If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. While many companies struggled with the crisis, some actually thrived.

A new study shows that in order to thrive in times of uncertainty, you need managers and employees who can think on their feet and act fast — without an instruction manual.

In other words, you need skilled improvisers.

While improvisation is key to organisational agility and helps to thrive in times of change and disruption, developing improvisational skills can take years of work.

So how do you become a skilled improviser? And how does your personality influence this process?

Learning from the pros

Recently-published research in the highly regarded Administrative Science Quarterly sheds light on these questions.

Dr Davide Orazi, senior lecturer in Marketing at Monash Business School), along with co-authors Pier Vittorio Mannucci (London Business School), Kristine de Valck (HEC Paris) set out to understand how individuals develop different types of improvisation skills over time.

Over two years, they documented improvisational actions in three different Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) groups across the world to create a comprehensive process of how players developed and enacted improvisational skills.

LARPs are performative games where participants play specific characters while interacting with others in a physical space, much like the guests of the Westworld park in the popular TV show.

In LARPs, players must constantly improvise to deal with continuous changes and surprises generated both by the plot and by other players’ spontaneous actions.

“LARP is essentially free-flow improvisation around a main storyline,” Dr Orazi says.

“The setting we choose mirrors organisational dynamics, with the advantage that improvisation is frequent and transparently observable.”

Based on the popular game, Vampire: The Requiem, all LARP groups focused action on task completion, resource negotiations, and political alliances — making these games more similar to the corporate world than you may think.

Three types of improvisation

The researchers first identified three types of improvisation skills: imitative, reactive, and generative improvisation.

Imitative improvisation consists of observing what more experienced people are doing and matching their responses with minimal variation.

Imitative improvisation is an effective starting point that enables newcomers with limited experience to get involved.

Reactive improvisation allows people to use inputs from both the environment and others to develop their own original reaction to unexpected situations, with minimal reliance on others’ actions as a guide. This type of improvisation builds on imitative improvisation, as it requires players to build on their existing experience to extrapolate new, original courses of action.

The peak of improvisation skill is generative.

Generative improvisation is about probing into the future and proactively trying new things in an attempt to anticipate (rather than react to) what could happen.

Inherently speculative, generative improvisation carries a lot of risks yet leads to the most innovative outcomes.

“Generative improvisation requires a higher degree of mutual trust among players, both to provide the improviser with the confidence necessary to pursue an idea that may not work out and to increase the chances that others are receptive to the idea instead of rejecting it,” Dr Orazi says.

“This level of trust can be challenging to achieve, but once you reach a certain threshold, it can create a virtuous cycle, where people with strong social connections in the group find their ideas more readily accepted and thus are even more confident about proposing new ideas in the future.”

Balancing collaboration and competition

But how do these skills develop over time?

“Based on two years of observational and interview data, we charted detailed trajectories of how each participant advanced their improvisation skills,” says Davide Orazi.

The factor that most influenced improvisation skill development was whether an individual was competitive or collaborative.

According to Dr Orazi, competitive individuals tend to develop reactive improvisation faster.

“They act on as many inputs as possible, to the point of stealing the spotlight from others,” he says.

“A competitive orientation is advantageous in the short term and helps to develop reactive skills faster.”

However, being competitive in the long-run risks alienating others, who will progressively interact less and be wary of the over-competitive improviser.

This slows down the development of generative improvisation skills.

A collaborative orientation, on the contrary, slows the development of reactive improvisation in the short term.

“Collaborative players often ‘sacrifice’ themselves to let others use and react to available cues,” Dr Orazi says.

“This emphasis on collaboration can stymie initial growth, but ultimately helps these players gain the social connectedness and environment of mutual trust necessary to develop the ability to improvise generatively.”

Dr Orazi suggests managers need to balance the tension between competition and collaboration, pushing their employees to develop collaborative skills without hampering the competitive instincts of ambitious newcomers.

“A strong competitive drive helps to develop reactive skills that lay the foundation for ultimately achieving generative improvisation, but the latter requires collaborative efforts to be fully developed,” he says.

The roadblocks of remote working

Improvisation is not necessarily an innate quality but a learnable skill.

Managers and employees who are capable improvisers will steer their companies through crises and paradigm shifts, from technological breakthroughs and changing trade regulations to environmental disasters and the myriad challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Dr Orazi cautions that while technological breakthroughs such as the shift to remote working may be effective reactions to disruptions in the short terms, it may damage improvisation development.

“A rich net of social interactions that fosters trust and psychological safety is necessary to help employees getting inspired by each other’s cues and collaborate to come up with new solutions. It is already hard to accomplish this face to face,” Dr Orazi says.

“The virtual environment creates further restrictions to social interactions that are deeply embodied and embedded in a physical space. “The risk is to get caught in a pattern of implementation and reaction, losing the enthusiasm to compete, collaborate, and experiment.”

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