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Jazz Improvisation for Engineers

Q: What does a comedian, a jazz musician, and a turbine engineer have in common?
A: They all need to learn how to improvise.

We are born able to improvise - but in the workplace we somehow "unlearn" it, instead seeing it as a failure of planning or foresight, and disabling our natural talent for emergent and social working. In its most professional version, improvisation is a competence that is deliberately developed, layered on top of another skill, an extra level of craft above an already-possessed talent. Jazz musicians need to learn how to play an instrument before they can learn to make music up live on stage. Improvisational comedians are funny to start with, but need to know how to successfully work, on the spot, with a group of others.  Performing "live" - without a script - without stopping or being disabled by anxiety is thrilling ... once you know how!

It is also not a skill you can acquire from reading a book – similar to riding a bike, it’s muscle memory possessed by the body rather than the brain. If you overthink it, you’d fall off. The same goes for live improvisation, which is a highly experiential process requiring you, at some level, to "get out of your own head".

Businesses, even in fields such as heavy engineering, are increasingly looking to speed up processes; creating and replicating the lean, agile approach favoured by technology companies. When you unpick the skills needed for this to be successful, improvisation is key. The innovation is highly collaborative, requiring a set of social sharing and co-creative skills that are often not found in large organisations.

Improvisation is perceived by many to be a loss of control – but control is nearly always an illusion anyway. The only real loss is the FEELING of control, and in fact taking away that perception so teams cannot rely on it rewards them with discipline and real alertness, a much more valuable trait.

This increased level of discipline and rigour is especially important in dangerous working environments such as turbine installations in the North Sea, or where difficult social decisions have to be made such as by HR professionals, or corporate leaders. Team members who feel less reliant on pseudo or external controls, have to pay attention – they really notice and respond to each other and the environment. This increased level of awareness is more productive. It isn’t just a boost to safety that social improvisation brings: speed, innovation, and even ethics in an organisation benefit.

At Lacerta, we have spent more than 20 years studying improvisational techniques with jazz and comedy improv specialists. We have been experimenting with the application of these lessons in ordinary business environments, so that we truly understand the steps required to help engineers, leaders and other professionals, become "jazz" improvisers with the discipline to contribute to much-needed positive culture and performance change.

Come to try it out at our next taster workshop - "Working Live - Improvisation for Work and Life".

Caryn Vanstone
Leadership & Organisational Change Specialist, Lacerta Consulting Service Ltd