Improvisation and innovative performance in teams

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Authors: Dusya Vera and Mary Crossan
Date: May-June 2005
From: Organization Science(Vol. 16, Issue 3)
Publisher: Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences
Document Type: Article
Length: 14,589 words

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This paper builds on the principles and insights from improvisational theater to unpack the nature of collective improvisation and to consider what it takes to do it well and to innovate. Furthermore, we discuss the role of training in enhancing the incidence and effectiveness of improvisation. We propose that two common misconceptions about improvisation have hindered managers' understanding of how to develop the improvisational skill. First, the spontaneous facet of improvisation tends to be overemphasized, and second, there is a general assumption that improvisation always leads to positive performance. Our goal is to clear up the conceptual confusion about improvisation by laying out the various aspects of preparation that are required for effective improvisation. In our theoretical model, we delineate how the improvisational theater principles of "practice," "collaboration," "agree, accept, and add," "be present in the moment," and "draw on reincorporation and ready-mades" can be used to understand what it takes to improvise well in work teams and to create a context favoring these efforts. Our findings support a contingent view of the impact of improvisation on innovative performance. Improvisation is not inherently good or bad; however, improvisation has a positive effect on team innovation when combined with team and contextual moderating factors. We also provide initial evidence suggesting that the improvisational skill can be learned by organizational members through training. Our results shed light on the opportunities provided by training in improvisation and on the challenges of creating behavioral change going beyond the individual to the team and, ultimately, to the organization.

Key words: improvisation; creativity; spontaneity; performance; innovation; strategy; improvisational theater; teams


The ability to innovate is critical for organizational survival (Amabile 1988). As firms strive for faster cycle times and more innovative solutions, the spontaneous and creative facets of improvisation have been proposed as a pathway to understand and begin acting on what it takes to innovate (Crossan 1997a). In fact, the role of improvisation in innovation processes such as new product development has attracted growing attention (e.g., Eisenhardt and Tabrizi 1995, Moorman and Miner 1998b, Kamoche and Cunha 2001). Brown and Eisenhardt (1998, p. 33) argue that improvisation "enables managers to continuously and creatively adjust to change and to consistently move products and services out the door," and Poolton and Ismail (2000) identify improvisation as a key area of new development in the innovation field.

In an effort to understand how individuals work together in teams to innovate and adapt in real time, academics have turned to improvisational jazz and theater (e.g., Crossan 1998, Hatch 1998) and asked: If musicians and actors can learn to improvise and to be innovative in real time, can these skills also be learned by work teams in organizations? Despite the considerable attention given to the need for teams to be more nimble and to develop an improvisational capability, little is known about how team members can learn this skill and successfully apply it in organizations. Furthermore, for training in improvisation to be successful, firms need to create a safe context...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A134195775