Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Planning and improvisation – complementary facets of organizational work

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Cause-effect relationships in the business world are never clear cut. Yet, those who run business organisations hanker after predictability. Consequently, a great deal of effort is expended on planning – thinking out and organizing actions aimed at directing the course of the future.  In this “planning view”, time is seen as a commodity that can be divided, allocated and used to achieve organizational aims.  In this scheme of things, the future is seen as unfolding linearly, traversing the axis of time according to plan. Although (good) plans factor in uncertainties and unforeseen events, the emphasis is on predictability and it is generally assumed that things will go as foreseen.

In reality things rarely go according to plan. Stuff happens, things that aren’t foreseen – and what’s not foreseen cannot be planned for. People deal with this by improvising, taking extemporaneous actions that feel right at the time. In retrospect such actions often turn out to be right.  However, such actions are essentially unplanned; one cannot predict or allocate a particular time at which they will occur. In this sense they lie outside of normal (or planned) organizational time.

In a paper entitled Notes on improvisation and time in organisation (abstract only), Claudio Ciborra considered the nature of improvisation in organisations. Although the paper was written a while ago, primarily as a critique of Business Process Reengineering (BPR) and its negative side effects, many of the points he made are of wider relevance.  This post, inspired by Ciborra’s paper, is the first of a two-part series of posts in which I discuss the nature of improvisation and planning in organisations. In the present post I discuss the differences between the two and how they complement each other in practice. In a subsequent post I will talk about how the two lead to different notions of time in organisations.

Contrasting planning and improvisation

The table below summarises some of the key contrasting characteristics between planning and improvisation:



Follows procedures and processes; operates within clearly defined boundaries Idiosyncratic; boundaries are not well defined, or sometimes not defined at all.
Operates within organizational rules and decrees Often operates outside of organizational rules and norms.
Method of solution is assumed to be known. Method emerges via sensemaking and exploration.
Slow, deliberate decision-making Quick – almost instantaneous decision making
Planning attempts to predict and control (how events unfold in) time. Improvisation is extemporaneous – operates “outside of time”

In essence improvisation cannot be planned;  it is always surprising, even to improvisers.

Planning and improvisation coexist

Following Alfred Schutz, Ciborra notes that in planned work (such as projects) every action is carried out according to a view of a future in which it is already accomplished.  In other words, in projects we do things according to a plan because we expect those actions to lead to certain consequences – that is we expect our actions to achieve certain goals.  Schutz referred to such motives as in-order-to motives. These motives are embedded in the project and its rationale, and are often documented for all to see. However, in-order-to motives are only part of the story, and a small one at that. More important are the reasons for which the goals are thought to be worthwhile. Among other things, these involve factors relating history, environment and past experiences of the people who make up the organisation or project. Schutz referred to such motivations as because-of motives. These motives are usually tacit and remain so unless a conscious effort is made to surface them.

As Ciborra puts it:

The in-order-to project deals with the actor’s explicit and conscious meaning in solving a problematic situation while the because-of motives can explain why and how a situation has been perceived as problematic in the first place.

The because-of motives are tacit and lie in the background of the explicit project at hand. They fall outside the glance of rational, awake attention during the performance of the action. They could be inferred by an outsider, or made explicit by the actor, but only as a result of reflection after the fact.

(Note that although Ciborra uses the word project as referring to any future-directed action, it could just as well be applied to the kinds of projects you and I work on.)

Ciborra uses the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate the coexistence of the two types of motives. The in-order-to motives are the tip of the iceberg, there for all to see. On the other hand, because-of motives, though more numerous, are hidden below the surface and can’t be seen unless one makes the effort to see them. Improvisation generally draws upon these tacit, because-of motives that are not visible.  Moreover, the very interpretation of formalized procedures and best practices involves these motives. Actions performed as a consequence of such interpretations are what bring procedures and practices to life in specific situations. As Ciborra puts it:

A formalized procedure embeds a set of explicit in-order-to’s, but the way these are actually interpreted and put to work strictly depends upon the actor’s in-order-to and because-of motives, his/her way of being in the world “next” to the procedure, the rule or the plan. In more radical terms what is at stake here is not “objects” or “artifacts” but human existence and experience. Procedure and method are just “dead objects”: they get situated in the flow of organizational life only thanks to a mélange of human motives and actions. One cannot cleanse human existence and experience from the ways of operating and use of artifacts.

In short, planning and improvisation are both necessary for a proper functioning of organizations.

Opposite, but complementary

Planning and improvisation are very different activities – the former is aimed at influencing the future through activities that are pre-organized whereas the latter involves actions that occur just-in-time.   Moreover, planning is a result of conscious thought and deliberation whereas improvisation is a result of tacit knowledge being brought to bear, in an instant, on  specific situations encountered in project (or other organizational) work. Nevertheless, despite their differences, both activities are important in organizations. Efforts aimed at planning the future down to the last detail are misguided and bound to fail. Contraria sunt complementa: planning and improvisation are opposites, but they are complementary.1


1 The phrase contraria sunt complementa means opposites are complementary. It appears on the physicist Niels Bohr’s coat of arms (he was knighted after he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1922). Bohr formulated the complementarity principle, the best known manifestation of which is wave-particle duality – i.e. that in the atomic world, particles can display either wave or particle like characteristics,  depending on the experimental set up.

Written by K

May 5, 2011 at 10:12 pm

14 Responses

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  1. […] improvization, and process Posted on May 7, 2011 by Bill Nichols Kailasha at Eight to Late engages in some philosophy regarding the how of planning and improvization are […]


  2. K,
    I’m not sure if the pingback is working. I commented over at the Process Revolution, http://billnichols.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/planning-improvization-and-process/

    Your observation ties in nicely with my thesis about process, discipline, and rules as the critical enabler for self organization and improvisation.


    Bill Nichols

    May 8, 2011 at 5:13 am

  3. Bill,

    Thanks for the comment and the mention on your blog. For some reason your pingback was routed to my moderation queue.

    I’ve been thinking about process vs. improvisation for a while and stumbled across Ciborra’s work on a ramble through Google scholar. I read a few of his papers and have just started reading his book The Labyrinths of Information – a look at the how IS development really occurs (as opposed how it is supposed to occur). In contrast to most approaches to systems development (and research in systems development), Ciborra’s starting point is actual human experience rather than method or measurement. I think you will find it interesting, although you may not agree with all he says.

    Thanks again for the shout out.





    May 8, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  4. K,

    I will start with your link to Ciborra. It’s 20 pages of dense text, your summaries are less effort. 😉


    Bill Nichols

    May 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm

  5. Bill,

    Alistair Cockburn refers to Ciborra’s book as “nearly inscrutable” in this article. On the other hand, here’s a glowing review, written by (no prizes for guessing) an academic. I think it is fair to say that the truth lies somewhere between.

    I’m about halfway through: here’s a brief interim overview / critique thus far:

    The book is essentially a compilation of a number of his papers, strung together as a loosely connected bunch of essays. His main thesis is pretty much what he states in the improvisation paper which I have discussed in the above post – that the actual experience of systems-related work in organisations has little (if anything) to do with process and method.

    Among other things, he contends that the actual work of systems development involves improvisation (as discussed above) and bricolage (creation of artefacts from things and skills that are at hand). His observations are drawn from a number of empirical studies that he carried out in the 1980s and 90s.

    In one of the essays he also argues that technology-related best practices and standards “level the playing field” – reducing technology to a commodity rather than a strategic advantage. This is essentially the same point that Nicholas Carr made when he told us that IT doesn’t matter. This is true to the extent that strategic advantage can be conferred only by those practices and procedures that are unique to an organisation.

    I think Ciborra makes important observations about what happens “on the ground” in organisations – i.e things like improvisation and bricolage. However, I think the techniques he suggests to encourage these are little more than platitudes. For example, one of the recommendations he makes to is that organisations should “value bricolage strategically” – which sounds great in a mission statement, but is somewhat empty. How exactly does one go about “valuing bricolage strategically”?

    My criticisms aside, I’m actually quite enjoying the book as Ciborra is quite eloquent and at times even funny. It is a good read and it makes one think. Time permitting, I will do a review.





    May 10, 2011 at 10:00 pm

  6. […] Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a set of well-describable options that may be incorporated into the plan: This point may seem like it doesn’t apply to data warehousing initiatives – all data warehousing projects have a plan, right? Nevertheless, those who have worked on such projects will attest to the fact that the plan – such as it is – needs frequent revision because of surprises that crop up along the way.  Iterative/incremental development approaches can address these issues to some extent, but cannot eliminate them completely. Because of time constraints, it is inevitable that solutions to unexpected roadblocks occur through   improvisation rather than planning. […]


  7. […] the relationship between improvisation and time – something I have discussed at length in an earlier post, so I’ll say no more about it […]


  8. […] and spontaneous inventions are suppressed: As I have discussed at length in this post, planning and improvisation are complementary but contradictory aspects of organizational work. A […]


  9. […] often faced with unexpected and unforeseen events. Typically, responses to such events have to be  improvised, not planned.  Although planners are expected to factor in uncertainty,  what is not known cannot be foreseen. […]


  10. […] that implementations of technology invariably have significant unintended consequences that require improvised responses and adaptations. Moreover, these are essential aspects of the process of alignment, not things that can be wished […]


  11. […] what they have learnt through experience. What books and project theorists tend to overlook is that planning and improvisation are complementary facets of project work. Indeed the most compelling project management stories are about improvisation; about what people […]


  12. […] In reality, most project managers deal with such situations using a mix of common sense, experience and instinct, together with a deep appreciation of the specifics of the environment (i.e. the context).  Often times their actions may be in complete contradiction to textbook techniques.  For example, in the first case described above, the rational thing to do is to gather more data before making a decision. However, when faced with such a situation,  a project manager might make a snap decision based on his or her knowledge of the politics of the situation.  Often times  the project manager will not be able to adequately explain the rationale for the decision beyond knowing that “it felt like the right thing to do.” It is more  an improvisation than a plan. […]


  13. […] of a project manager is largely about reacting to stuff that happens on the ground. It’s about improvisation rather than planning. I see it all the time in real-life projects – all this stuff you do at the start, scoping […]


  14. […] Planning versus Improvisation: This refers to the tension between the structure offered by a plan and process-driven approach to IT and the necessity to step outside of plans and processes in order to come up with improvised solutions suited to the situation at hand. I have written about this paradox in a post on planning and improvisation. […]


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