Chapter: Cultivate Your Improvisational Capacity

Improvisation is too good to leave to chance.
-Paul Simon, musician

The genius of our country is improvisation, and jazz reflects that. It’s our great contribution to the arts.
-Ken Burns, author

What do you do when there is no plan or the plan makes no sense given the conditions?  You improvise. Consider this:

The pilots of US Airways Flight 1549 achieved one of the rarest and most technically challenging feats in commercial aviation: landing on water without fatalities.Although commercial jetliners are equipped with life vests and inflatable slides, there have been few successful attempts at water landings during the jet age. Indeed, even though pilots go through the motions of learning to ditch a plane in water, the generally held belief is that such landings would almost certainly result in fatalities.Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a veteran US Airways pilot, pulled it off while simultaneously coping with numerous other challenges. (Lunsford 2009)

Was this a stroke of luck?  Fate? Skill? I would argue that Captain Sullenberger was a successful improviser because he was so well trained in standard routines.  Huh?  What does training have to do with improvisation?  As it turns out, everything.

Improvisation is the least understood new skill to gain competitive advantage.  Let’s take a deep dive into what it means to improvise and to explode some of the misperceptions concerning it. We begin by scoping out the contexts most likely to require improvisation. Captain Sullenberger performed in what is called a real-time decision making context (RTDM). Real-time in this case is defined as decisions that must be made within seconds or minutes. Improvisation is sometimes the only response to a real-time decision making context.

In this chapter I explain why improvisation is such an important skill and dispel the myths surrounding it. I then provide a path to increasing your improvisational capacity.

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