Improvisation and project management

what, when, and how


This paper will outline the principles and components of improvised work and consider how they can be used to assist in the effective resolution of ambiguity and complexity in projects. The premise of the paper is that there has been an acknowledged shift within project management away from the traditional “plan-then execute” paradigm, toward an understanding that project-based work in today’s turbulent environments is intimately concerned with resolving challenging, ambiguous, and complex issues and requirements, often using a greater degree of “soft,” more behaviour-oriented skills.

One result of this shift is a move toward acceptance and that application of a more “improvisational” style of working, and this paper will assist in unpicking and explaining the theoretical underpinnings of organizational improvisation, explain how to apply improvisational working practices, and how to control them. As a part of this initiative, the paper will seek to identify sectors and organizational domains in which improvisational work can be more effective, and suggest why today’s project managers need to be aware of it. Reference will also be made to a recently developed and still evolving matrix that can act as a “route map” to assist with successful improvisation.

This presentation is based on over ten years of research into organizational improvisation within the project domain, as well as a significant amount of published research by the author.


Project management is changing and maturing. This change is manifesting itself in a shift from project management as the epitome of planning in the prescriptive mode (Maylor, 2001), toward movement over the last decade or so toward a more behavioral (Jaafari, 2003; Snider & Nissen, 2003) and improvisational (Leybourne, 2007) focus. In some instances, this shift has been driven by the increased turbulence of organizational environments or by the temporal challenges of fast-moving market sectors (Cooke-Davies et al., 2007). In other instances, modern managers are becoming more aware of the relative shortcomings of traditional project-based structures to deal with the need to effect change or alter strategic direction to take advantage of new or emerging opportunities (Williams, 2005; Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006). There is, however, an academically contested space within which there are two distinct camps: the traditional one, in which the management of project-based activity is related to process and control; and an emerging view that is more sympathetic to the need to resolve uncertainty caused by environmental turbulence and changing requirements, utilizing creativity, intuition, and the tacit knowledge built up over time and through experience.

My concern in this paper is with the second of these scenarios; namely, the aspect of project management that is concerned with the resolution of ambiguity and complexity, and the application of tacit knowledge and experience to assist in stepping away from process, toward a more improvisational way of resolving issues and achieving success within the project domain.

This leads us to a connection to the literature on improvisation in projects in that often issues relating to complexity and ambiguity can be resolved using creative thought, an intuitive “gut feeling” for what will work in a particular circumstance, and the adaptation of previously used routines (Leybourne, 2009; 2010), These are all identified as components of organizational improvisation. Additionally, bricolage, which relates to resolving issues effectively with only the resources at hand, is a meaningful skill in such circumstances.

The improvisational literature has been evolving significantly since the mid 1990s, and specific attention has been directed at improvising in general (e Cunha, da Cunha & Kamoche, 1999; and many others, including Karl Weick, Mary-Jo Hatch and Mary Crossan), learning from improvisation (Chelariu, Johnson & Young, 2002), and improvising project managers (Gallo & Gardiner, 2007; Kanter, 2002; Leybourne, 2002; 2006a; 2006b; 2006c; Leybourne & Sadler-Smith, 2006) since around the turn of the millennium. There has also been a move toward project-based techniques that concentrate on exploratory and adaptive management (Cicmil & Hodgson, 2006), particularly when projects are used to manage product and service development activity.

By nature, project managers are interested in these emerging issues within the project management domain, and are specifically keen to learn how new and emerging models of project management performance can assist in the resolution of issues of complexity and ambiguity and how improvised working styles and routines can help with project delivery.

The “What” of Improvisational Work in the Project Domain

Improvisation is of growing interest to managers in modern, flexible organizations. The application of improvisational styles of working requires significant change on the part of traditional organizations and is usually more successful where there has been a shift away from hierarchical, “command and control,” micro-managed operational styles toward an organizational model based on “flattened” hierarchies, increased flexibility, and local autonomy. Other important attributes are the recognition of the increased importance of inter- and intra-organizational networks and of mechanisms that encourage self-directed, self-designed work. However, such a radical shift in organizational style also requires major changes in the way in which culture, motivation, commitment, and trust are addressed. Essentially, work is becoming less formalized, more complex, and more improvisational.

This shift in working styles and cultures leads to a view that improvisation, which developed from Karl Weick’s early work on “sensemaking” (Weick, 1979) and that has evolved through comparison with jazz (Hatch, 1999) and theatrical improvisation (Vera & Crossan, 2004), can assist in both organizational and project effectiveness. Improvisation has been accepted both conceptually (e Cunha et al., 1999) and empirically (Miner, Bassoff & Moorman, 2001) and has a genuine contribution to make in resolving the issues of complexity and ambiguity that organizations are grappling with in these turbulent times (Lewin, 1993).

Indeed, employees are arguably becoming more like entrepreneurs, or maybe “intrapreneurs,” in that they are often expected to innovate in real time within their organizations to resolve issues as they arise. This is the essence of improvisation and it is also linked to an emerging area known as effectuation (Sarasvathy, 2008), which involves problem solving through human actions in environments that are essentially unpredictable.

The Components of Improvisation

So, what is improvised work about and, more importantly, what are the “components” of improvisation?

In 1998, academics at the University of Wisconsin (Moorman & Miner, 1998a, 1998b) identified and documented three elements of improvisation: creativity, intuition, and bricolage. They developed a framework and the aforementioned constructs to inform the academic understanding of improvisation, suggesting that it involves using an element of creative thought, combined with an intuitive “gut” feeling for what will assist in the resolution of a particular problem.

The third major component, Bricolage, is less well known. It essentially means “utilizing the resources at hand,” and indicates that the improviser has only limited resources to apply. Bricolage comes into play because it is unlikely that the improviser in a given circumstance will have time to mobilize additional resources. This is a significant limitation, but is a desirable skill at times when organizations are trying to achieve increased performance with reduced means.

Improvisation is also closely linked to time, and in particular the pressure to achieve a demanding or compressed timetable. Improvisation in this context is defined as: “…the degree to which composition and execution converge in time.” It follows from this that the less the time between the design and implementation, the more that activity is improvisational. This temporal link between two activities is important in judging the degree of improvisation required in the activity (Moorman & Miner, 1998a; 1998b; Ciborra, 1999).

Arguably, there are other constructs that link with the concept of improvisation, including “socialization,” given that group-based activity arguably produces more robust improvisational interventions, and “prototyping,” in that there are strong parallels between improvisation and new product development.

In 2001, four additional elements or constructs of improvisation emerged from the literature: adaptation, innovation, compression, and learning (Miner et al., 2001). Adaptation refers to the “adapting” of one of a personal store of previously successful interventions or improvised routines to assist in resolving emerging requirements. Adept and experienced improvisers innovate at the personal level in order to leverage previous practice and existing routines to solve organizational problems. Compression shortens intended timescales in order to deliver or resolve problems in less time. Learning is the outcome from successful, and indeed from unsuccessful, improvisation, in that effective interventions can join the personal library of successful improvised applications of the experienced improviser. Learning from less effective improvised activity is equally important.

Exhibit 1 arranges these constructs as inputs and outputs of improvisational activity.

Inputs and outputs of improvisational activity

Exhibit 1: Inputs and outputs of improvisational activity

Improvisational Ecology

It is evident that experienced and adept improvisers can circumvent routine and process and deliver resolutions to problems quickly and effectively (Ciborra, 1999). In organizations in which the culture and working styles are supportive of improvised work practices, employees can quickly develop a store of effective interventions that can be adapted and re-used. Often, this skill is liked with “experience” (i.e., “this is an experienced manager.”). This can however require a degree of risk tolerance that some organizations find difficult to engage in.

The next step is to capture successful improvisational activity and “codify” it and, in doing so, make the shift from tacit to explicit knowledge, that can be shared within the organization for wider benefit. This requires that the organization support and encourage improvisational activity and has a culture that does not identify or, worse, punish “failure.”

This is essential, as one of the outcomes of research in this area is that in many organizations, “failed” or ineffective improvisation is stigmatized, leading many employees to improvise “surreptitiously.” Moving away from planned activity involves discarding the shared responsibility that comes from consensus-based planning and it exposes improvised activity to intense scrutiny. Lack of organizational support can therefore drive effective and adept improvising managers “underground.”

The “When” of Improvisation and Links with Effectiveness

Rather naturally, improvised working styles are more effective in some scenarios and environments than in others (Leybourne, 2010). There are many reasons for this, and within the project domain, studies have identified the expertise and experience of project managers (Leybourne & Sadler-Smith, 2006), confidence from previous successful improvisational interventions (e Cunha et al., 1999), sympathetic and supportive organizational cultures (Leybourne, 2006), and the dominant components of the organizational requirements (Leybourne, 2010), among others. These issues impinge on, and in some situations govern, the likely success of improvisational interventions in many situations.

Given the effect of such influences, and the emerging importance of flexible working practices, which are now accepted as including elements of improvisational activity and improvisational working styles, it is useful to develop a taxonomy of improvisational competence to assist with the management of complex and challenging work. Arguably, such a tool could be used both within and outside of the project domain, but for the purposes of this section, it is assumed that project-based work is the subject of consideration.

Improvisation characteristics — creativity versus analytical adaptability

Exhibit 2: Improvisation characteristics — creativity versus analytical adaptability

In Exhibit 2 a simple matrix is proposed that classifies activities along two axes: creativity and analytical adaptability. Creativity in this context relates to some extent to the amount of ambiguity that has to be resolved by experience and emerging solutions, which may include improvisational intervention. Analytical adaptability relates to the extent to which there is a free choice of tools, techniques, and frameworks to assist in the management of the project.

The intention of this matrix is to assist strategic and project managers within organizations to identify situations where improvisation could reasonably be beneficial. The matrix can also help to understand what practices and procedures are relevant to organizations in similar regions of the diagram.

Both the axes within the matrix are characterized as high and low. The assessment of high or low on these axes is assessed based on prior personal knowledge and opinion generated from the many years of accumulated research into the characteristics of improvised work across many organizational sectors and is still subject to ongoing appraisal, analysis, and allocation and re-allocation. The positions of some sectors within the matrix are still the subjects of much debate, and over time, the development and refinement of the matrix may necessitate the movement of organization types and sectors from one area to another.

At this point, it is appropriate to consider the matrix in more detail.

On the vertical axis, high creativity is associated with dramatic change, numerous risk events, and situations with many unknowns. These changes should be fundamental and more than simple incremental variation and cost escalation. In Exhibit 2 the vertical axis describes the level of creative challenge, which can be high or low. The horizontal axis describes the level of analytical adaptability, which again can be high or low. For the purposes of this matrix, creativity can be considered as an “assumption breaking process” in that it defies the acknowledged and accepted paradigm in a specific area or for a specific process.

The analytical adaptability axis recognizes the fact that improvisational work needs to be based on and linked with traditional analytical tools and techniques, such as the production and analysis of decision-making data (e.g., to estimate costs and scheduling); however, particularly early in the planning cycle, much creativity may be required in data collection and analysis. Questions to be answered may include: Are the data typical, or did special conditions hold? Is the design facing major revisions? Are the underlying assumptions no longer valid?

If the answer to these types of questions is “yes,” then the fundamental and overarching question is, “Can improvised activity assist?”

In the matrix, analytical adaptability is considered as a “tool breaking process,” in that it defies the acknowledged and accepted paradigm for the tools and techniques. Analytical adaptability is required when the processes or the cost and schedule data are unpredictable —that is, significantly outside of their expected bounds—and the tools and techniques generally associated with activity planning appear to be predicting results well beyond a simple cost or schedule overrun. It is now appropriate to move to an explanation of the matrix.

Box 1 – High creativity, low analytical adaptability.

Smaller not-for-profit organizations tend to fall into this category. Not-for-profits often encompass creative arts organizations conducting fundraising projects or putting on performances. They typically require considerable creative energy, but the activity often resembles previous efforts: previous fundraisers or previous performances. Therefore, although this requires considerable creativity, the analytical aspect is often similar to previous efforts and is therefore low on the analytical adaptability scale.

Box 2 – Low creativity, low analytical adaptability.

Here we have work such as incremental software maintenance and information technology (IT) activity, which requires relatively low creativity. Maintenance work typically inherits characteristics from the already existing parent system, which presumably has existed for a while. Therefore, relatively low creativity is also required, because maintenance changes are unlikely to require a re-design of the underlying system.

In Box 2, we do not expect the activity to require much in the way of new or innovative tools to analyze the project. Maintenance activity typically exists in a regime in which the processes and tools are already rigorously defined, and the team is expected to follow existing protocols.

Box 3 – High creativity, high analytical adaptability.

Here we have activity with both very high creativity and highly adaptable analytical requirements. The pharmaceutical and drug industries characterize this type of activity. New drugs require research and development, which are unpredictable and call for high degrees of creativity. Drug development is both highly regulated and expensive, so there is a great deal of analytical work to plan the development and closely monitor the cost and schedule during the trial and acceptance phases. A high degree of analytical adaptability is also required to manage the project through the lengthy process with its many changes in direction.

Box 4 – Low creativity, high analytical adaptability.

Here we have activity with very high analytical requirements but low creativity. Many types of department of defense and other large public sector projects fall into this category. The government imposes many and varied standards and procedures. Although data reporting and analysis requirements in this category of activity are significant, the work is developed to a very specific and pre-existing scope statement, on which compromise is rarely possible.

The logical outcome from this matrix is that creative improvisation is likely to be more evident, and indeed more effective, in certain environments. In some domains, considerable analytical creativity can be brought to bear to evolve new and innovative ways to allow adept and motivated employees to develop new ways of achieving the required activity.

The skill is in knowing when to relax the framework that surrounds proscribed activity in organizations and when to impose greater degrees of rigor and structure. Realistically, this will depend on two factors, namely: when does the project environment require creativity (e.g., in Box 3), and how supportive the company environment is of creative and improvisational working practices. Essentially, employing creativity will depend on the degrees of trust and confidence that strategic managers have in the ability of employees to improvise effectively. As this trust and confidence increase, the degrees of rigor and structure can be relaxed.

However, managing the tension between improvisation and control is a challenge for modern organizations, but is one that needs to be addressed. Evidence suggests that traditional routines for “micro-managing” organizational activity will not deliver the flexibility and agility required in modern organizations and will not resolve the ambiguity and complexity that are inherent in modern organizational work. This tension is real, and complicates the relationship between improvised creativity and proscribed activity.

The “How” of Improvisation and the Control of Improvised Activity

Having considered what improvised work consists of, and having been exposed to a matrix that is intended to assist in deciding where improvised working styles are likely to be more or less effective, it is now an opportune time to investigate some aspects of how to make all this work in a particular organization and project-based domain. Experience as a practicing project manager and the outcomes of a decade of research in this area suggest that the key elements involved in making improvisation work within the evolving organization fall into two categories: one revolving around encouraging improvisational activity, and the other being concerned with the control of that activity.

Encouraging Improvisation

A significant issue in improvisational work is that many project managers feel exposed in their improvisational activity. Simply stated, undertaking and managing work that is the result of joint planning and discussion also implies shared responsibility for actions and decisions that are not effective or that do not produce the required or anticipated outcomes. In order for improvised work not to be driven “underground,” the culture of the organization needs to embrace a “No Blame” culture, in which successful improvisational interventions are celebrated but, more importantly, less successful improvisation is accepted as a learning opportunity, not a failure (Leybourne, 2006d).

The alternative to this cultural approach is surreptitious improvised activity, with the result that successful improvisation is not captured, codified, and shared more widely within and across the organization.

It also follows that creating time and space for people to try new ways of achieving tasks and activities will encourage and validate improvisational activity. Two companies that are recognized as leaders in this area is 3M, who has been allowing up to 15% of employee time to be used in this way for decades, and is seen as an organization that is highly effective at innovating (Gundling, 2000). Similarly, Google frees up 20% of employee time for work on personal projects, with the understanding that they should in some way contribute to the organizational mission.

Encouraging improvisation is a positive step, but it is in sharing successful improvisational interventions that the benefits of improvisational work really accrue. Experienced project managers not only learn from improvisational activity, but they also adapt previously successful interventions to resolve new and emerging issues (e Cunha et al., 1999). Relying on a tacit knowledge base is beneficial to the individual project manager, but the organization benefits greatly from effective mechanisms and routines that capture successful improvised activity, codify this knowledge (Chelariu et al.,2002), and share it as an emerging “best practice.”

Controlling Improvisation

A number of suggestions have been offered to encourage improvisation, but of course there also has to be an element of control in order to channel improvised activity in a direction that contributes to the organizational mission and vision and to meeting agreed-on objectives and deliverables. The alternative is likely to be organizational anarchy.

It is inevitable that when organizations are starting on the journey toward effective improvised activity, early improvised interventions are likely to be relatively immature. One way to control the effect of this nascent improvising is to limit early actions to tasks and activities that occur “off the critical path.” This ensures that less effective actions do not cause difficulties that impinge on the project in a major way; additionally, any risk attached to failed or less successful improvisational interventions can be contained.

The other important element in the control of immature or embryonic innovation is to develop a framework to contain improvisational activity. This framework can be formalized or indeed it can be a less formal and more virtual framework based on the cultural norms and understanding of the organization and its accepted way of achieving within the project domain. Because improvisation disrupts procedures, which are assumed to be the optimal way of carrying out tasks within traditionally managed organisations, it is important that, at least initially, some other element of implied control be present. This framework within which employees can improvise, and where flexible boundaries are set, can be relaxed as trust is built and the culture adapts to embrace effective improvisational working. Brown and Eisenhardt (1997, p 16) call this a “limiting structure,” and suggest that it: “provides the overarching framework without which there are too many degrees of freedom.”


It is evident from both the literature (Ciborra, 1999) and from practice (Leybourne, 2002) that experienced and adept improvisers can circumvent routine and process and deliver resolutions to problems quickly and effectively. The progression from an embryonic to a mature level of improvisational competence is, however, challenging, both at the individual and at the organizational levels. Notwithstanding such challenges, the empirical evidence suggests that in organizations in which the culture and working styles are supportive of improvised work practices, employees can quickly develop a store of effective interventions that can be adapted and re-used (Moorman & Miner, 1998b; Miner et al., 2001; Chelariu et al, 2002).

We have already discussed the fact that moving away from “planned” activity involves discarding the shared responsibility that comes from consensus-based planning and that it exposes improvised activity to intense scrutiny. Lack of organizational support can therefore drive effective and adept improvising managers “underground,” resulting in the loss of the significant benefits of shared emerging best practice (Leybourne, 2007). Cultural, organizational, and managerial support for improvised activity is therefore vital.

There are also a number of things that have become self-evident from the study of improvising project managers and improvising teams, supported by the behavioral, cultural, and managerial tenets that create a sympathetic arena for improvised work.

First, there is little doubt that many tasks and activities can be accomplished better or faster, and that often deliverables are closer to expectations both from a temporal and a scope/quality aspect. Second, those tasks and activities are usually delivered with less resource being expended; these resource savings can be in terms of physical resources, human resource, financial resources, or often a combination of the three. Bricolage is a particularly important element here. Third, and perhaps most important, successful improvisational interventions allow project managers and project teams to evolve new ways of achieving that can be used to expand the personal library of effective project-based interventions of the experienced project group. This knowledge generation, which is often tacit, results in the generation of “emerging best practice” that can be embedded in more effective project management in the future.

Finally, if the tenets of good knowledge management are applied (there is a significant literature extant in this area, which is outside the scope of this paper), this successful improvisation can be identified, recorded, and shared, moving successful interventions from the tacit to the explicit realm, which means that they can be used to improve the effectiveness of project-based management on an organization-wide basis.

This is a good thing for project managers, project team members, and organizations.


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© 2011, Stephen A. Leybourne
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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