Is improvisation the key to entrepreneurial success?

We’re all told that a well-researched business plan is the key to success, but I wonder if we spend so much time on developing (and losing sleep) over the formal strategy that we end up forgetting to improvise and to enjoy the ride?

After all, it’s being able to take advantage of the unexpected breakthroughs and opportunities that is so much the life-blood of the small business.

I’m currently working with a number of creative start-up businesses in partnership with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. By seeing how the supporting actors and musicians develop their businesses, I wonder if my theory that creatives make great entrepreneurs holds true? Actors and musicians are trained to improvise, to be able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and, as such, when other small business owners are floundering in not knowing all the answers. They’re often far more comfortable in going with the flow.

In contrast, I often work with CEOs who are careful not to say the first thing that comes to mind for fear of being judged or looking foolish. But is it so bad just to see what happens for a change? After all, there is nothing truer than Henry Ford’s statement that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Surely it’s a no brainer that the best and most resilient organisations are those that are brave enough to spot opportunities and to disrupt. Or similarly, in terms of their internal processes, if they see systems that don’t work they just tear them up and make them better.

Currently at Cause4, we’re going through the transition from start-up to mature business… and it’s a difficult shift. As a service business we’ve spent the last months focusing on efficiency and billing rates; all very important, but of course it then needs a completely different mindset to remember that as an organisation we’re only as good as the ideas that we have for our clients. It’s quality and innovation that is the life-blood of our business and focusing on efficiency certainly isn’t the silver bullet for creating ideas. If we can’t provide some improvisatory space for staff to take risks, and if we don’t know how to measure if a brain-wave is a short cut or a dead end, then we’re not going to get very far.

We most often think of improvisation in relation to the jazz musician. To the uninitiated, jazz music can seem like chaos. But the reality is that improvisation emerges out of a very ordered framework that has evolved from a long tradition of education and practice. The excellent CEO will develop such a framework that allows just enough risk that we can re-think the every day and the routine. It’s a safe place that can allow a business plan to evolve and breathe in a way that is more fun for everyone. 

Staff need to respond to constant change, a moving economic environment, and new technologies. But the fear of change can often be so embedded into a culture that all we ever hear is ‘no’ before ‘yes’. An organisation will come up with 50 reasons why something won’t work, rather than focusing on the five ways in which it might.

The tools of improvisation – such as learning to say ‘yes’ before ‘no’, taking risks, accepting each others’ ideas, exploring them and moving them forward – are exactly the tools that CEOs must develop to foster ideas under pressure. Undoubtedly, it’s quite a leap of faith. When improvising we have to trust that we’ll know what to do. But for the ambitious entrepreneur, it’s undoubtedly those that trust their own instincts and create the space to discover new things that will get ahead.

Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4.

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