“Companies that value the ability to improvise have a competitive advantage in turbulent times”

Dhe major health and climatic hazards, soaring energy prices, multiple supply disruptions, a looming global economic crisis… Instability has become the norm. How to lead an organization in a such context? Those who value the ability to improvise have a real competitive advantage in such turbulent times (Elgar Introduction to Organizational Improvisation Theoryd’Antonio Cunha Meneses Abrantes, Miguel Pina e Cunha et Anne S. Miner, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2022, non traduit).

We thus saw, at the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020, certain companies reinvent themselves at high speed to produce masks then unobtainable, hospital services curb contagion with garbage bags and adhesive tapes and thus save lives. We see in Ukraine, in 2022, the incredible ingenuity shown by the citizens. A fashionable microbrewery now produces Molotov cocktails on the chain instead of beer. Amateur drone pilots have put their toys to work for the country to film Russian troop movements to inform fighters on the ground.

To improvise is to be able to react very quickly, by bouncing back from the unexpected in a creative way. Jazz musicians are masters of this. They impress the public with their extraordinary ability to give each other a line, without a score to guide them. “There is no false note. It all depends on the following note »said the musician Miles Davis (1926-1991).

Model and success of Ikea, low cost organization

This fast and rather intuitive way of operating is a thousand miles from that which is usually taught to future managers, trained on the contrary to anticipate, organize, optimize, create replicable and controlled processes, then put in place in multiple establishments and sometimes involving tens of thousands of employees.

And yet… One of the key elements of Ikea’s business model was born by chance, thanks to a team’s ability to improvise. Overwhelmed by the crowds, the managers of one of the first stores offered that day to the customers to help themselves in the warehouse by showing them the place of the different pieces of furniture. A low cost organization that has become emblematic of the brand, now world famous.

Improvising does not mean ignoring the advantages of planning, quite the contrary. Some of our studies show that the teams that plan the best are also the best at improvising. But organizational improvisation skills are an excellent complement to planning in turbulent and rapidly changing contexts, and – good news – these skills can be developed through ad hoc training.

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