When organisational cultures are struggling to cope with changing conditions, we call for organisational ‘transformation’: our organisational culture is in State A, and we want to move it towards State B, so that it will be better equipped for the new challenges.

We imagine this as a linear process. We take a new set of beliefs and principles (our new, upgraded ‘corporate values’), impose them on the existing state of things and hope – literally – that they will work.

The trouble is that, when we impose a set of values in this way, we cannot be certain that State B will be a genuine improvement on State A, and better equipped to face the new challenges. Very often, it isn’t, and the result can be chaos. The benefits of the old culture can be lost without gaining the benefits that were supposed to come from the new culture.

What organisations need is not a one-off process of ‘transformation’ but an ongoing state of ‘improvisation.’ Improvisation is not a linear process, it is a state of mind. It requires (this is the hard part) a real mastery of the core aspects of the organisation’s business by all members of the organisation, allowing these many ‘masters’ to improvise successfully around the organisation’s core themes.

When these core aspects of the business are truly understood, internalised and acted on, appropriate behaviours and values emerge organically, creating the ideal culture for the organisation without any values-driven intervention.

coltrane_alice_chuck_stewart
John and Alice Coltrane

Improvisation starts with a basic framework of ‘rules’. Great improvisers – in music, dance and art – are masters of their craft who also have a deep understanding of their genre. This allows them to be playful: it allows them to create something new and striking that fits perfectly within ‘the rules’. The result is audience-pleasing, because the improvisation fits within the expected form and structure, but the audience shares in the exhilaration of experiencing something that is being created in the moment.

The greatest improvisers also mess with the rules. They introduce some new and challenging variation which is revolutionary at the time, but, if successful, becomes ‘the new normal’. Impressionist painting, modern dance and bebop jazz are all good examples.

To enable improvisation, organisations can create frameworks – core, fundamental ’rules’ that it is agreed all organisational behaviours and products will follow – and then encourage colleagues first to ‘improvise’ within this framework and then to challenge the rules themselves, to see if a different framework produces better results. The end result, in organisational terms, is a sharp increase in engagement, innovation, and antifragility.

This theme is illustrated with audio-visual examples from the arts, and with examples of organisations that can be shown to have adopted an improvisational approach – Apple Inc. is a prime example; the video games developer, Valve Corporation, and the online shoe retailer, Zappos, are others.