The Art of Improvisation

Sand Dune Stroll
Use improvisation to change your path.

It’s always important to keep your business nimble. Figuring out what that means in a realistic context, though, can be a bit tough. What you want is not just a business that’s able to change when necessary, but one that is structured to embrace the art of improvisation.

Improvising in the Business World

In many ways, improvisation goes against much of what you might have been taught when you were first starting in business. You know the importance of a business plan and how to move through the steps of that well thought out plan, but what if that plan starts to fall apart?

Instead of focusing on how you may have miscalculated a step, your time might be better invested in focusing on being more flexible so that you can turn effectively whenever something alters your plans. 

For most business people, being flexible can be as simple as not getting bogged down by hard and fast rules. While you should definitely have principles by which you run your business and a good plan for how it should succeed, your plans shouldn’t be so set in stone that they impact your ability to be successful. If something’s not working, don’t throw away the whole plan, just look at changing your tack. If you want to ensure your business a chance to succeed, you have to embrace the fact that your plans may not always match up to the current changes in business reality. 

It’s important to remember that entrenched ideas are usually the enemy of a successful business. There’s a lot to be said for sticking to what works, of course, but you always need to evaluate your processes and figure out if they’re still working. Once you can do that, you can open your mind to making changes and alter course when necessary. Improvising is simply a matter of looking at the situation in front of you, realizing that it’s different than what you thought it would be, and then making a decision that makes sense.

Recently I was analyzing how to get more participants in a climbing wall activity. We changed the title from a generic “Climbing Wall” to “Climbing for Fitness” and increased the participation by 50%. No other changes were instituted.

Quick, easy and effective.

Dealing with the Unexpected

Flexibility Dance
Flexibility is key!

Focusing on flexibility and improvisation is also important because it gives you more of a chance to be effective in those situations that are entirely out of your control. The marketplace is always changing, with businesses dedicating a significant amount of time and money to trying to disrupt the old ways of doing things. If your business doesn’t have the flexibility to adapt to those changes, you’ll be left behind. Simply put, you’ve got to be willing to change if you want to continue to stay in the game.

Flexibility is a must, as well, when dealing with clients. Though you might have a good idea of what’s going on in your industry, there will almost always be changes going on in the industries of your clients that you either cannot predict or for which you simply cannot prepare. When these changes occur, the needs of your clients will change. It’s up to you to either adapt to those changes or to lose a client, something that’s rarely in the interest of your business’ long-term health. Flexibility, then, gives you a better chance to keep up with the demands of those who provide your revenue.

The key is to be open to what comes your way and reflexively respond. If your protocol is hard and fast you won’t be able to bend with the surprise requests of your client or business partner.

To return to the climbing wall analogy, I once had a student who had a serious fear of heights.  She wanted to try to climb the wall but doubted her ability to overcome that fear. We talked through the options and agreed to these terms: She would climb as far as she felt comfortable then try one more move.

She started and was 3 feet off the ground and in a panicked voice said, “That’s as far as I can go!” I reminded her of our agreement and urged her to try that promised one more move. We were both thinking the same thing. She was going to fulfil her promise and the plan we had arranged.

She made that next move and said, “OK, that’s as far as I can go!”

In that moment it occurred to me that she uttered the words that we used in our contract and I blurted out. “Remember your promise. If that’s as far as you can go you owe yourself one more move.”

Because of that improvisational comment on my part she did that 6 more times and made it to the top of the 40-foot climbing wall.

Had I settled for the first agreement I would have missed the opportunity to give her the encouragement to do more than either of us expected. A chance improvisational push led her to an unexpected success.

You have to be willing adapt if you want to be successful. If you already have a mindset that allows you to be flexible, you’ll stand a much better chance to survive changes in your life and your industry. 

The Basis for Improvisation

Going to the top of the wall.
Making it to the top!

While your business can absolutely benefit from a general willingness to thoughtfully break the rules, being open to improvisation actually requires you to have an incredibly firm grasp of what a business can do. To be able to break away from strict planning procedures and definitive rules, you first need to know exactly how things are supposed to be done.

That’s a difficult dichotomy for many.

A friend of mine will regularly say “Randy, you must have a plan. You can always change the plan, but you must start with The Plan.”

This is absolutely vital for anyone who wants to create a business that is both agile enough to change when needed and that’s still got a strong enough foundation to weather those changes to which it cannot adapt. 

The effective use of improvisation requires the ability to be open to change and having a comprehensive understanding of your industry. Just heading in to a situation with a plan to wing it as you go is not a sustainable way to try this concept.

When you improvise, you have to start by understanding as much about your business as possible. Use this knowledge to bend and flow with the situations that present themselves to you and don’t be afraid to take calculated risks based on your experience, understanding and ability.

Done well, this can be the difference between climbing 3 feet or making it to the top of the wall.

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