Improvisation may seem to be spontaneous, but managers can foster it in innovation projects through the deliberate development of certain processes and capabilities.

The ability to innovate and rapidly respond to changes in the business environment is critical to competitiveness and success. Creativity and problem-solving skills are key elements of improving the outcomes in projects that require innovation. Iterative development, improvisation, and experimentation combined with focus and flexibility are needed to identify new business opportunities and effectively execute projects. But business demands also require efficiency, and many organizations pursue disciplined project management and product development practices that emphasize standardization and consistency to help drive down costs.

Is a disciplined approach to product development at odds with creativity and improvisation? Can managers develop skills around building improvisation and creativity, especially for innovative projects? If so, what are the right conditions for improvisation to flourish? In this article, we discuss findings from our study on improvisation in product development projects and how managers can create a team environment conducive to improvisation.

Improvisation Fundamentals

In general terms, improvisation is the ability to create and implement a new or an unplanned solution in the face of an unexpected problem or change. It is often seen as a spontaneous, intuitive, creative problem-solving behavior that mostly happens “on the fly.”

Improvisation has been studied for some time in the fields of music, psychology, and education. In the theater, it is often seen as a “pure” state of creativity, in which a team or individual may rely on intuition and spontaneity to come up with an action or arrangement. In music, researchers have identified different skills that when combined form the core competence for improvisation, including problem solving, communication and expression, proper use of language, creativity, and visualization abilities. Some have suggested that improvisation should itself be a discipline and be officially taught in music schools.

Improvisation has also been studied in organizational strategy and product development. Studies have found positive correlations between improvisation in product development and team performance. It is considered a spontaneous behavior (collectively or individually), and therefore dependent on team members’ attitudes, experience, motivation, intuition, and individual skills.