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Business Improvisation

Business executives improvise more often than they may want to admit. When the unexpected “gotcha” happens and there is little time for in-depth analysis, people must improvise. Much like Miles Davis and the musicians with whom he collaborated, organizational leaders incorporate a theme and variation rhythm into the solution solving process. Miles Davis’ jazz album Kind of Blue is revered among jazz aficionados and was produced using a total improvisational experience. Davis had a vague idea of what he wanted and collaborated with talented musicians to develop his basic melody sketches. They took these simple themes as a jumping off point to explore different directions. The musicians would return to the original theme and then take the piece in a different direction. Mistakes were incorporated into the recording. The entire album that was recorded over two sessions in less than nine hours most likely did not resemble Davis’ original vision. The final masterpiece quality of the album reflects the collaborative blend of the improvisors’ robust musicality. Alone, Davis could not have achieved that level of excellence in such a short amount of time.


I’m sure you’ve found yourself in the middle of an unexpected “gotcha” situation. How did you react? What was your outcome? Using the Miles Davis improvisation approach, I begin with an inkling of what worked in the past. This is the starting point for my theme. Then, I superimpose today’s reality on top to complete the basic melody. From this point, I begin to improvise different “what if?” variations on the theme until I resolve the problem.


The Apollo 13 lunar mission continues to be revered as a masterful feat of improvisational problem solving. The spaceship launched and exited earth’s atmosphere according to plan. And then, an oxygen tank exploded. The NASA engineers needed to find a solution and there was not much time. They gathered every item that was on the space capsule that could be used to make repairs and started to explore possible solutions. Using their extensive knowledge and the courage to ask, “what if”, they were able to improvise a solution and bring the astronauts safely home.


Some might consider the positive outcomes from crisis-action improvisation to be a lucky happenstance. As the NASA engineers demonstrated, nothing is further from the truth. The most skilled problem solvers are expert in their field and intensely curious. Similar to an artist’s theme and variation approach, business-based problem solvers use their experience and ability to “try on” different perspectives to explore possibilities that may not have been considered before.


Not every “gotcha” challenge addresses rocket science-size problems. Sometimes it is those small impactful tiny changes that create a butterfly-wing type change. I asked one of my coaching clients, “what if instead of shooting off an angry email, you picked up the phone and called the other manager to discuss the delay?” He sputtered and gave me several reasons why it wouldn’t work. The following week, he reported back that he had picked up the phone and called the other manager. Apparently, he was not aware of a different problem she needed to resolve. During their conversation, he helped her ask “what if?” to work through a possible solution. The next day, the other manager had resolved the issue which removed the delay and got the project back on track. Instead of banging out an angry email, my client started picking up the phone to discuss an issue and ask “what if?”. He learned that a conversation that began with “what if?” often turned into a collaborative problem solving effort. He also learned that sometimes he needed to adapt his approach for different people. Within a few weeks, his colleagues started picking up the phone to resolve a problem. Over the course of a few months, his one small act of picking up the phone to ask “what if?” redefined the culture of his division.


Whether you are handling day-to-day people annoyances, medium-sized events, or a rocket-size launch, it is possible to be ready for unforeseen “gotchas” by rallying teams of talented people who can collaborate and will ask brave “what if?” questions. Like the NASA engineers, everyone brings their various expertise and perspectives to the table. And like musicians, their combined experience explores a variety of themes and variations to improvise masterpiece quality solutions.

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