Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 15;   April 14, 2010: Project Improvisation as Group Process

Project Improvisation as Group Process

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When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, Alaska

Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, Alaska. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, and swarms of insects, among many other biological groups, exhibit a behavior called swarming. Swarms seem to act in perfect if mysterious coordination. Swarms have no designated leader and no pre-defined global plan. Their behavior is emergent — a group improvisation. As humans, we like to believe that when we act in concert, we usually follow a leader or a plan. My own guess is that much of our group behavior is more like swarming than not.

Recent research is beginning to explain how flocks coordinate their behavior. See Biro, et. al., "Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks", Nature 464, 890-893 (8 April 2010), or listen to the story by National Public Radio, Backpacked Birds Reveal Who's The Boss". Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

When the time comes to depart from a carefully designed project plan, improvisation is often necessary. In Part I of this series, we explored some fundamentals of improvisation. In Part III, we'll explore the relationship between improvisation and risk management. We now turn to examining improvisation as a group process.

Avoid the rush to improvisation
Replanning takes time. And sometimes, replanning requires halting further work. If there isn't time to replan, and if work must continue, improvisation is a very tempting alternative, even though replanning is usually safer and cheaper than improvising.
The rush to improvisation is often driven by group panic. Ask yourself, are you certain there's no time for replanning? That work really must continue? Sometimes, the rush to improvise is internally driven — we don't want to stop to think. That's a very risky reason for improvising.
Remember that improvisation is a team effort
At the point when a decision maker concludes that it's time to improvise, the rest of the team is still following the plan. Since whatever follows is a team effort, improvisation will be more successful if the team improvises together.
When improvisation begins, all objectives, resource allocations, roles, and responsibilities are subject to change. A thorough group understanding of the new situation and the new approach is necessary for effective group improvisation.
Devise your improvisation compatibly
Operational structures of groups vary widely, from hierarchies to heterarchies or clouds. Hierarchical structures are top-down, command-and-control oriented, while cloud structures produce coordinated efforts in a more emergent fashion. An effective improvisational approach uses a style that is compatible with the operational structure already in place.
For instance, a team that uses a hierarchical operational structure is unlikely to produce a successful improvisational approach if asked to do so using a cloudlike structure. And a team accustomed to an autonomous approach to normal operations will have great difficulty when an improvised alternative is imposed on them by fiat. Choose an approach to developing the improvisation that is compatible with the team's culture. If you must deviate, enroll the team in the deviation first.
Use sophisticated communications
Project inception Remember that
improvisation
is a team effort
usually includes extensive group communication to propagate the vision of the project, its importance to the organization, and the roles of all involved. When improvising begins, the resulting project configuration can conflict with much of whatever was communicated at project inception.
Those conflicts must be clearly communicated. We must communicate the new configuration, the new roles, and the new responsibilities, and in so doing, erase the no-longer-relevant elements of the old project plan. Because coordination is essential to effective improvisation, the need for communication within the team escalates dramatically when improvisation begins. That's one reason why improvisation is so much more difficult for virtual teams.

In two weeks, we'll examine how improvisation interacts with risk management. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Undermine Your Subordinates  Next Issue

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See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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