IPMA International Project Management Association
9 November 2015 / 7:33

Projects require improvisation

The concept of nowadays project management was born in the 1950s in the USA, mainly in the aerospace and defence sector. It was based on Operations Research , which is an analytical approach for solving technical problems and decision-making. Network planning techniques were in the focus for the first decades of our discipline with methodologies such as Program Evaluation and Review Technique PERT and Critical Path Method (CPM).The paradigms of this time: everything can be planned for and someone in the organisation (centralised function) can do this for the people implementing the solution. These paradigms are still prevailing. Project managers or a planning department (project or project management office) try to plan projects based on assumptions, which fail to come true in real live. Project teams try to follow the plans while implementing the project, struggle with the dynamic changes in their context and often blame this context (or the circumstances) for not achieving what the project is aiming at.

As a matter of fact, we are confronted with a dynamic context, disruptive changes will happen more often and plans are sometimes not worth the time we need for developing them. This is especially true for special types of projects, such as organisational change projects, software development projects and innovations. The role of a plan is rather indicative, providing high-level guidance, to be filled by the project manager and teams with information based on the specific situation they are working in. Thus, improvisation plays a decisive role for project management in dynamic contexts.

What is improvisation? Wikipedia defines it as “the process of devising a solution to a requirement by making-do, despite absence of resources that might be expected to produce a solution”. Most of the references of improvisation point to the arts, e.g. improvisation theatre or improvisation for music and dancing. Improvisation tries to go beyond all rules, regulations or “normal” patterns, it varies them (e.g. tone, pace and rhythms in music) by using a maximum of creativity. Improvisation builds on all human senses, emotions and resources available at a time. It is embedded in the situation and the context. Thus, a person need to sense what the situation and the context is like, what he or she can make out of the situation and context, which options are available and (randomly) chose the appropriate. The choice is not based on a plan with its assumptions or another person telling what to do. It is rather a choice that´s building on experiences (past and present), and a sense of what options are helpful for moving forward. Improvisation also requires a person to be self-confident, self-organising and self-reflective. It means to trust your own skills and abilities, using them in the context given to (re-)act.

Often I hear, that improvisation is the opposite of project management. The latter is something planned, rational, structured and organised, whereas improvisation is chaotic, unpredictable, disorganised and non-scientific. Yes, it is something that we need to re-discover in order to cope with the challenges of nowadays projects. It requires us to make use of all our senses to identify the “weak signals” and make use of them in projects. For example, the atmosphere in a project team may cause you to restructure it to avoid future conflicts. Or a systems test may cause you to look deeper into the design of the system to prevent it of failing in the real implementation (see the failure of the baggage handling system) of We still need plans, but higher level plans, that are tailored or detailed by the people dealing with the context to support them in moving forward, but not overloading them with a theoretical construct that fails to work in the real situation. Trainings for project managers should use cases, simulations or real projects (e.g. humanitarian projects) to sharpen their sensors and build the skills needed to deal with nowadays complexity of our projects. More essential, organisations need to unleash the potential of the people working in the context of a project. Those people understand the challenges and potential solutions much better than a centralized (planning) department or a person at the top of a hierarchical ladder. So let´s reposition “improvisation” as something positive for a project manager to do, it should definitely be in the repertoire of a virtuous project manager!

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Reinhard Wagner

Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.