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The Art of Improvising In The Professional World

02 MAR, 2021

When speaking of decision-making, we can think of the decision contexts as ranging from certain to uncertain, where the decision itself could emerge from either simple or complex processes. These processes involve using automatic heuristics, understanding cognitive biases, implementing artificial heuristics like SWOT analysis, and following scripted protocols. As uncertainty and complexity increases, known decision strategies fail. What follows is a situation where the human mind has to improvise.

Improvisation may be considered to be a type of real-time dynamic decision-making and has historically been studied in crisis-management, organizational productivity and creativity. Improvisation is our ability to make multiple micro-decisions, creatively evaluate problems, and self-correct while the context of decision-making changes.

When is improvisation needed?

Primary goal change: People have to improvise when their primary goal changes. For e.g., if a salesperson has to pitch a product and a customer resists, the primary goal of selling could change to brand awareness. There may be no pre-designed strategy to address this change, and the salesperson would have to rely on real-time decision-making.

Resources are restricted: Many macro-decisions come with a plan and a plan demands resources like money, personnel, logistics, etc. When these resources are limited or there is a change last minute, someone has to modify the plan to account for those changes. If money is the limited resource for an advertising campaign, it would involve changing how it is used, prioritizing within essential purchases, going DIY or in-sourcing through volunteer employee assistance, etc. The decision-maker here will have to use new heuristics to pass judgments that were never passed before.

Unexpected problems emerge: New problems in a decision-space demand on-the-spot problem-solving. For this, the decision-maker has to know whom to ask for help and where to find solutions. Unexpected problems are almost the norm and rarely an exception in the real-world. A product could be difficult to talk about on social media even if the description is crisp and clear. Here, an improvised approach would be to use the traction of existing memes to highlight the function of that product visually and not verbally.

Improvisation across varied domains like organizational management and a jazz band have commonalities such as high working memory, extensive knowledge-base, interpersonal trust and self-monitoring. Effectively, these are four main skills needed to develop the broader skill of improvisation in most domains.

High working memory: Improvisation is a highly cognitive task. Working memory is like a short buffer of memory where information is temporarily stored. To improvise, a person has to remember many different things and ensure they stay in memory. This creates the access and raw material to think on the fly.

Extensive knowledge base: Only when one has significant knowledge about many diverse topics can one use that information (via the working memory) to pay attention to new changes and be able to access relevant experiences that enables creative thinking.

Interpersonal trust: There is a significant amount of faith shown in others’ abilities while improvising. The popular idea of “having chemistry with someone” is relevant to improvisation. When people trust each other spontaneously and do not rely on scripts or protocols, they can bounce ideas off each other and collectively “build” new solutions.

Self-monitoring: Improvisation requires a significant amount of self-reflection and awareness of one’s thought processes. It requires immediate feedback, noticing one’s own biases, and mental flexibility that is purposeful (as opposed to daydreaming). It is hard to improvise without self-monitoring because one cannot often keep track of new changes in the problem and solution space.

  1. Stein, E. (2010). Improvisation as Model for Real-Time Decision Making. Supporting Real Time Decision-Making, 13-32.