Improvising in management

The American sociologist Howard Becker has just written a book called ‘Do you know…’ which is a study into how jazz musicians improvise. Becker is himself a jazz pianist. He was interested to know what happens when jazz musicians, who may not ever have met before, start playing. He noticed that negotiation is the beginning, middle and end of the improvisation process, as the musicians draw on a shared background repertoire.

Similarly, in an article on reflection-in-action, a term coined by the architect-cum-organisational theorist Donald Schon, academics Yanow and Tsoukas wrestle with what it means to improvise with others in a professional context. In the article they argue against the more individualist and cognitive aspects of Schon’s theory, although they go on to point out how influential and helpful it has been. Improvisation is a collective enterprise drawing on skills and knowledge which have been learnt in social settings. It draws on a repertoire which has been rehearsed and practised over time, although it may look to onlookers like it has been made up in the moment. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu made a similar point when he remarked that excellence is improvisation on collectively understood norms and standards. Although experts appear to be making things up on their own, actually they are responding to collectively constructed codes of practice and professional norms.

The authors make the distinction between feedback, a term ubiquitously used in organisation denoting a cognitive process of reflection on action, and backtalk. As an example the authors draw the distinction between a lecturer asking for feedback from his students after a lecture, and the prereflected backtalk that he notices as he is giving his lecture, as the students communicate their responses to what is being said through the way they hold themselves and the small physical clues that they give out without intending to. Improvisation partly depends upon successive layerings of people responding to each other’s  backtalk. GH Mead would add an extra dimension to this process: that we call out in ourselves the response that we are calling out in others and find ourselves responding to self and other both at the same time. We notice our response to what we ourselves are saying and doing as we are noticing other people’s responses.

Yanow and Tsoukas argue that improvisation requires a permeability of self, a continuous openness to the backtalk of others and the resistance of the materials that are to hand.  The idea, then, is that it is not just people who talk back, but inanimate objects do too. There are limits to what it is possible to do when designing a particular building, or even making a plan: organisations are constrained in their possibilities.

Additionally, actors talk of the need for a yes-and approach, which invites the continuous opening up of experience. Once when working with a theatre troupe I was advised always to make my improvisation partners ‘look good’. What the troupe leader meant by this is that is possible to close down an improvisational gesture of a colleague by making them look foolish: instead, seizing what they offer and trying to work with it an open it up and return a gesture that is easy for them to work with keeps the dialectical process of gesture and response open and fluid. It is the equivalent in tennis to knocking up pre-match with a tennis partner and returning the ball just in front of them so that they can easily return it, so that they can loosen up and prepare for the game.

Another important aspect of improvising is the public ability to acknowledge not knowing, of being open to the improvisatory gestures of others. According to Yanow and Tsoukas, in so openly relinquishing the desire to control one will be forced to live with one’s own anxiety about not knowing, as well as the anxiety one is likely to evoke in others.

A number of themes arise from this discussion of improvisation which are important for managers. The first is the necessity of remaining open to the attitudes of others, of adopting a disposition towards enquiry rather than closing things down with positional authority that tries to establish certainty and control. This will raise questions about the way that power is habitually exercised in any particular organisational context, especially in the current managerialist discourse where management is often understood to be about knowing, choosing and controlling. Simply asserting authority may well close down the opportunity of collective improvisation. The second is the importance of understanding improvisation as a social practice which draws on a background of evaluative theories of the good and a history of improvisation and a rehearsal of routines. People will improvise well together if they have developed a history of working well together. A number of commentators, including Leonard Cohen in a previous post, have drawn attention to the importance of being prepared, of developing a repertoire of routines with others.

Thinking about management as a kind of improvisation expands our sense of what we might be looking for in managers and perhaps in management education. Rather than thinking of management as a kind of professional expertise that a manager ‘has’, a stable body of knowledge somehow locked up in an individual which the manager calls on at will, we could begin to think of management practice as a form of social awareness, an openness of self to the influence of others and of a particular context. It is a collective practice which requires individual submission to a discipline but also an openness to the patterning of the interpretation of others of the same discipline partly achieved through negotiation.


3 thoughts on “Improvising in management

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Another interesting post, Chris.

    A few years ago, I attended a management conference at which a number of jazz musicians showed how they worked with managers to explore aspects of teamwork and the like.

    In introducing their music, they demonstrated that they were able to play across a broad range of musical genres. I found it interesting, therefore, that when they began to improvise, the tunes that emerged were all jazz-based – seemingly ‘channelled’, imperceptibly, by the patterns of past music-making (or, I guess, by their repertoire of past practice, as you say in the post).

    In this case, the instruments did not constrain what was possible, as the players had powefully demonstrated some minutes earlier – at least not in the sense of excluding other musical genres. And yet, the spontaneous ‘conversation’ that took place was conducted wholly in the language of jazz. As soon as the musicians began to ‘exchange’ the first chords, these seemingly “called forth” (as GHM would no doubt have said) responses in themselves and others that reinforced existing patterns of understanding and expression.

    As I saw it, the potential was always there for a different path to be taken and a novel (non-jazz) outcome to have emerged. But, as I would argue in relation to organizational interactions, the natural dynamic was one of pattern reinforcement rather than pattern breaking – reflecting the taken-for-granted assumptions/expectations associated with their shared practice.

    Cheers, Chris

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Chris,
    I think you story shows that in organisational improvisation and innovation, it is not possible for just anything to happen: there are always constraints. This problematises the idea of ‘blue skies’ or ‘out of the box’ thinking in the sense that, even if you can have a brilliant idea, the ability of staff in the organisation to improvise around it will be limited given their past histories.

  3. Chris Rodgers

    In Informal Coalitions (the book), I tell the story of how I was once faced with this challenge in a leadership team workshop. A manager said that he was fed up about reflecting on the past and wanted the group to design the future by starting with a blank sheet of paper. To illustrate the point about the constraints provided by the patterns of past actions and interactions, I wrote the words “THE PAST” on a writing pad. I then tore off the top sheet, leaving a blank page on top of the pad. Needless to say, an imprint of the words “THE PAST” still remained. As the group acknowledged, the past leaves its own imprint on the present (and hence the future) of the organisations within which we work. Ignoring the impact of this, or believing that it can simply be commanded away, is not a credible way for leaders to proceed. Local interpretations of the organisation’s history, and the extrapolation of its lessons into the future, will heavily condition people’s sense of reality and the responses that are available to them.

    Cheers, Chris


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