Planning and improvisation – complementary facets of organizational work
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.