When executing a project, improvisation happens whenever we depart from the plan. Since most projects entail at least some small steps into unexplored territory, their plans are somehow incomplete or incorrect. When we discover the conflicts between a plan and reality, we halt and replan if we have time, and we improvise if we don't. We usually improvise.
Here is Part I of a set of guidelines and insights that help make improvisational approaches more effective. Part II explores project improvisation as a group process. Part III addresses connections between project improvisation and risk management. This Part I examines the fundamentals of project improvisation.
- Educate everyone in advance
- The defining characteristic of projects is that we've never done anything quite like them before. The inevitable surprises create a need to improvise. To view the need to improvise as either a defect in the plan or a defect in the planner is a critical error.
- Educate all concerned, in advance, that improvisation is a normal and natural part of project work. Attempting such education at the moment of need is counterproductive, because it seems like defensive rationalization.
- The plan ends when improvisation begins
- When improvisation begins, its effect on the parts of the plan in which we still believe are unknown. We have to take time to understand the full impact of the improvisation.
- While it's certainly possible that large portions of the plan can remain in place, the effects of improvisation can be subtle and unexpected. A thoughtful review of the entire plan is required.
- Denying improvisation leads to uncontrolled improvisation
- Some organizational cultures want to believe that improvisation has no place. Even when improvisation is happening, they deny its existence by calling it a replan. For instance, if six people revise in five days a plan that took thirty people six months to develop, can we seriously call it a replan? Such a revision is closer to improvisation than it is to replanning.
- We usually do better at whatever we're doing if we're willing to admit we're doing it. If you're improvising, call it improvisation, and do whatever it takes to make it the best improvisation it can be.
- Past performance can be misleading
- Unless your We usually do better
at whatever we're doing
if we're willing to
admit we're doing itculture is already aware of project improvisation as a necessary and useful skill, it's likely that previous improvisations have gone unrecognized and uncontrolled. Performance might have been disappointing.
- Past performance can be misleading if it reflects uncontrolled, ad hoc improvisation. Distinguish such episodes from serious, coordinated, and thoughtful improvisations.
Effective improvisation requires individual skills and team skills. When a team starts improvising together, it relies more than ever on trust, communication, and inventiveness — all under pressure. Mastery of the improvisation regime requires education and practice. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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More articles on Project Management:
- Restarting Projects
- When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage,
we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't.
There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
- Dubious Dealings
- Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be
as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
- When Change Is Hard: II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance."
But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still
encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
- False Summits: II
- When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end.
The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is
in project work.
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I
- When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting."
We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.