Planning, improvisation and the passage of time
In an earlier post inspired by this paper, I discussed how planning and improvisation are contrasting yet complementary aspects of organizational work. One of the key differences between the two activities lies in how time is perceived by those involved in performing them: in the planning world time is considered to be a resource that can be measured and apportioned out to achieve desired aims whereas improvisation takes place “outside of time”; it occurs instantaneously and (often) without any prior intimation. In this post I discuss these two contrasting views of time in greater detail and then look into some of their implications, both from the perspective of organizations and individuals who work in them.
The “planning view” of time
Organisational activities and events (like all human endeavours) are marked and measured by the flow of time. It is fair to say that concern for time – specifically, the way it is used – is one of the main preoccupations of those who run organisations. As Ciborra puts it:
Concern for time in any business organization is not new, nor rare. Think of concepts such as just in time or time based competition. In modern management, time is looked at as a fundamental business performance variable, even more important than money. Concepts such as lead time or time to market portray time as the cutting edge of competitive advantage.
In other words, time is viewed as a quantity that can be apportioned and allocated – budgeted – much like money. This obsession with planning and controlling time is what leads businesses to implement procedures and processes intended to reduce unpredictability and improve business efficiency. Improvisation is seen as undesirable because of its inherently unpredictable nature.
Planning anticipates future events and moves that will be made in response to them. However, they can only be based on what is known and foreseen at the time of formulation. Plans are thus based on a mix of past experience and anticipation of what the future might look like. Moreover, because an action cannot occur until all dependent prior actions are completed successfully, they implicitly assume that all planned actions will be completed. As Ciborra puts it:
Procedural planning anticipates moves and events as if already occurred and just translated on the other side of the “now”. That is, procedural planning arranges in front of the actor the past (actions thought of as accomplished and embedded into plans), so that in performing an action he/she can encounter “in the now” mileposts which prompt the actor to do the next move…
So, as paradoxical as it sounds, in the planning view, planned actions are seen as already accomplished in the future. In other words, plans assume that events and actions will evolve in an entirely predictable manner. Note that although uncertainties may be factored in through risk analysis and the development of alternate scenarios, even these are treated as alternate branches of known futures.
The “improvisation view” of time
Improvisation is generally preceded by an “instantaneous” flash of insight in which apparently unconnected experiences and knowledge are brought to bear on the situation at hand. The process is inherently unpredictable: one does not know when a flash of insight that precipitates an improvised action will occur. Since improvisation occurs on the spur of the moment, what is important is the cutting edge of time, the instant of action. In this sense, improvisation lies “outside of time.” However, this does not mean that the past does not matter. On the contrary, improvisers draw upon past experiences, possibly even more than planners do. However, they do so in ways that they are not consciously aware of before the moment of action. As Ciborra tells us:
Improvisation is extemporaneous because it does not belong to an orderly distillation, formalization and transfer of past experience into future mileposts. Indeed, when encountering the future improvisation relies on the past, but it deploys it by retrieving (quickly according to ordinary time) domains of experience in a moment of vision during which vast regions of experience are brought to bear on the situation at hand, as interpreted at that very moment
Instead of attempting to envision what a future situation might look like and plan responses to it, improvisation interprets and reacts to “future” situations as they occur. So, although the improviser draws upon the past, he or she is firmly focused on the present in which actions are formulated and carried out. In such situations, the improviser (who works outside of the plan) perceives time differently from others (who work by a plan) – more on this in a moment.
Implications for organisations
Let’s take a brief look at a couple of implications of the different conceptions of time outlined above.
First, because improvisation cannot be foreseen, it cannot be placed on an objective timeline prior to the event. Those who make elaborate, detailed plans aimed at encouraging creativity (which generally involves improvisation) in their organisations will, more often than not, be disappointed. Any creative activity that occurs will be despite the plan, not because of it.
Second, since it is impossible to know how the future will unfold, planners should accept (and welcome!) that there will always be an element of improvisation to even the most carefully planned activity. As a result of this, there will always be an irreducible element of uncertainty associated with any planned activity.
Third, it is important to keep in mind that although both planning and improvisation depend on the past, there is an important difference in the way the past is viewed in the two cases. As Ciborra states:
The two temporalities of routine (planned activity) and improvisation are characterized by the fact that in both the unfolding of the future “sucks in” the past, but they do so in distinct ways. In procedural planning, one meets the future by relying on “frozen”, predigested bits of the past, lumps of experience that have been made explicit. During improvisation it is our being in the situation that comes to the fore. The past, in terms of who we are and how we read the world is recollected on the fly, in response to the situation at hand.
The implication here is that plans are (largely) based on, explicit knowledge whereas improvisation draws on both explicit and tacit knowledge. This is another reason why improvised solutions cannot be (explicitly) articulated before the fact.
The passage of time
The two conceptions of time are subjective in the sense that they describe how the flow of time is perceived by the person carrying out the planned or improvised act. In his book, The Labyrinth of Time, the philosopher Michael Lockwood mentions the example of the basketball player Michael Jordan, who once said that when maneuvering through a bunch of defenders (an improvised act), time seemed to slow down for him (though clearly not for the spectators and bemused defenders). Based on this, Lockwood suggests that:
…our impression of the flow of time, as it elapses, reflects the rate at which consciousness is being stimulated. It is counted out in a cerebral counterpart of the “baud rate”, instead of units of (objective) time, per se.
Based Lockwood’s idea, I suggest that since improvisers are more engaged with what they are doing (than those who perform planned acts) they operate at a higher mental “baud rate” than normal. Hence their actions and perceptions will seem quick – even instantaneous – to others who operate at a normal mental “baud rate.” When people are truly engaged in an activity, time thus appears to slow down. However, clock time (or objective time) ticks on at its usual rate. So, when the improviser is done, he or she is often surprised at how much clock time has elapsed. In contrast, a person not fully engaged in an activity has an “eye on the clock”, so to speak. Such a person’s perception of the passage of time would be pretty much in synch with objective time.
Summary and wrap-up
Improvisation and planning are based on two very different conceptions of time. Planning views the future in terms of a sequence of activities that have a clear relationship to each other. Specifically, any point in the future is seen as a milestone that serves to flag what comes next. Further, despite all contingency plans, the assumption is that the future will indeed unfold in one of the ways envisioned. Improvisation, on the other hand, views the future as open and “up for grabs”. There is no conscious sequencing of activities; improvisers just do what feels right at the time. Although improvisers may anticipate events as consequences of their actions, there are no predefined milestones that mark out the flow of time. Since organisational work consists of a mix of planned and improvised activities, the upshot of the above is that time cannot be entirely planned out.
To end on a metaphorical note: if one compares the flow of time to that of a river or stream, then “planning time” is a river flowing through a well defined channel whereas “improvisation time” is more like a rain-fed freshet gushing down any which way it can, carving out new channels in the bargain.