The project management of change within United Kingdom financial services

what about improvisation?


Stephen Leybourne, Plymouth Business School, Drake Circus, Plymouth

For some years now there has been a growing interest in the use of improvisation within organizations. Improvisation is a combination of intuition, creativity, and bricolage that is driven by time-paced pressures, and in a project context, it involves moving away from an agreed plan in order to accelerate the implementation of actions. In the 1960s, it was seen as an organizational dysfunction, in that it led away from the traditional incremental route of “plan,” then “implement” (Quinn 1980). However, since that time there has been a move towards improvisation being accepted as a skill that can assist in achieving the expectations of a corporate planning exercise. This movement has accelerated in intensity in the 1990s, given the need for faster cycle times and more innovative solutions to gain or retain competitive advantage (Crossan 1997, 39).

Improvisation does however need a framework within which it can work. It is unrealistic to expect organizations to allow employees to improvise without a degree of control, and in certain business sectors, such as financial services, the constraints placed upon participants by the various regulatory bodies render this framework essential. However, there is little doubt that improvisation can be a useful way of achieving, whether this achievement is the development of a new product, the implementation of an element of corporate strategy, or the design of a new process or routine.

Many organizations are moving to management by projects in order to achieve their objectives. Indeed, the use of project management techniques within strategic implementation is seen as a way of improving implementation effectiveness (Grundy 1998, 50; McElroy 1996, 329), and Kanter (1984, 34–35) also saw project teams as the way to implement, identifying a strong link between projects and implementation. This view is reinforced by an awareness that project management techniques and methodology are also useful in the management of organizational change (Clarke 1999, 139), and specifically, that they can be used to assist in the effective implementation of corporate strategy (Grundy 1998, 50; McElroy 1996, 329). However, notwithstanding the fact that almost all project managers admit to improvising within their management of organizational projects, little has been published regarding this phenomenon. Additionally, no reference to improvisation appears within the newly revised 2000 Edition of the United States-based Project Management Institute’s (PMI®) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) or the 2000 version of the United Kingdom (UK) Association for Project Management (APM) Body of Knowledge,although arguably this could be a matter of terminology. There are references to project managers having flexibility to decide what to do in certain circumstances, and Fahrenkrog and Hudacsko (2001) suggest that PMI are looking to expand their body of knowledge, which is currently written at the level of methods, processes, and procedures. The intention is to identify project management “principles,” by attempting to harness the collective professional judgement of PMI members, to assist in the identification of “what is appropriate for any given project” (Fahrenkrog and Hudacsko 2001, 1). However, I do not see this as an attempt to codify or formalize the use of improvisation when stated in terms of the following definitions. The academic exploration of project management often appears to concentrate on mechanistic rather than organic management (Burns and Stalker 1961), and this paper proposes to go some way towards remedying this shortcoming in the literature.

Improvisation can be considered from a philosophical as well as an organizational stance. Ryle (1979, 121–130) adopts a philosophical viewpoint, using the perspective of how thoughts develop, and how improvisation features in that process. He suggests that “the vast majority of things that happen … are … unprecedented, unpredictable, and never to be repeated” (Ryle 1979, 125). As a result of this:

… it follows that the things that we say and do in trying to exploit, avoid or remedy that small minority of the particular partly chance concatenations that happen to concern us cannot be completely pre-arranged. To a partly novel situation the response is necessarily partly novel, else it is not a response. (Ryle 1979, 125)

Exhibit 1. Features of Improvisation from Barrett (1998a)

Exhibit 1. Features of Improvisation from Barrett (1998a)

His assertion is therefore that however well an activity is planned, there will always be a novel set of circumstances to deal with, and that therefore improvisation is a part of daily life, thought, and communication. Ryle (1979, 129) describes improvisation as “… the pitting of an acquired competence or skill against unprogrammed opportunity, obstacle or hazard” although he is not specific about the meaning of an “unprogrammed opportunity.” It is however clear that improvisation encompasses using resources that are to hand to resolve unforeseen occurrences. This is the essence of bricolage.

The organizational view of improvisation is different. Improvisation has for some years been a part of, or at least recognized in, organization theory, but was seen as an organization dysfunction: either as an unintended outcome (March and Simon 1958), or as an organization design failure (MacKenzie 1986). There is however a growing body of post-1994 literature that considers improvisation as an organizational attribute that:

… contributes to and is an outcome of organizational absorptive capacity for new knowledge, structural flexibility, market flexibility, operational flexibility, intrapreneural culture and of the organization path dependence of exploitation and exploration adaptions. (Weick 1998, 539)

It therefore appears that as a result of the speed and degree of change within organizations and their environments, the organizational perception of improvisation has been revised. From being an outcome of “getting things wrong,” and having therefore to effect a repair, improvisation is now seen as a positive skill in making meaningful decisions within a limited time-scale, without optimum information and resources.

Metaphors for Organizational Improvisation

The first well-reasoned mention of improvisation as a positive factor within organizing and organizations is in Weick (1979), and he has retained his position as one of the champions of improvisation over the last two decades. Weick (1998, 543) suggests that: “… the emphasis in organizational theory on order and control often handicaps theorists when they want to understand the processes of creativity and innovation.” He goes on to suggest that:

… since the term ‘organization’ itself denotes orderly arrangements for cooperation, it is not surprising that mechanisms for rearranging these orders in the interests of adaptation have not been developed as fully. That liability can be corrected if we learn how to talk about the process of improvisation. (Weick 1998, 543)

Weick adopts and endorses a musical, specifically jazzbased definition of improvisation from Berliner (1994, 241), suggesting that : “… improvisation involves reworking pre-composed material and designs in relation to unanticipated ideas conceived, shaped, and transformed under the special conditions of performance, thereby adding unique features to every creation.” He continues by suggesting a continuum that ranges from interpretation, through embellishment and variation, to end in improvisation. He also suggests an inverse relationship with time, considering that interpretation and embellishment should be initiated more quickly under time pressure than variation and improvisation. This use of jazz music, or more specifically, improvisational jazz performance (Hatch 1999, 77) as a metaphor for improvisation within organizations is a popular tool, and in 1995 the AAM dedicated a conference track to it. Many of the papers were published in a special issue of Organization Science (Vol. 9 No. 5).

There seem to be two principal exponents of the use of improvisational jazz performance as a metaphor: Hatch, whose husband is apparently a jazz musician; and Barrett, an academic from California, who is also a proficient jazz pianist. Hatch (1998) is an introduction to these themes, and Hatch (1999) is a more comprehensive and coherently argued publication, built around the jazz improvisation theme, but with links to sense-making (Weick 1979, 132–133), and to teamwork and collaboration, as well as to organizational culture and identity. Hatch also considers temporal aspects of improvisation, providing a link with the work of Moorman and Miner (1998a, 1998b).

Barrett credits Weick (1992) as the originator of the idea of exploration of jazz as: “… an example of an organization designed for maximizing learning and innovation” (Barrett 1998a, 605), although Bastien and Hostager (1988) precedes this work. Barrett (1998a) suggests that there are seven features of jazz improvisation that also hold true for improvisation within organizations. These features are articulated and described in Exhibit 1. Barrett does however admit to some limitations in the applicability of the jazz metaphor. A major limitation is competence. Most of the points in Exhibit 1 assume a fairly high base level of competence. In reality however, not all players have the level of competence required, and this is equally true in organizations. If a team member does not have the required level of competence, they will not be able to participate in order to enhance team performance. Indeed, they may have a debilitating effect on that performance. Barrett (1998b) takes some of the ideas in Barrett (1998a) further, suggesting how organizations may be able to experiment with giving managers experiences that may assist them when improvisation is required.

Crossan (1997) takes a different approach, documenting research on improvisation carried out using an improvisational theatre group as a research site, and moving on to management training in improvisation using some of the lessons learned. The crux of this work is the use of theatrical performance as a metaphor for business, and the fact that: “… not only does [theatrical] improvisation provide a way to understand what it takes to be spontaneous and innovative” but also that it can be “… adopted by business as a means to experience and enhance individual and organizational capacity to be innovative and responsive” (Crossan 1997, 38). Crossan suggests that many companies have created an over-reliance on the planning process, which because of its long time horizons, cannot be described as a creative and spontaneous process. She suggests that in the latter part of the 1990s “… faster, better, smarter” (Crossan 1997, 39) business environment there is a need for faster cycle times and more innovative solutions, a theme that appears to hold true into the 21st century.

Crossan has also developed a model incorporating six areas, which, if developed, she feels will contribute to a manager’s ability to improvise. The six areas are: interpreting the environment, and specifically the competitive environment; crafting strategy, to support the development of emergent strategies (Mintzberg 1988); fostering teamwork, allowing individuals to build on, rather than block, each other’s ideas; developing individual skills, particularly in listening, communicating, and commitment; cultivating leadership, and particularly “shifts” in leadership and support for this; and assessing organization culture, and developing a culture that support innovation. The model suggests that strategy is the lynchpin between the organization and its environment, with teamworking, leadership, and individual skills being seen as important elements of the organization. In Crossan (1998), these notions are developed more fully, but what comes across as paramount is that the skills required for improvisation can be developed. This allows improvisers to draw on a library of skills, competencies, and frameworks, together with possible scenarios and successful past offerings, in the way that a stage performer does, or indeed a jazz musician.

Temporal Links with Improvisation

Improvisation is linked with aspects of time, particularly pressure to achieve to a demanding or compressed timetable. This link with time carries more emphasis in Moorman and Miner (1998a), which is concerned principally with new product development, and Moorman and Miner (1998b), which considers definitions and components of improvisation. Improvisation in this context is defined as “… the degree to which composition and execution converge in time” (Moorman and Miner 1998b, 698). It follows from this that the more proximate the time between the design and implementation of an activity, the more that activity is improvisational. This temporal link between the two activities is considered to be important in judging the degree of improvisational activity. They also suggest a continuum of degrees of improvisation, building on some of the earlier ideas of Weick.

Brown and Eisenhardt (1997) have considered rapid change in the computer industry. This paper analyses nine organizations, and their use of techniques including improvisation to successfully develop new products and take them to market within a demanding and compressed timeframe. Moorman and Miner (1998b, 704–706) also addresses constructs related to improvisation, suggesting that there are three correlates of improvisation; bricolage, creativity, and intuition, and also that there are three processes and outcomes associated with improvisation; adaptation, learning, and innovation. Moorman and Miner (1998b) also consider the link with learning and organizational memory.

Bricolage has already been mentioned as involving the use of resources that are to hand to resolve unforeseen occurrences. Indeed, in Spain, the literal translation of bricolage is “do-it-yourself.” Lehner (2000) develops the use of bricolage in an unpublished paper presented at the AoM conference in Toronto. The research that underpins this paper broadly supports a positive relationship between implementation and bricolage, as “… planning threatens flexibility whereas bricolage enhances flexibility of strategy implementation.” He also discusses environments that are subject to “high dynamism” that may “… render planning futile” (Lehner 2000, 4–5), thereby supporting a key assertion of this dissertation, that improvisation, i.e., the fusing of planning and execution, is widespread in fast moving commercial sectors.

The Future of Improvisation Research

e Cunha et al (1999) attempts a formal definition of improvisation, together with a review of its antecedents, influencing factors, and outcomes. A literature review is included, dividing existing work on theory development in improvisation into first, second, and third stage articles. First stage articles attempt to transpose the improvisational work carried out in jazz extemporizing and theatre to organizational contexts. Second stage articles move improvisation away from the arts and into organizations, developing definitions (usually from a grounded theory approach), and building the foundations to allow research of a more positivist leaning. An emerging third stage is also identified, considering amongst other areas, a temporal perspective of organizational improvisation. This temporal aspect is encapsulated in their definition of organizational improvisation as “the conception of action as it unfolds, by an organization and/or its members, drawing on available material, cognitive, affective and social resources” (e Cunha et al 1999, 302). Chelariu et al (2002) expands on certain elements of this work, offering a comprehensive review of the way learning interacts with improvisation, and presenting a typology of improvisation. There are also links with the use of improvisation within projects.

Given the current interest in managing effectively within high-performance environments, there are very few references to the use of improvisational techniques to achieve change within organizations. Redding and Catalanello (1994) do devote a chapter to “Improvised Implementation,” seeing it as a component of their strategic learning cycle. It does however appear that this cycle is more focused on innovation, and harnessing and transferring this innovation around an organization, than improvisation in the sense that it is considered here.

The focus of much of the research reviewed here is on the need for an underpinning structure or framework, and the need for skills and knowledge, which can be learned or rehearsed, in order for improvisation to work within organizations. It also appears that although improvisation takes place often within project management, especially towards the end of a project, when bricolage comes into play because budgets are exhausted and the completion date is near, there is little mention of projects in the literature. With the exception of the tangential mention in Chelariu et al (2002), where projects are mentioned (Brown and Eisenhardt 1997), it is in different context, outside that of the use of project management to implement change.

A Description of the Study

This study was designed to address issues relating to the interface of implementation, projects, and change, the importance of socio-behavioral, cultural, and political issues within that interface, and the use of improvisation within the project managed implementation process. It is the improvisational aspects of the findings that concern us here. This interface between implementation, projects, and change has often been considered in a narrow way, following positivist traditions, and it is useful to consider that interface by delving deeper into phenomena that can only be accessed using methods such as case studies (Yin 1984). This method is able to yield the rich and deep (Bryman 1988) observational and narrative data that can produce new insights and explanations. Case study-based research offers “... an inductive, qualitative approach to increase the chance of discovering the unanticipated” (Gersick 1988, 12), and is: “... designed to generate new theory, not to test existing theory” (Gersick 1988, 12). An emphasis on “discovering the unanticipated,” allows the development of new explanations and theory from qualitative data, and case studies are seen as the ideal vehicle for this. As researchers, we are currently not fully aware of the problems faced in considering the linkages that may exist between implementation, projects, and change, as there is a dearth of theory which links the three areas. Such a statement does not suggest that managers practicing project managed implementation are not engaging with the problems of that implementation, only that these matters have rarely been considered or researched using qualitative research methods.

The study that underpins this research, and provides much of the primary data upon which the findings articulated in this paper have been based, was located in a subsector of the UK financial services sector. Six retail lending institutions, ranging from a major quoted bank, through building societies and ex-building societies (UK-based, mutually-owned organizations originally formed specifically to supply housing finance), to smaller retail lending organizations, were used. The data collection and analysis took place during 2000–2001, involving many visits to the organizations, and the collection of around 100 hours of interview data. Observational and secondary data was also incorporated into this broadly qualitative study.

The study focused on the processes, mechanisms, and routines that the six organizations used to implement the outcomes from the strategic planning process. Each organization used project management as the vehicle for the implementation of strategy, although the way it was used, and the level of financial and other resources available varied dramatically across the organizations. The prime focus of this paper is however the movement away from standardized and documented processes and mechanisms, towards use of improvisational routines and mechanisms.

Recognition of Improvisation

Some traditionalists may consider that project management is defined in terms of planning, tasks, activities, and the achievement of milestones. If projects are defined in this context, it could be said that improvisation is simply bad project management, in that it encourages project managers and project team members away from the traditional “plan, then implement” routines that are enshrined within the project life cycle (Adams and Barndt 1988). However, a more modern view of project management encompasses many socio-behavioral and political aspects that surround the use of projects within organizations (Morris 1998; Morris 2000, 88). A model of the factors that were seen to contribute to project success and failure was articulated in Morris (1998), and includes such behavioral factors as team building, communications, conflict, and decision-making. These factors, together with others such as trust, commitment, stress (Wilemon 2000, 137), and the culture within which the management of projects takes place (Hunt 2000) are now seen as vitally important, albeit that some of these factors may inhibit improvisation, and some may encourage it.

One striking outcome of the study that supports this work is that, notwithstanding the fact that improvisation within projects could be construed at a simple level as bad project management, there is almost universal support for it in a project and change context. Indeed, only just over 1 percent of respondents did not support improvisational activity. This almost universal support is a significant finding for three reasons. Firstly, although research into improvisation appears to be increasing exponentially, little has been published regarding improvisation within projects, notwithstanding recognition of its use by project managers. Secondly, the concept of improvising within projects does not appear in textbooks relating to the management of projects. Thirdly, there is no reference to improvisation either in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK ® Guide) – 2000 Edition or the Dixon (2000) UK Association for Project Management Body of Knowledge.

There is however overwhelming evidence of extensive use and acceptance of improvisation in the project management of change. Chelariu et al (2002, 141) suggest that this is: “… a reflection of the pressures of an environment characterized by unprecedented fast change.” Stacy (1996) suggests that these environmental conditions are uncertainty, complexity (described in terms of interdependent environments), and dynamism (described in terms of short-lived opportunities and threats to survival). The research that underpins this study was carried out within the UK retail financial services sector, which has elements of such an environment. Organizations faced with these conditions will find the traditional planning and implementation models less effective. Dickson (1997, 37) and Moorman and Miner (1998a, 1) both recognize the need to manage new change during implementation, and Tushman (1997, 15) discusses managing multiple changes concurrently. Improvisation assists with this plethora of change.

Given such environments, it is understandable that organizations may wish to use improvisational practices. There are however doubts as to the effectiveness of this improvisational activity, and none of the organizations within the underlying study are able to support empirically an assertion demonstrating that improvisation aids the project management of strategic change. Organizations are attempting this through benchmarking initiatives, although there are problems, particularly with the increase in risk that has to be managed. Because of this apparent dichotomy in the way organizations perceive improvisation, it is difficult to marshal a significant body of literature to support or challenge the use of improvisation within projects, as the subject appears not to have been addressed. Many managers cite an assumed link between improvisation and innovation, and intentionally allow employees the organizational and temporal space to learn from experimentation and improvisation. Other organizations display little evidence of effective improvisational activity, notwithstanding the fact that their project workers admit to improvising constantly. Establishing an empirical link between improvisation and effective project management is therefore one that requires much further research.

Use of Improvisation

Findings from the underlying study indicate that project and change managers embrace improvisation universally as a means of “getting things done.” Many managers, across all six organizations, have strongly articulated opinions about the need to move away from agreed plans in order to achieve change. Indeed, management teams may “… make a conscious decision to improvise as a means of creating more flexibility of behavior and more spontaneous decision making” (Chelariu et al 2002, 141). Crossan and Sorrenti (1997, 155) see this as “… intuition guiding action in a spontaneous way.” Improvisation is also seen as a means of circumventing intra and interorganizational political resistance. It is also apparent that improvisation often takes place without senior management knowledge. Chelariu et al see project teams as likely sources of such improvisation (2002, 141), a finding that is borne out by evidence from this study.

However, improvisation is better if bounded by some kind of limiting framework. This is supported by the literature. (Brown and Eisenhardt’s [1997, 16] “limited structure,” e Cunha et al’s [1999, 318] “minimal structure,” and Weick’s [1998, 545] “guidelines.”) As the financial services sector is highly regulated, and tends to be risk averse (Brooks and Dawes 1999, 197), such a framework is usually based around the management of risk. It is also recognized that improvisation is more effective if mechanisms exist to share successful improvisational activity (Moorman and Miner 1998b, 713; Chelariu et al 2002, 142), and to communicate lessons learned from it to relevant parts of the organization that can benefit from such activity (Moorman and Miner 1998b, 713). This requires the development of organizational memory (Moorman and Miner 1998b, 713–714). Respondents within all the organizations canvassed for the underlying study voiced concerns about the ability of their organization to capture good improvisational practice and encapsulate it within such a memory for future use. Effective organizations also encourage employees to deliver customer excellence, and this includes encouraging employees to take ownership of and solve customer requests. Improvisational activity is an enabler, and organizations with competent learning capabilities can identify and implement new improvisational processes as part of the streamlining of work processes. There is however evidence that IT-based change initiatives do not include as much improvisational activity as initiatives to change operational processes. This is a circumstance of the more rigorous and defined procedures that surround the implementation and testing of new IT-based systems, which provide the core account processing for most financial services organizations. However, one young organization within this study uses improvisation at all levels, and has informal forums to identify and disseminate improvisational practices that have the potential to become “best practice” within the organization. This organization also seems to have mastered the ability to “unlearn” historic embedded practices that are no longer relevant.

There are a number of reasons that improvisation is used within projects. These include:

1. Releasing innovation in project processes

2. Clawing back time and cost overruns

3. Delivering change under pressure against changing requirements

Those organizations that are in any way successful in this area have however succeeded to some extent in converting improvisational activity into useable data to assist future change initiatives. Although good practice in this area would be to lodge such information in a central repository (in the same way that post-implementation review data should be held), in most organizations this data resides within the cognitive capability of its employees. Such data would not be retained in the event of a migration of those employees away from the organization. The application of such data is equally problematical, although organizations are attempting to improve their capability in this area, albeit by applying informally and personally held data, rather than data from a central repository.

There is very little literature pertaining to the use of improvisation within project-managed implementation. The study that underpins this paper does however provide compelling evidence that improvisation is used in this area, and project managers in the six organizations investigated provide overwhelming support for improvisational activities as a means of executing project-managed change.

At this point it may be useful to compile a profile by combining elements of those six organizations, of a potentially strong organization in terms of the implementation of project-managed change. This organization has well-defined and powerful mechanisms and processes to create, align, guide, monitor, and cull change-related projects, together with effective routines to review project performance, and apply the knowledge gained to the improvement of future projects. These activities will be supported by project standards and procedures that form a framework for change and controlled improvisation. Allied to this, there will be a homogeneous culture that pervades the organization, and mechanisms that support and develop managers, team members, and employees through training, education, communication, and support, so they can manage, execute, and cope with change. There will be little negative political activity and minimal resistance to change. Many of the required characteristics are grounded in socio-behavioral, or “people-centered” areas that are seen as vital to developing a culture that will allow employees the confidence and opportunity to use improvisational practices effectively.

Summary and Discussion

Obtaining acceptance for improvisation in organizational life has two levels of difficulty. Firstly, people have a cultural prejudice, which suggests that what they plan and execute has more value, and is more likely to be effective, than what they spontaneously generate. Plans anchor people’s ideas and actions, but people get attached to such plans, and return to them even when they are ineffective. There is a perception that it is problematical not adhering to a plan, even in situations where plans, maps, and models do not assist.

Suchman (1987) sees this problem in terms of human-machine communication, and reflects on how humans respond in a “situated” way. Her explanation of situated action is “that every course of action depends in essential ways upon its material and social circumstances” (Suchman 1987, 50). Essentially, this means that as it is not possible to plan for every material and social circumstance, humans improvise, whereas machines can only respond to something that has been programmed. Machines cannot therefore innovate, and it appears that some organizations have the same problem, and for almost the same reasons. Many organizations plan for all eventualities, and many employees ensure they have a plan-based artifact to display to senior managers for protection and justification of their actions. This does not however negate their ability or desire to improvise, but may raise barriers to the ease with which improvisational activity can be triggered.

A second difficulty is related to the fear experienced when employees overstep a safe boundary into the unknown. Within the chosen sector for this study, this fear is strongly linked to stepping outside the risk framework surrounding most financial services organizations. Often employees will decide to follow plans, and negate risk, notwithstanding the fact that it may be less effective to do so. Risk averse organizations may also prefer this approach. There is also a political dimension, as when employees improvise, they have nobody to blame. An organizational culture that supports employees can assist. Hofstede (1997, 5) defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” The culture of a business reflects this view, but can be considered “to encompass only those characteristics and influences that relate to the work, or business, of the individual, or group” (Hunt 2000, 314). Some organizational cultures will inevitably be seen as more open to an improvisational style of working than others.

Keegan et al (1999, 4) refer to projects as being “heavily dependent on … specific human inputs in the form of project team members who bring skills together in unpredictable ways.” The recognition of unpredictability forms a link with improvisation within projects. The work of Chelariu et al (2002, 141–142), which considers environmental conditions for improvisation, and its use in creating flexibility of behavior and spontaneous decision-making, has already been identified. Cleland (1988, 52–53) provides a number of areas where attention assists performance, including giving members of project teams ownership of decisions, and encouraging creative approaches to problem solving. Both areas support improvisational activity, despite the fact that fourteen years ago the improvisation literature was in its infancy. There is however a fundamental problem with improvisation when it is considered alongside projects. Improvisation involves immediate action in order to achieve against a tight time-scale, or to solve an immediate problem. This often means having to take action without a full set of information. Traditional project management is strongly linked to planning and control, whereas with improvisation, a plan is of little assistance. Notwithstanding this, projects have been identified as a fertile breeding ground for improvisational practices. This is an area for additional research.

Exhibit 2. A Model of Improvisationally-Driven Change

Exhibit 2. A Model of Improvisationally-Driven Change

Some organizations recognize that action taken to resolve unforeseen problems has value in its own right. Much organizational improvisation is relatively unseen, and is often perceived as something people do surreptitiously. Employees do however improvise, and the data supplies compelling evidence of this. A fundamental problem is that many employees do not like to admit to improvising, as it puts them at risk. Improvisation forces employees to take responsibility, as there is no validated or agreed plan to support decisions. Improvisation can be an effective addition to tools for change, and particularly so within the project environment. It appears that tension within an organization that balances formality with informality, and risk with innovation, could lead to powerful and effective organizations.

There is no doubt that there is a trend towards the fusing of planning and implementation in the organizations studied, or alternatively “composition and execution converge[ing] in time” (Moorman and Miner 1998b, 698) within the use of projects to implement strategic change. Over 98 percent of respondents endorsed such a proposition, and a plethora of secondary data exists in support. The link between improvisation and the difficulties in applying sequential implementation techniques during periods of rapid change is however more difficult to establish. Evidence from the underpinning study produces a number of reasons for improvisation, including temporal pressure, insufficient resourcing, poor project planning, and changing expectations of project success. An improved mechanism to deal with such difficulties, which balances formality with informality, could assist in the implementation of project-managed change.


Having considered the literature relating to improvisation, and its use within the project management of change, it is possible to present a diagrammatical representation of the linkages that occur between components that contribute to improvisation and change. Exhibit 2 attempts this, displaying the project plan, overlaid with the improvisational constructs of intuition, creativity, and bricolage, together with the tacit knowledge of the project team. Sectoral triggers (in this case from the UK retail financial services sector) and other triggers for change initiate such projects, and an impetus generated by the strategic plan drives the implementation of change.

This model has evolved from a broadly qualitative study, and is in the early stages of development. A quantitative phase of this study is in progress. This quantitative phase will test some of the component parts of this model, hopefully resulting in the validation of the outcomes already generated. It is however unlikely that the results will be available prior to the presentation of this paper.

There is little doubt that interest in improvisation is increasing, and there is a growing appreciation of its use within the management of organizations. There are however difficulties to overcome in controlling improvisational activity, and in learning from it and re-applying it in such a way that it benefits those organizations. This paper represents a distillation of the opinions of almost one hundred practitioners involved in managing change within a specific sector. Many of these practitioners are however practicing project managers, and could therefore be construed as enthusiasts of project-managed change initiatives. Others are involved in the creation, generation, and implementation of change at various levels within six major financial services organizations. Notwithstanding this, the fact that there is such overwhelming support for improvisational practices, which could be considered to represent “‘bad project management,” is a remarkable finding.

It is however apparent from the literature, and also from data collected during the study that underpins this research, that organizations cannot let their employees ride roughshod over the standards and procedures that impose discipline on the implementation of project managed change. It follows that controlled improvisation, bounded by a framework that limits employee endeavor, can control the enthusiasms of proactive employees, who could otherwise indulge in improvisational ineptitudes that could ultimately result in organizational failure. The controlled use of improvisation by employees who are given the space and temporal opportunities to experiment with new and innovative self-generated work processes could pay dividends for organizations. We are living in a time of multiple possible futures, where discontinuities in organizations and their environments create a need for constant reorganization and reinvention. For organizations to survive and prosper, it is vital that they develop the mechanisms to record, assimilate, and reapply the lessons learned from such improvisation for the benefit of the organization and its various stakeholders.


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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2002



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