Situation and Mood

Improvisation is accepted by business management only in periods of crisis: it is only when every systematic approach attempted has failed that improvisation is valued - and naturally, a company that has been run systematically under "normal" circumstances is incapable of improvisation when there is a need for it. Naturally, the author's take is that improvisation should not be seen as a last-ditch, desperate effort, but as a component of everyday management and decision-making.

Improvisation as Situated Action

Back to etymology, "improvisation" indicates "in the absence of a plan," and a related word "extemporaneous" means "outside the normal flow of time." Both seem to indicate that improvisation is a contingency, only to be undertaken when there is not a pre-defined plan, or when something occurs outside the norm. This is exactly the way in which improvisation is regarded by management theory - it is something that is permitted when all else fails, or when the theory has failed to prescribe a course of action.

There are a few instances (such as repair work, or a unique project) where improvisation is standard procedure. A few case studies are presented of instances in which the nature of the work was so varied that it defied predictability, and the individuals involved needed to be empowered to improvise.

As we move from the manufacturing era to an information economy, the proportion of "work" that is based on repeatable routines continues to decrease, and the nature of work becomes more organic, less tractable, and the need for improvisation increases.

Rediscovering the Situation of the Actor, in the Situation

In phenomenology, there are four different terms that describe a "situation"

In each instance, the concept refers to the current situation, as contrasted with the expected or anticipated one. If things are "as usual" or "as expected," they do not merit remark, and problem-solving is unnecessary.

Improvising as a Mood

Mood (psychological state) is an essential component of improvisation. It is assumed that an individual will conform to the behaviors required to support a system or procedure, which is the path of least resistance, unless he is in a "mood" to do otherwise - to invest the time and take the risk of doing things differently.

Focusing on the cognitive aspects: improvisation requires intelligence: the user must perceive a different solution to a problem than that which is given them, or take interest in achieving greater efficiency or effectiveness than that which is expected of them, given the design and limitations of the process they are expected to follow. An individual who doesn't know better does not find the need to improvise.

Adoption of an improvised technique is also a matter of mood. Due in part to the tendency to the path of least resistance and, in this instance, the desire to conform to expectations, a person who seen another person's improvisation would choose to dismiss it as unorthodox and continue as normal - unless they were also in the "mood" to consider what the motivation and goal of the improvisation was, assess its effectiveness, and evaluate it as worth imitating.

There are over 400 distinct "moods" defined by psychology. The author looks at two:

Panic is a mood that occurs when a person encounters the unexpected: the situation is abnormal, an action does not have the expected consequences, and there is a need to remedy the situation in short order. Training or pre-conditioning is overwhelmed (generally, because it does not seem to apply, though logic doesn't always enter into it) and the subject undertakes a rash action, whatever comes immediately to mind, without taking time to refer to procedures or assess alternatives in detail. To "act without thinking" is generally considered unwise, but in some instances, it works out (a lengthy anecdote of the Mann Gulch incident) - but the important thing is: panic creates improvisation.

Boredom is on the opposite end of the scale: the situation is normal, nothing unexpected happens, and the subject is "immersed in a fog of indifference." Boredom is classified as a kind of stress, and if it persists (becoming "profound boredom") and is inescapable, a coping mechanism kicks in: the subject becomes more keenly observant (pays attention to details that go unnoticed when he is mentally engaged) and the individual may act in unconventional ways to alleviate the boredom. In both of these coping mechanisms, there is the potential for improvisation. It is suggested that many inventions and improvisations arose as pastimes against boredom.

Discovery can be a matter of cold, emotionless calculation and a formal problem-solving process, but considering extemporaneous improvisation from a purely cognitive perspective is insufficient. The mere existence of "a better way" that can be derived by logic and observation does not create improvisation: it is also a matter of "mood" that provides the subject incentive to seek alternatives. The author also goes so far as to suggest that emotion is the difference between systemic planning and improvisational action.