jazz, so much so that one wonders if it is possible to define oneself as a jazzman without knowing how to improvise. Therefore, improvise not the one who does not know, but the one who masters all or part of his art. Better still, his identity as an artist is based on his ability to improvise, to the point, moreover, that his style is recognizable from the very first notes (like a Keith Jarrett, a John Coltrane or a Bill Evans).

Secondly, improvisation is not a second-best solution on the fringes of a set practice. It systematically feeds the process of musical creation. It does not correct the failures of a planned operation. It is integrated in a programmed way in the activity of artistic production.

Moreover, certain jazz movements have been built up through the space they have offered to improvised activity. Thus, swing proposes to expose a pre-written theme followed by improvised parts in which each instrument expresses itself. Miles Davis takes improvisation a step further by proposing a theme that is little or not written down, giving free rein to improvisation of the structure of the piece. Finally, free jazz plays the card of unbridled improvisation based on minimalist rules such as "3mn" and "no end".

Jazz improvisation is thus the place where a piece that emerges from a conversation is produced. The rhythmic interacts with a recurring theme within which improvised creative moments bring the piece to life.

But to what extent can organizations, on the model of jazz, think about places and/or moments of improvisation? How can an organizational structure essentially designed to guarantee the stability and reproducibility of a system shamelessly admit improvisation as a condition for its success?

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Improvisation in the workplace: some virtuous practices

Some companies have begun to ask themselves this question and to find answers to it. This is the case of a major French bank. In these troubled times for banks, these organisations are making intensive use of procedures that attempt to map out all their practices, from the first contacts in branches to the highest and most comprehensive decisions.

However, one retail bank decided, in the face of competition from online banks, to enhance the value of its branches by transforming them from pure points of sale under control into customer experience spaces.

Yesterday, an agency was completely centrally designed: the interior architecture, opening hours, staff schedules, and the way in which customers interact with the agency were decided by headquarters and common to all agencies. The pace of the agency was also subject to that of the head office and its decision-making processes.


We can improvise, even in the bank. Sean Hayford Oleary/Flickr

Today, each agency is free to choose its own interior design; it defines its schedules according to its sector; its employees follow schedules adapted to the peak frequency of client visits; it builds part of its rhythm and intensity of operation on client "life moments", key events (weddings, deaths, accidents) whose emotional impact requires particular vigilance on the part of the employee; finally, the head office agrees to suspend its processes to adapt to requests from the agencies in the field, adjustments facilitated by the creation of personal relationships between agency and head office employees.

This transformation did not happen overnight. It was decided by the Directorate General, launched at national level, carried out locally by the regional directorates and implemented by the agency directors. Very quickly, field staff became wary of the limits to the freedom offered to them, already perfectly illustrating the conditions for a fair interaction between structure and improvisation. To the great surprise, for example, of the Grenoble branch staff, the regional management responded positively to all their proposals, proposals that had been collectively developed during the opening hours of the branch that had been closed for the occasion.

The collective, autonomy and initiative

Above all, this implementation was accompanied by the organisation of real "rehearsals" in the musical sense of the term, during which the agency staff played situations relating to these "moments of life", not to derive standardised procedures, but for :

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  1. get back to the real work;

  2. to grasp, within an activity which is necessarily partly planned, the existence of unpredictable, but recurring and constitutive moments in the life of the agency;

  3. accept the fact that they are so complex that they cannot be programmed in the smallest details, but that they mobilize individual and collective initiative and ingenuity.

What is this capacity for initiative if not the ability to improvise in the face of an event, to mobilize what the Greeks called practical (or situational) intelligence? But this improvisation is, like jazz, embedded, encased in a structuring device notably composed of a physical place, computer tools and above all, a purpose. It is always a question of providing a banking service that is technically efficient and humanely respectful of individual singularities, those of the employees in the way they draw on their own resources echoing those of the clients, each immersed in his or her own "moment of life".

This willingness to integrate indeterminacy into a structure in a programmed way is not new and has already taken various forms. For example, Toyota has been known for decades (to the point where it has become a model) for having allowed each operator to stop the production process. Indeed, in Japanese culture, every material resource is by its very nature susceptible to unexpected and surprising behaviour. It is therefore the one who is closest to it who is best able to grasp the signs.

In another register, 7-Eleven, a Japanese convenience retail chain, has relocated purchasing decisions for products sold. Each neighbourhood store chooses, independently, the products it offers for sale based on its observations of its customers and their consumption habits.

Programmed improvisation, a new framework for thinking and acting

In these multiple cases, improvisation is not reduced to compensate for the failures of a planning that is desired as perfect. It would only be, in this case, a spontaneous improvisation made necessary by the critical context. Nor is it confined to places in which they would naturally be overvalued, such as R&D laboratories in which engineering handymen would work.

On the other hand, it is deliberately inscribed in a complementarity with planned/scripted/proceduralized interactions that do not disappear, but frame places in which life flows with all its indeterminacy.

Programming improvisation in the organization, as jazzmen do in a musical structure supposes, finally, to accept that contingency, indeterminacy, uncertainty are not soluble in planning, programming, algorithm; that in front of the "aberrant" event the solution is not to accumulate procedures, forecasts or reporting.

From then on, there are specific learning and exercise modalities for improvisation, as Frank J. Barrett has shown in his book Yes to the mess. Moreover, improvising leads to seeing one's stock of past experiences not as a set of acquired certainties, but as hypotheses to be tested in the present situation. This vision resonates with the words of Confucius, who said that "Experience is a lantern that one carries on one's back and that never illuminates anything but the path travelled".

An organization able to live serenely with planning and improvisation must finally be able to identify areas of complexity that create added value, in line with its strategy. By leaving room for these areas for employees to exercise their talents, it may have an essential lever to improve the commitment of its members, to combine productivity and pleasure at work.





Raffi Duymedjian...Associate Professor, Jean-Marc PistorelloInterverting innovation, and Marc PrunierHead of Pedagogical Engineering, Grenoble École de Management (GEM)

The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.

Header image: The Jazz Singers, Gil Mayers, 1997The Conversation



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