Norfolk Network stories

Improvisation as a Business Tool

Angeline Braidwood
Freelance writer

The last 18 months have meant a lot of us have had to deviate from ‘the plan’ whether it’s in our workplace, a business plan or a personal one. An enlightening talk about improvisation from Clive Rounce at the most recent Norfolk Network MIXER demonstrated that this could actually be a good thing. It turns out that rather than ‘winging it’, knowledgeable improvisation can further your goals in a way that following a careful plan might not.

Clive, a chartered process engineer by background and now a management coach has turned his career on its head and now uses improvisation as a tool for creating opportunities and making business decisions. He frankly tells us that a year ago he wouldn’t have believed he was saying this but some key changes in his life led to a radical mindset turnaround on how to work and move forwards in business and life. He’s been busy, in the last year he trained as a professional coach, moved house and county to Norfolk and left the security of full time employment. Unsurprisingly this became a reflective time for Clive as he found that it wasn’t possible to plan and prepare for every eventuality. Most of us can appreciate that in terms of house moving (when does it ever go to plan!) and also how the pandemic has impacted our working and home lives, pushing a lot of us to improvise rapidly. He cites the book “Do Improvise – Less Push” by Robert Poynton and how reading this and other new management texts alongside this period of turmoil led to his new way of addressing business.

Improvisation isn’t about making it up as you go along but reading the situation and using your knowledge to support you.

How does improvisation work as a management tool then? 

“You can’t remove all of the uncertainty by planning – and even if you could, you’d probably miss the best outcomes,” Clive tells us. Applying the principles of improvisational theatre, as advocated by Robert Poynton, to management technique means you notice more, let go of preconceived ideas and use everything. It’s a strategy for better outcomes, an agile approach – try something new, monitor what happens and then learn from the outcome.

Clive’s introduction to this approach lead to a lively conversation with Norfolk Network members. Improvisation isn’t about making it up as you go along but reading the situation and using your knowledge to support you.  Ilona Utting gave a great example of improvisation in her work as business analyst.

“It’s not for when things go wrong, it’s often Plan A. because you want to get the client to steer the discussion. Plan B is using your planned preparation if it’s needed.” You need to have done your homework just as with working to a strategic plan but you don’t necessarily need to draw on it, it depends on how your conversation goes. Put another way, improvising in business is about facilitating rather than presenting yourself in an expert role. 

Clive agreed with her reinforcing that improvising is about connecting with people, using what’s available to create solutions.

Another great example of this came from Robin Milton who initially trained as a teacher. 

‘You can’t stick to a rigid plan in teaching, there’s a goal and you just have to get there.” I think we can all relate to a time when a teacher refused to move from their lesson plan and nothing was learned whereas the one who flexed with the situation in class and improvised created an exciting lesson that we all remember and learnt something in!

Clive tells us right at the start of the discussion that improvisation is ‘dancing in the moment’. Rather than following a detailed strategic plan, ‘concentrate, adapt and respond’. A technique that he’s bringing to his clients with enthusiasm and success.