Using Improvisation in Organisations

‘making it up as you go along’ can be good for business

Julia E. Knight & Harry Puckering


Julia E. Knight is a Work & Organisational Psychologist and Harry Puckering is a Management Trainer. Together, Julia and Harry are part of the Hee-Ha’s:  an improvisational comedy (‘improv’) troupe that has put on the show Dial-a-Comedy in the Brighton Festival Fringe 2009 and 2010.

Julia and Harry separately got into improv for fun.  We quickly learned that the approach and skills honed through improv helped us to deliver better the learning events and programmes that are our ‘bread and butter’.  More recently, through continued practice, discussion and reading around both improv and Improvisation in organisations, we’ve come to believe that improv can deliver positive change to leadership, creativity, teamworking and the way that people understand and improve their work.

From our reading, it became clear that organisations have been interested in the concept of improvisation for some time, and interest appears to be on the increase, as the ability to adapt and change has become essential.  Organisations have become increasingly aware of the relevance of improvisation in relation to organisational success.

“In the past decade, improvisation has gained recognition as a strategic competence that supports 21st century firms’ requirements for change, adaptability, responsiveness to the environment, loose boundaries, and minimal hierarchy” (Vera & Crossan, 2004)

But what do we mean when we talk about ‘improvisation’?  A definition we like is: ‘the mindful application of a few simple rules of behaviour to new circumstances in order to generate effective spontaneous behaviour.’

The need for improvisation in organisations

Crossan et al (2005) provide a useful framework which outlines the conditions where improvisation is important in organisations.  They base the model on the idea that improvisation contains elements of both creativity and spontaneity, but that these elements can exist independently.  They further relate these elements to the levels of uncertainty and time pressure present, as shown in the diagram below.

With many organisations currently operating in environments of increased uncertainty, and high perceived time pressure this suggests an increased need for improvising in today’s workplaces.  So, is there anything to be learnt from those who improvise in other spheres?

What can we learn from improvisers?

Music and theatre are both areas that are associated with the concept of improvising.  There is a fair amount of writing that has borrowed concepts from jazz improvisation to inform organisational theory.   Much of this writing uses jazz improvisation as a metaphor for organisational life.  Improvisation is also something that is utilised in the theatre arts, and authors have examined the similarities between theatrical improvisation and organisational life.

Improvisation as metaphor – lessons from jazz

In 1998 Organization Science dedicated a whole edition to papers that discussed the lessons to be learned by organisations from jazz improvisation.  What seems most useful about these discussions is the concepts they identify.   These ideas attempt to understand the process of jazz improvisation and then relate this to work situations.

In his paper, Variations on a Theme: Practice Improvisation in that edition, Philip Mirvis provides a set of concepts that he believes could be key to harnessing the power of improvisation in business.

Rehearsed Spontaneity – improvisers (in jazz and theatre alike) create their outputs spontaneously on stage, but backing that up is a huge amount of prior rehearsal.

Anxious Confidence – this concept relates to the need to be at a certain level of arousal in order to be motivated by the task, but not too anxious or over-confident that performance is impaired.

Collective Individualism – in a jazz ensemble there is no formal leader.  Each player takes a turn at being the leader (doing their solo), then drops back into the group.  To the outsider, this appears to happen without any obvious direction.  This moving in and out of leading and following as a team member is a key skill in good improvising.

Planned Serendipity – this concept occurs almost as a product of the other three.  Improvisers who appear both rehearsed and spontaneous, both anxious and confident, both collective/collaborative and individual, seem to produce the best improvisation as if by accident.

So, we can see that some concepts generated from studying jazz improvisation are relevant and applicable to organisations.  However, the difficulty with jazz is that it is so specialised and not very accessible to most people (even other musicians!).   This is probably why some researchers started to examine improvisation in the theatre.  Whilst theatre (or comedy) improvisation (improv) shares many features with jazz, it does not depend on a specialised skill-set.  Everyone has access to the tools of improv – speech, gesture, facial expression etc. – so it can be taken beyond the level of metaphor.  In addition, the methods that actors use to learn to improvise can be transferred directly into organisations.  And: it’s fun!

Improv – what is it good for?

Mary Crossan (and colleagues) has probably done the most work in developing theory about improvisation in organisations that goes beyond the metaphor.  She describes improvisation as “an orientation and technique to enhance the strategic renewal of an organisation”.  By working with improvisers from Second City in Chicago, she has been able to demonstrate that the techniques that actors use to develop their improvising can be transferred into businesses to develop skills that make a real contribution to many different areas of management as shown below

So… what does improv training involve?

The important thing here is to realise that taking part in improv, rather than watching others do it as a theatrical performance, is what really contributes to learning.

A useful beginners’ taster event can take a couple of hours as a stand-alone course or as a conference session or keynote ‘speech’.  Any initial fears about being singled out or put on the spot quickly disappear as you realise that all the participants, including the facilitator, are in the same safe and playful place.  Such improv sessions and learning can become addictive!

The training involves a series of games, scenarios and scenes, where participants try to follow some very simple rules of thumb, such as:

  • listen to the other participants
  • accept the reality other participants are creating in the scene (Say ‘Yes’.)
  • commit to your own involvement in the scene

One observation is that the real humour and learning arises, not when participants try to be clever or funny, but when they really try to listen, say ‘Yes’ and commit.  Following these simple rules of thumb is surprisingly difficult, but the humour and learning comes from attempting to do so, no matter whether the attempt is successful or otherwise.

The games, scenarios and scenes stimulate and challenge mental processes such as semantic and episodic memory, parallel processing (doing a number of unrelated activities simultaneously), modelling, mirroring and interpreting other people’s movements, maintaining eye contact and ‘human connections’ in stimulating and fast-changing environments.  They also enable participants to practice and play with unusual and extreme social situations.

Typical responses from participants include:

  • ‘That was fun and challenging for an introvert.  I feel I was pushed out of my comfort zone.’
  • ‘I felt supported in a safe environment.’
  • ‘I feel energised and tingly.’
  • ‘I had to solve problems and make decisions very quickly but without fearing the consequences.’
  • ‘I don’t have a hangover anymore!’

Improv Next steps

If all of this seems interesting, please contact Julia or Harry  We’ve got a longer version of what’s written here, together with a full academic reference list to back it up.  And of course, we can run improv events and – just as importantly – explain why such events can be good for your business.  You can also find out more about us at our websites and

Happy improvising!


Crossan et al. (2005) Time and Organizational Improvisation. Academy of Management Review 90(1) 129-145

Mirvis, P. (1998) Variations on a Theme: Practice Improvisation. Organization Science 9(5)

Vera, D and Crossan, M (2004) Theatrical Improvisation: Lessons for Organizations. Organization Studies 25(5) 727-749


Other reading

Comedy Improvisation and Business

CNN Article – Why using improvisation to teach business skills is no joke.

FT Article – Have you heard the one about… (registration required to view)