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Organisational improvisation mapped by new Cambridge Judge Business School research

Turning jazz riffs and improvisational theatre into a full score or screenplay.

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The management field of Organisational Improvisation (OI) has traditionally drawn on a couple of creative arts – jazz and improvisational theatre – to describe how companies and other organisations bob and weave as they adjust to changing circumstances or unforeseen events. The research so far has been excellent, but has mostly focused on various specific instances of improvisation – in jazz, you might call them isolated riffs – and not yet offered a full picture of this phenomenon.

Dr Allègre Hadida

Dr Allègre Hadida

Seeking to create more of a full score or screenplay of OI research, the Director of Cambridge Judge’s MPhil in Management Programme, Dr Allègre Hadida, and William Tarvainen, a 2010 graduate of the MPhil in Innovation, Strategy & Organisation and a jazz musician trained at the prestigious Sibelius Academy in Finland, have published a paper in the International Journal of Management Reviews that links the research by categorising improvisation by degree and level.

In so doing, the paper (Organizational Improvisation: A Consolidating Review and Frameworkidentifies five management areas – strategy, organisational behaviour, organisational theory, innovation and marketing – in which future research will be facilitated by the authors’ new taxonomy, which they describe as “the first comprehensive mapping of the OI literature across disciplines and research areas”.

“Improvisation and creativity are essential to the survival and sustainability of organisations, particularly in times of economic and political turbulence,” says Hadida, who is also University Senior Lecturer in Strategy at Cambridge Judge and a Fellow of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. “Research in organisational improvisation has developed steadily over the past few years, and now seemed a good time to take stock and provide a comprehensive review.”

William Tarvainen

William Tarvainen

Degrees of improvisation are divided in the paper into “minor” improvisation, entailing small adjustments to established procedures to solve a problem rather than coming up with a radical new approach; “bounded” improvisation using novel procedures or products but within current structures; and “structural” improvisation in which an organisation’s mission or business strategy is redefined, perhaps through the linking of parts of the organisation that were previously in silos.

Levels of improvisation are classified as “individual” improvisation, when a single person in an organisation stretches beyond his or her normal brief to come up with a novel solution; “interpersonal” improvisation which often takes place in or among small teams; and “organisational-level” improvisation in which the whole company improvises as a cohesive unit. (The authors acknowledge that “organisation-level” and “improvise” may seem oxymoronic to ears unattuned to OI language.)

A scenario, for example, in which OI is “bounded” and “interpersonal” is akin to the “yes-and” concept of OI adopted from improvisational theatre or comedy – because it fully accepts (“yes”) and then builds on (“and”) improvisational moves by others within the organisation.

The hit television comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm adopts such techniques, in that actors were provided only loose guidelines but not a script – and are then urged to improvise within those deliberately fuzzy boundaries.

“Moving forward, we hope that our proposed framework will assist researchers in their definitions and analyses of OI, and encourage and help managers to act ‘off book’ and take full advantage of the invaluable opportunities offered by OI,” says Hadida.