Woman improvising on stage.

Managing change: lessons in agility and improvisation

16 November 2023

The article at a glance

The interplay between agility and improvisation is crucial to how organisations adapt to changing circumstances and uncertainty, says new book chapter by 2 Cambridge Judge Business School academics.

Actors famous for physical comedy such as Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times), Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) and Laurel & Hardy (Another Fine Mess) combine agility and improvisation, as movie fans marvel at their seemingly effortless genius. In business, agility and improvisation are not identical but instead are distinct and complementary. 

A new book chapter authored at Cambridge Judge Business School looks at agility and improvisation in adapting to changing environments and implementing solutions that may not be planned. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic tested organisations’ internal ability to adapt, and required them to take into account the unpredictable nature of consumer behaviour in such a crisis. 

The chapter by Allègre Hadida, Associate Professor in Strategy at Cambridge Judge Business School, and Nathan Odiase, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge, draws likenesses and recognises contrasts between organisational agility and organisational improvisation, and how their interaction may help determine which firms survive and thrive and which falter in times of uncertainty and disruption. 

Dr Allègre Hadida
Osareme (Nathan) Odiase.
Nathan Odiase

The difference between agility and improvisation and why they matter to organisations 

Organisations that thrive in the most stringent conditions are considered ‘agile’, because organisational agility entails taking a proactive approach to pre-empt disruption, market volatility and fast-changing business environments. Organisational improvisation is defined in the book chapter as the ability to find suitable solutions to emergent challenges as they arise, including mobilising material resources to adapt to unanticipated events that seem set to impact organisational outcomes. 

In a comedy adventure movie, an agile protagonist might head off impending disaster by thinking one step ahead and averting the danger altogether, while a comic steeped in improvisation would effectively navigate out of yet another fine mess through quick thinking on the spot. 

“Practitioners’ interest and scholarly research on both organisational agility (OA) and organisational improvisation (AI) have grown steadily over time, with agility gaining more prominence in the managerial and consulting literature and becoming ‘the new organisational benchmark’ in recent years,” the book chapter says. 

“However, to the best of our knowledge, no systematic comparative review of the 2 concepts has yet emerged. In this chapter, we seek to shed light on the similarities and differences between OA and OI by sequentially addressing 3 questions. First and somewhat provocatively, are these 2 concepts substitutable, making OA little more than old OI wine in a new bottle? Second, when may OI condition an organisation’s agility? Third and alternatively, when may OA be a prerequisite to OI?” 

The chapter entitled “Agility and improvisation” is part of a book entitled ‘The Routledge Companion to Improvisation in Organizations’, which also includes chapters on “Improvisational Decision Making”, “Improvisation and Character”, and “Team Leadership, Momentum, and Improvisation in Extreme Contexts”. 

What the fashion industry can teach businesses about volatile environments 

Allègre Hadida’s research often focuses on strategy in volatile environments, with a particular interest in the creative industries including cinema, music and theater. Nathan Odiase, who previously earned degrees at the University of Lagos, the University of Cape Town and the University of Cambridge, focuses in his research on organisational style in the fashion industry including strategic decisions that affect stylistic choices. 

“We often hear the words ‘agility’ and ‘improvisation’, but we wanted to take a closer look and examine different types of decision-making that requires people to think and act as circumstances change,” says Allègre, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. “The pandemic was a situation in which individuals and policymakers had to act based on uncertain information, including changing assessments of risk, so this topic is very timely in business and society more broadly. 

In the dynamic landscape of the fashion industry, where trends shift as swiftly as seasons change, the principles of agility and improvisation hold remarkable significance. Much like organisations navigating volatile landscapes, fashion brands must exhibit agility, pre-empting shifts in style and swiftly adapting. Moreover, they master the art of improvisation, deftly crafting innovative solutions to emergent challenges. This could either be in their design, form or production. As the industry reinvents itself consistently, the survival of most brands is contingent on their master adaptability and innovation – so harmonising agility and improvisation is the key to surviving and thriving in the creative industries. 

Searching databases for keywords to ensure research draws on multidisciplinary sources 

The survey’s methodology entailed searching databases for such keywords and phrases as:  

  • agility 
  • improvisation 
  • agility and improvisation 
  • management and operational agility 
  • agility and dynamic capabilities 
  • agility and workplace autonomy 
  • agility and risk management
  • enterprise agility 
  • agility and adaptability 
  • agility and flexibility 
  • improvisation in organisations 
  • improvisation in business 
  • improvisation and adaptation 
  • improvisation and innovation 

This yielded a research base of 240 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and monographs published between 1982 and 2022 in such disciplines as strategy, information systems, marketing and project management – with a particular focus on highly cited articles in such leading journals as ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organization Science’ and ‘International Journal of Production Research’. 

How the meaning of agility and improvisation has evolved over time 

From the Latin verb ‘agere’ or to keep in movement, ‘agility’ suggests speed, flow, flexibility and adaptability. This ancient definition was updated for the information age by the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in 2001, which was designed to make software development more responsive to changing circumstances – and in an organisational setting, collective agility is crucial as this often reflects the intersection of individual action and project-based activity. 

The Latin noun ‘proviso’ forms the root of improvisation, but as proviso means a predisposition to act in a certain way, it is actually the antonym of ‘proviso’ – or ‘im-provise’ – that translates into a measure of control over unexpected situations through a commitment to channel spontaneity, and this is particularly important in new product development.  

Thus, the authors say: “Organisational agility denotes strategic preparedness to unforeseen events, as social actors within an organisation proactively prime for and reactively respond to internal and external change, uncertainty, and complexity. Organisational innovation, on the other hand, implies purposeful spontaneity, as social actors simultaneously design and execute novel actions in response to unanticipated developments.”  

How pre-emptive adaptation differs from improvised adaptation 

As highlighted by one journal article described in the book chapter, there is a distinction between ‘preemptive adaptation’, in which project teams propose a next action without actually implementing it, and ‘improvised adaptation’, in which design merges with execution. The latter often requires tight co-ordination and the ability to handle lots of pressure with little or no margin for error. 

“The interplay of team pre-emptive adaptation and team improvised adaptation was patent during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says the book chapter. “Teams within organisations first resorted to improvised adaptation to deal with the initial shock of the outbreak and the fallout from the lockdowns. As the understanding of the virus unfolded, teams started to develop a firmer grasp of how to work under safe conditions. They implemented new remote working patterns, social distancing, and masking in confined spaces. Thus, their response became more preemptive, leading to the emergence of new communication channels, operational routines, and organisational structures.” 

Improvisation in jazz music can help teams handle unexpected events 

Some of the studies examined by Allègre and Nathan draw an analogy between improvisation and jazz music. While jazz is frequently seen as experimental and unrehearsed – a series of spontaneous riffs – jazz musicians in fact often use improvisation to “craft wholesome and satisfying routines” in short bursts, the authors say. Similarly, in team-based projects, improvisation within a short time frame is often aimed not at altering established organisational structures but rather to serve as a bridge (another musical term) to handle isolated and unexpected events. Organisations then examine such episodes with an eye to crafting strategies for better preparedness in the future. 

While improvisation is often seen as an ensemble activity, the book chapter also examines ‘resistive improvisation’ that may take the form of covert activities by small units in order to solve immediate problems outside of a firm’s formal structures. 

Such covert activity can have benefits: “Improvisers may actively cover up such efforts for fear of retribution. When they become visible, middle managers typically act as knowledge brokers to consolidate hidden improvisation into informal organisational learning as procedural drift, or formal organisational learning as new procedures.” Yet there are risks in such clandestine activities being woven into organisational culture: resistive improvisation can lead to co-ordination breakdown that has negative ramifications for a firm’s competitive situation. 

Organisations may need to be agile before they can improvise 

There are times, the authors say, when organisational agility may be a prerequisite to organisational improvisation – including when agile organisations inspire worker engagement which in turn fosters autonomy, or when firms enact routines of agile methods which stimulate improvisation to emerge. 

In conclusion, the 2 concepts of organisational agility and organisational improvisation, while distinct, exhibit a harmonious co-existence.  

Organisational agility revolves around readiness for unforeseen challenges, providing a framework for responding to change and navigating uncertainty. On the other hand, organisational improvisation thrives on the concept of ‘purposeful spontaneity’, where individuals within organisations adeptly conceive and execute responses to unexpected events in real time. Though different in their mechanisms, these 2 approaches function in concert, creating a powerful synergy within organisational dynamics. By developing human capacity and competence, organisations can adapt to change. They will be able to do so with ingenuity and calculated responsiveness, ensuring a well-rounded and practical approach to the stringent demands of the industry.   

“While agility is a continuous process that provides a holistic and overarching appraisal of an organisation’s capacity to respond to change, improvisation is episodic and offers insights into the specific actions organisations undertake in response to unexpected events,” the authors conclude.