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:
- Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
- When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty
that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of
the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- The Injured Teammate: I
- You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you
handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
- The Politics of the Critical Path: I
- The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest
completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political
- Managing Non-Content Risks: I
- When project teams and their sponsors manage risk, they usually focus on those risks most closely associated
with the tasks — content risks. Meanwhile, other risks — non-content risks — get less
attention. Among these are risks related to the processes and politics by which the organization gets
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- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- 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.