!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Randy Sabourin on Business Improvisation

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Randy Sabourin on Business Improvisation

To build on several previous posts dealing with improvisation, I'd like to call attention to what Toronto-based training consultant (and jazz guitarist) Randy Sabourin has to say on the subject of using improvisation in business.

In an article published at ChangeThis.com, Sabourin lays out his understanding of business improvisation — what it is and isn't, how it can be understood by using jazz improvisation as an analogy, and how it is actually put into action.

A more concise explanation of Sabourin's thinking is available at his website, where he defines business improvisation as
the ability to access creativity in the moment and under pressure, to resolve or direct the resolution of a situation to meet your objectives. It is the ability to converge composition, creativity and execution to achieve success.
Sabourin emphasizes that
Business improvisation is not “winging it” nor is it blustering your way through a situation. In fact improvisation is a skill that is mastered through preparation, practice and patience.
He elaborates the analogy with jazz:
In a typical jazz song, the musicians agree to play a particular song, in a specific key at an agreed upon tempo or speed. One instrument plays the "head" or melody to establish the song for the listeners. After the head is played, several musicians take turns playing improvised solos; at some point a musician establishes the melody again and the song ends. ...

There are a number of important lessons that can be drawn from the jazz analogy. First, the musicians must know their craft. They’ve practised for years and studied scales, musical theory and other musicians’ techniques.

Second, they know the chord changes of the song and the notes of the melody. There are many places in the song where improvisation can take place, however they always occur within the boundaries of established key, tempo and chord progression.

With these as the background, solo improvisations can occur in real time, in ways that are rarely the same. The solos appear to be effortless and spontaneous within a framework that, when done in concert with the rest of the musicians, create true art.

In business improvisation the same premises apply. In order to successfully improvise you must know the material, you must be prepared, and you should be a master of the content you’re presenting.
Sabourin provides an overview of the four steps into which he divides the business improvisation process:
  1. Attention — Listening non-judgmentally in order to gather information about the situation you're in — a situation that, for some reason, differs from what you expected.

  2. Acceptance — Taking the situation as it is, rather than trying futilely to control it. Concentrating instead on using the information gathered in Step 1 "as an input into the revised decision-making process is essential to effective improvisation." Sabourin emphasizes that "acceptance ... also means understanding and playing within the rules of engagement. In other words, there is an agreement amongst the players on the framework, the objectives and the ways in which people will work to achieve common goals."

  3. Adaptation — We "blend salient facts with our creativity and adapt to the new situation," rather than clinging to old approaches that are now a poor choice for achieving our objectives.

  4. Advancement — Helping get to a solution by "offering something that moves the situation forward. ... The message is 'I’ve listened, I understand and accept, I’ve thought about it and here is what I think.'" Good communication skills make a real difference in how effectively this step is handled.
Aside from the practicality of the approach he offers for using improvisation in business, what impressed me about Sabourin's thinking was his emphasis on the importance of preparation, since this matched my own view of what enables people to improvise good solutions to problems.

"Practice practice practice" is the key for getting oneself — and one's team — ready to tackle a problem, issue, or opportunity that suddenly emerges and requires quick action. All the prior practice in developing skills and understanding one's behavioral tendencies when under pressure prepares one for "evaluating a situation and making the best of it by combining materials at hand, practice and experience, and creativity."


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