By Ellis Anderson
Improvisation can be described as the process of thinking and acting on your feet in response to new and shifting phenomenon, often times linked to chance results when faced with sudden provocation (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). While there are multiple existing definitions of improvisation, Stephen Leybourne outlines a number of key improvisational constructs as seen in both jazz music and agile project environments (Leybourne, 2009):
Improvisation uses social and technical structures to allow for cohesion within the group, creating an inclusive experience with an informed audience, who also operate within certain expectations.
Improvisation is most commonly associated within a group context such as jazz ensembles. Jazz is inherently an inventive and collaborative process where all members of the group move in unison towards a collective goal (Bastien & Hostager, 1988). Its unique brand of collaboration requires that its members be especially attuned to each other’s voices and input in order to maintain momentum and cohesive direction. Improvisation uses social and technical structures to allow for cohesion within the group, creating an inclusive experience with an informed audience, who also operate within certain expectations (Sawyer, 2000).
In jazz, social structure can be understood as a form of egalitarian ‘etiquette,’ which provides an interactional framework for collaboration and creative production (Sawyer, 2000). In another way, social structure is defined as predetermined roles and responsibilities within the group, a ‘collective mind’ towards experimentation among team members (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Trust is also a significant component to the success of improvisation. In jazz improvisation, trust is defined in “three dimensions: ‘consistency trust’ (people will do what they said they would); ‘competence trust’ (having faith in other’s abilities) […]; ‘goodwill trust’ — this refers to openness and goal congruence” (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Much like the idea of cohesion that Magni, Proserpio, Hoegl, & Provera (2009) propose in their study of how behavioral integration shapes individual improvisation, trust is key to improving directional focus or “togetherness” within the group. In addition to social structure, technical structure provides another layer of variable control within the jazz environment. Technical structure is defined through compositional frameworks, song structures and the use of licks or “musical grammar” (Bastien & Hostager, 1988), historically located clichés, and “culturally shared scripts for conversation” (Sawyer, 2000).
Team cohesion ultimately impacts an individual’s comfort and feeling of acceptance among their teammates.
In their study of information system developer teams, Magni et al. looked at how different industries employ improvisational techniques into their workflow. In their analysis, they found that behavioral integration and cohesion are directly tied to an individual’s ability to respond with solutions to emerging uncertainty (Magni et al., 2009). In their research, they describe cohesion as the social bond between team members towards a unified goal, a sense of community, or a feeling of loyalty to the group (Magni et al., 2009). Team cohesion ultimately impacts an individual’s comfort and feeling of acceptance among their teammates. Behavioral integration is defined as the ability for all members of a group to freely interact, share and absorb information, cooperate, collaborate, and receive feedback from other members (Magni et al., 2009). Their research findings ultimately support their original hypothesis; the level of behavioral integration and team cohesion directly corresponds to an individual’s ability to improvise.
Keith Sawyer’s research in group creativity mirrors many of these same findings, highlighting common themes found in “effective creative teams” (Sawyer, 2007). These themes closely resemble the behaviors found in improvisational groups. Sawyer relates group creativity to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow” or a “particular state of heightened consciousness” (Sawyer, 2007). Sawyer, a student of Csikszentmihalyi, adapts this idea towards his own concept of “group flow,” and provides guidelines for establishing group flow within creative teams (Sawyer, 2007):
Innovation in improvisation comes from a specific kind of relationship between actors within a group, not from a predetermined end goal.
It’s important to note that innovation in improvisation comes from a specific kind of relationship between actors within a group, not from a predetermined end goal. “[Collaborative musical performance] is the paradigmatic example of a form of human interaction in which the processes of engagement, innovation, and ensemble coordination—rather than outcome—are the goals of interaction” (Healey, Leach, & Bryan-Kinns, 2005). As Healey et al. (2005) suggest, if future tools and technology seek to increase participants’ capacity for innovation, they should be created with the intention to replicate the experience of interaction within a collaborative music ensemble.
However, some issues may arise from this model. The variability and potential for mistakes inherent with an improvisational approach to generating new ideas may not be appropriate when used in industries requiring maximum consistency and reliability (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Another difficulty is that improvisation functions on a delicate balance of structure and flexibility, which may be hard to implement. The model requires that team members are able to improvise, act quickly, and respond to the group’s momentum/direction; each individual needs to possess an ability to perform within this framework in order for it to succeed (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Perhaps the greatest issue with this model is the evaluation of ideas created in the process. Improvisation becomes a useful strategy for generating novel responses to changing criteria but places a stronger emphasis on the generative process itself over specified outcomes (Healey et al., 2005).
Designers must establish some level of improvisation, behavioral integration, and/or cohesion in order to respond to their collaborators in an equitable fashion.
Though the scope of my research is relatively limited, it would appear that the cross-application of improvisational models to various industries has yet to be exhaustively explored or studied. Methodologies that incorporate both structure and flexibility are needed to cope with the increasing pressure to develop outcomes with speed and responsiveness in fast-changing environments such as new product development and technology (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Industries that seek to move away from traditional hierarchies and move towards “flexibly-structured learning entities” stand to benefit the most from improvisation (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). Design is one such example. As designers seldom produce work in a vacuum, they must engage in some form of team collaboration with various stakeholders and potential end-users during the creative process. Designers must establish some level of improvisation, behavioral integration, and/or cohesion in order to respond to their collaborators in an equitable fashion.
Group improvisation is the proactive recognition of equality and respect for collaborators. It is a mutual acceptance of each member’s ability to inspire everyone’s production. It is also a method for coping with shifting requirements and uncertain futures (Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). The benefits of adopting improvisation are clear. Improvisation can serve as a reactive/reflexive tool to anticipate turbulence and respond with novel solutions. However, the designer must first understand the subtleties of improvisational structures when applying them in their own practices if they wish to produce something that is inclusive, innovative, and responsive.
Bastien, D. T., & Hostager, T. J. (1988). Jazz as a process of organizational innovation. Communication Research, 15(5), 582-602. doi:10.1177/009365088015005005
Healey, P. G., Leach, J., & Bryan-Kinns, N. (2005). Inter-play: Understanding group music improvisation as a form of everyday interaction. Proceedings of Less is More—Simple Computing in an Age of Complexity.
Kamoche, K., & Cunha, M. P. E. (2001). Minimal structures: From jazz improvisation to product innovation. Organization studies, 22(5), 733-764. doi:10.1177/0170840601225001
Leybourne, S. A. (2009). Improvisation and agile project management: A comparative consideration. International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 2(4), 519-535.
Magni, M., Proserpio, L., Hoegl, M., & Provera, B. (2009). The role of team behavioral integration and cohesion in shaping individual improvisation. Research Policy, 38(6), 1044-1053. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2009.03.004
Sawyer, K. (2007). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York: Basic Books.
Sawyer, R. K. (2000). Improvisational cultures: Collaborative emergence and creativity in improvisation. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 7(3), 180-185. doi:10.1207/s15327884mca0703_05