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:
- 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?
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple
question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question.
Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- Publish an Internal Newsletter
- If you're responsible for an organizational effort with many stakeholders, communicating with them is
important to success. Publishing an internal newsletter is a great way to keep them informed.
- Why Scope Expands: I
- Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction,
has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
- Unresponsive Suppliers: II
- When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can
affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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