Orchestrating improvisation beyond jazz

The ability to survive and thrive in times of adversity is never a given. Experts believe that having certain attributes and demonstrating specific skills are needed so that one’s preparedness for the unexpected can be enhanced. 

Many Filipinos, for instance, have tapped into their inventiveness and indomitable spirits for survival. The Ivatans of Batanes relied on their indigenous knowledge to build stone houses that may look austere at first but closer inspection will reveal that they are actually formidable structures designed to withstand harsh weather conditions. 

Decades of secessionist movements in Mindanao have not dampened the tenacity of its residents to slowly but surely propel the Philippines’ second largest island into an engine of growth after its long journey to peace. 

Closer to home, valuable lessons were learned by those who live and work in Marikina when typhoon Ondoy brought the city to its knees in 2009. Since then, the ability of its citizens to recover after a catastrophe has been fortified thanks to a government-led but community-driven disaster management program aimed at showcasing Marikina as a model of resilience.  

Finding doable ways of bouncing back after an unexpected event is now acknowledged as an important building block of sustainable communities. And nowhere is this task more needed than by nascent entrepreneurs whose fledgling businesses typically subsist on scarce resources which they cannot afford to lose in a catastrophe. 

In this regard, a growing number of disaster management experts are already hinting that the usefulness of such scarce resources may be prolonged through one’s adeptness at performing extemporaneous actions and making impromptu decisions in the moment when planned measures are not possible. This rather unconventional approach of responding to an imminent crisis is called improvisation.  

Commonly used by musicians since the 1920s, modern-day advocates of this behavioral strategy believe that improvisation can now go beyond the jazz metaphor and be scaled for use by organizations, particularly during turbulent times. 

So instead of mulling over their misfortunes, entrepreneurs can better adapt to unexpected disruptions by creatively responding to situations where established protocols cannot be followed. Business owners are, thus, invited to reflect on the following practical resilience-building measures that combine preparedness and impromptu action.  

Successful improvisation ironically begins with planning and preparation. Relying completely on one’s intuition during a crisis can be foolish and even dangerous. High levels of discretion to improvise may actually result in disasters that could worsen the impact of an unexpected event or cause accidents. 

Pre-crisis plans and preparations are needed so that improvisers are aware of the extent to which emergency-response protocols can be adapted as an initial response. But if carefully laid-out plans no longer work, intuition takes over and the improviser must now take calculated risks as well as perform spontaneous actions which are calibrated in real time based on critical thresholds outlined in the plan.  

Tension arising from an emergency can be defused by maintaining one’s composure and by looking at adversity through the prism of opportunity. On many occasions, a person’s tendency to panic ends up making others feel agitated and insecure. Moreover, failing to remain calm in a crisis may conceal the valuable lessons that can be learned from a pressure-packed moment. 

Entrepreneurs who remain composed even when distressed are better able to objectively assess the situation and adjust their actions according to situational demands. Employees can then feed off from their boss’s even-handedness and join others in addressing the crisis.

Prepare to use organizational resources for purposes other than their intended original use. During unanticipated contingencies, scarce resources need to be repurposed in order to fit the requirements of an emergent situation. The need for flexible leadership during a cataclysmic event for example might mean that an alert employee who steps up amid the confusion suddenly becomes a de facto leader.  

Offices may also be converted into makeshift shelters for employees and their families while funds previously earmarked for a team building exercise may be used as an emergency loan fund for employees whose homes were destroyed by a cyclone. Employees who do not have to worry about their personal lives during a crisis can concentrate more on helping their employer in managing an unexpected event because they too will benefit if business operations continue uninterrupted.      

The effectiveness of improvisation is enhanced if done collectively. Business owners and their employees can become agile collaborators in response to a contingent situation through what experts call meaningfully-constrained improvisation. In this instance, ad hoc actions are performed with a clear understanding of intended outcomes when the emergency subsides. This concerted effort to rise above a crisis through thoughtful experimentation can only happen if business owners and employees are jointly aware of the potential benefits improvisation can bring so that they gain confidence in responding creatively and decisively in situations where predesigned procedures are not an option.  

Small business owners are encouraged to nurture cognitive diversity among their employees at work. This is achieved when organizational members are driven by shared values and common goals but may have different perspectives on problem solving. 

Allowing employees to exercise a certain degree of creativity in performing their tasks while working towards a common outcome is an ideal way of incubating the growth of organizational improvisation.

Raymond D. Paderna is a faculty member of the Decision Sciences and Innovation Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business at De La Salle University. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Family Business Management, Business Research and Human Resource Management. He also teaches Fashion and Arts Entrepreneurship at Fashion-Arts-Business Creatives in Makati City. He welcomes comments at [email protected] The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.

Topics: Green Light , Orchestrating improvisation beyond jazz
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