Improvising Processes

A post on a Japanese site about ACM got me think again about what it means to handle unpredictable situations.

In Jazz and other genres of music, there is a tradition of improvisation.  That means, there is a section of the piece, where a particular musician is expected to improvise a solo.

Does the musician play random notes? Absolutely not.  There is clearly background of music being played by the rest of the band.  There is a tempo, a key, a style, etc. that the improvised part must fit together with.

Is the solo unstructured? No it isn’t.  It must structured to fit with what everyone else is playing.  A good musician will give the solo a trajectory with a start, middle, and ending.

Are there rules? Yes, clearly the solo must fit the piece.

Can a musician prepare? Certainly.  A good improvisational soloist will learn certain patterns, runs, & flairs that can be called up on demand and when desired.  At the same time there will be modifications to those patterns that can be included at the time of playing to fit better the situation.  It is never 100% fixed, but it is never 100% made up either.

Is improvising the same as composing? Certainly not.  There is a big difference between writing music and improvising.  Written music might have elaborately complex interactions among many instruments, while it is a given that improvised music is somewhat simpler, and if complex, it is so only for one person.  Improvising is not just writing music on the fly, it is a different skill entirely.

Knowledge Workers Improvise

Knowledge workers train to be prepared, but are free to make decisions that effect the course of work, as they are doing the work.  Calling this improvised process makes sense.

Imagine how inappropriate it would be to say that a musician was starting to play an unstructured solo. It is not the right concept.

This is why I still think it is inappropriate to call these “unstructured” processes.  After the case is closed, when the process is complete, there is nothing unstructured about it.  It is structured work, just as an improvised solo must be structured.  It is work that is simply not planned out completely in advance.  That is a different thing.

There will be those who will say that improvised solos are “just the same” as composed music because it is all the same instruments, all the same notes, all the same chords, all the same people, etc.   But we all know that an improvised solo is different from composed music.  Not better, not worse, just a different approach used in a different situation.

Planning and Situated Action

Lucy Suchman touched on this topic in her 1987 book  “Planning and Situated Action”.  She mentioned two approaches to navigating the sea — the European and the Trukese:

  • The European navigator begins with a plan — a course — which he has charted according to certain universal principles, and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining “on course.” If unexpected events occur, he must first alter the plan, then respond accordingly.
  • The Trukese navigator begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly. His effort is directed to doing whatever is necessary to reach the objective.

Wanda J. Orlikowski and J. Debra Hofman in 1997 published a paper called “An Improvisational Model of Change Management: The Case of Groupware Technologies” where they talk about an approach to development of software, that today we would call “Agile Methodology”.  Indeed, Agile is about improvisation.  I liked this quote:

An improvisational model, however, is not anarchy and neither is it a matter of  “muddling through.”

Indeed, this is not news to the Agile Alliance which hosts this article by Tore Dybå called “Improvisation in Small Software Organizations” originally published in IEEE.  The software development field has had to struggle with unpredictable situations, and it is not surprising that agile approaches make use of improvisation.

“Improvisation deals with the unforeseen. It involves continual experimentation with new possibilities to create innovative and improved solutions outside current plans and routines.”

Improvisation means experimentation, and it can sometimes be the only way to find your way in a when faced with a very challenging problem.  Julian Orr, an anthropologist at Xerox, described the behavior of two copier repairmen trying to find the source of a problem as an improvisation:

“The afternoon resembled a series of alternating improvisational jazz solos, as each man took the lead, ran with it for a little while, then handed it off to the other, this all against the bass-line continuo of the rumbling machine.”

This is from the article “Balancing Act: Capturing Knowledge Without Killing It” and we find ourselves back at knowledge workers once again, in this case copier machine repairmen.  In a conversation this morning with a representative of a major bank, he agreed: improvisation is an important part of some of their business processes.

5 thoughts on “Improvising Processes

  1. Great post as usual Keith.

    It seems like a great analogy over all but I particularly find the “Is improvising the same as composing?” one very relevant. I am starting to see with the dynamic/adpative bpm discussions etc. that there is an expectation that end users will be creating new processes themselves with BPMS tools.

    I have no issue with end users dynamically sequencing tasks based on contextual information at run time, but defining these process/activity “objects” requires a different set of skills. It requires an understanding of process thinking, risk management etc. But I am all for improvising using these pre-defined process objects to drive a process outcome suited to the specific context of a specific instance. And there is no harm in asking for additional compositions when the current set doesn’t give you all the room for improvisation that you need. That is the beauty of adaptive/dynamic BPMS solutions vs hardcoded bespoke solutions.

  2. As it happens, the evening after posting this, I actually attended a Jazz concert, and one more dimension of similarity became clear. The same solo slot might be given to different instruments. The musician will tune the solo to their own capabilities, and to those of the instrument. Of course it is obvious that a tenor sax solo will be different from a trombone solo, each instrument having unique capabilities. The same is true in improvising a business process: the process chosen can be tuned to the individual skills, tools, or specifics of the local environmental situation. The process varies not just on the whim of the case manager, but on the case manager’s knowledge of their own environment.

  3. This analogy, and the distinction between “composing” and “improvising” has really rung true many times for me, and I am seeing people get the concept in conversations.

    At the same time, people love to talk about music, and I have collecte a couple of interesting stories. One is Wynton Marsalas who was playing a improvisational solo in 2002 when a cell phone went off in the audience. His response was to imitate the ring tone, and incorporate it into the improvised solo. Here is an account:

    “Marsalis replayed the silly cell-phone melody note for note. Then he repeated it, and began improvising variations on the tune. The audience slowly came back to him. In a few minutes he resolved the improvisation — which had changed keys once or twice and throttled down to a ballad tempo — and ended up exactly where he had left off: “with… you…” The ovation was tremendous.”


    Just astounding! That is agility; that is adaptability.

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