Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 14;   April 7, 2010: Project Improvisation Fundamentals

Project Improvisation Fundamentals

by

Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's Part I of a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control System

In-flight portrait of the Apollo 13 Environmental Control System. Apollo 13 was the mission that suffered an explosion in an oxygen tank in the Service Module, which led mission controllers to decide to use the Lunar Module (LM) as a lifeboat to return the crew to Earth. But because the LM lacked sufficient carbon dioxide scrubbing capacity for three men for the duration of the mission, carbon dioxide concentrations began to climb to toxic levels. The system used lithium hydroxide canisters to absorb CO2, as did the system in the Command Module (CM), but the two canister types were incompatible.

A team in Houston then improvised a means of using the CM canisters in the LM Environmental Control System, using only materials available on board. After verifying the scheme in simulation, they read their instructions to the crew, who then reproduced the improvisation in the spacecraft. The scheme worked. It was just one small part of the entire improvisational effort that returned the crew to Earth alive and well. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

When executing a project, improvisation happens whenever we depart from the plan. Since most projects entail at least some small steps into unexplored territory, their plans are somehow incomplete or incorrect. When we discover the conflicts between a plan and reality, we halt and replan if we have time, and we improvise if we don't. We usually improvise.

Here is Part I of a set of guidelines and insights that help make improvisational approaches more effective. Part II explores project improvisation as a group process. Part III addresses connections between project improvisation and risk management. This Part I examines the fundamentals of project improvisation.

Educate everyone in advance
The defining characteristic of projects is that we've never done anything quite like them before. The inevitable surprises create a need to improvise. To view the need to improvise as either a defect in the plan or a defect in the planner is a critical error.
Educate all concerned, in advance, that improvisation is a normal and natural part of project work. Attempting such education at the moment of need is counterproductive, because it seems like defensive rationalization.
The plan ends when improvisation begins
When improvisation begins, its effect on the parts of the plan in which we still believe are unknown. We have to take time to understand the full impact of the improvisation.
While it's certainly possible that large portions of the plan can remain in place, the effects of improvisation can be subtle and unexpected. A thoughtful review of the entire plan is required.
Denying improvisation leads to uncontrolled improvisation
Some organizational cultures want to believe that improvisation has no place. Even when improvisation is happening, they deny its existence by calling it a replan. For instance, if six people revise in five days a plan that took thirty people six months to develop, can we seriously call it a replan? Such a revision is closer to improvisation than it is to replanning.
We usually do better at whatever we're doing if we're willing to admit we're doing it. If you're improvising, call it improvisation, and do whatever it takes to make it the best improvisation it can be.
Past performance can be misleading
Unless your We usually do better
at whatever we're doing
if we're willing to
admit we're doing it
culture is already aware of project improvisation as a necessary and useful skill, it's likely that previous improvisations have gone unrecognized and uncontrolled. Performance might have been disappointing.
Past performance can be misleading if it reflects uncontrolled, ad hoc improvisation. Distinguish such episodes from serious, coordinated, and thoughtful improvisations.

Effective improvisation requires individual skills and team skills. When a team starts improvising together, it relies more than ever on trust, communication, and inventiveness — all under pressure. Mastery of the improvisation regime requires education and practice. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Project Improvisation as Group Process  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenJDOHolqTDCROsIHuner@ChacxaQWQdEZRvbQkAKyoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Hurricane Warning flagsDeclaring Condition Red
High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations, and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams — and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
A bobsled teamTeam Thrills
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
A white shark off the California coastNine Project Management Fallacies: IV
Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Understanding these last three of the nine fallacies of project management helps reduce risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
Ross Marshall and Don Pugh at the kickoff meeting for the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) at Tinker Air Force BaseDeep Trouble and Getting Deeper
Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.
Lt. Gen. Donald Kutyna, Ret., when he was Commander of the U.S. Space CommandMore Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
Retrospectives — also known as lessons learned exercises or after-action reviews — sometimes miss important insights. Here are some additions to our growing catalog of obstacles to learning.

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenUuEQcfyesasXufYsner@ChacTjjLVoApVWCVTDEyoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.