Byron's Babbles

Critical Improvisations

Library of Congress

As I re-read Ron Chernow’s great autobiography Grant I keep picking up things to reflect on that I didn’t catch the first time through. I already did one such reflection in Respecting and Watching With Reverence. Yesterday while reading Chernow described the campaigns of the rebellion to take control of eastern Tennessee, specifically in Chattanooga. Much credit for success was given to “critical improvisations” and “extemporaneous routing of the enemy.” As a intent-based leadership advocate, I loved these terms. The soldiers saw opportunities that would lead to success and they took them even though they were not exactly part of the original plans. The great organizations develop every person to be ready for critical improvisation and extemporaneous routes. For example, one of the skills I developed early as a teacher was the ability to improvise during lessons according to student questions and discussions. This allowed me to make extemporaneous routes for true differentiation. Did you catch that play on words I just did? I believe I still do this while facilitating to this day. I believe this is one of the most important skills we need to be developing in education. And, educators need to feel comfortable and encouraged to make critical improvisations each and every day. The data is created with the teachers and students and that is where decisions should be made.

In any organization, our environment may change hundreds of times in a single day. This improvisation and extemporaneous routing becomes understanding the nuances of each of the new or changing environments and how those changes will impact on our ability to perform optimally and effectively. Practicing improvisational techniques allow us to quickly analyze changing environmental conditions and communicate quickly and effectively within them. In improv classes we are taught the “yes and” technique. Basically, we take what we are given and develop it further. It’s about accepting a nuanced environment and changes quickly and looking for opportunities immediately. We also have to create an environment where seeking solutions is accepted.

As leaders we need to model and reward positive and risk-taking and adaptation, the faster the organization can read the nuances and improvise. After the successful Chattanooga campaign Grant asked who had ordered the charge up the mountain against soldiers who appeared to be falling back. All officers said it had not been them. Those in the field read the opportunity and acted. Grant was proud of them. Some (well actually a lot of leaders I’ve encountered would have been upset), but not Grant. He needed every soldier to be a leader. If Grant were leading today, I don’t think he would need an email asking for permission and copied to 10 other people on every issue. Unfortunately, you all reading this know the leaders I’m talking about – I hope you’ve not experienced it, but I bet you have.

Make no mistake, however, for successful critical improvisations to happen EVERYONE in the organization must have the technical skill training and development. Otherwise it will be chaos. Grant was a stickler for drilling and training. Also, there need to be clear goals with plans that allow for agility. Then, and only then, we can allow everyone to use their talent and goal focus to seize opportunities of the moment and carry out critical improvisations and extemporaneous routes.


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