Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Planning and improvisation

At "Eight to Late" there is a recent posting on the planning paradigm contrasted with improvisation.  In the blog, reference is made to an underlying paper of some 13 years ago that discusses the reasons that business process reengineering had its heyday and demise.  Even dated, the paper by C.U. Ciborra has some really good points for project managers. 

The agile guys will love "Eight to Late's" take on planning v improvisation.  First a quote from Ciborra:
Procedural planning anticipates moves and events as if already occurred and just translated on the other side of the “now”. That is, procedural planning arranges in front of the actor the past (actions thought of as accomplished and embedded into plans), so that in performing an action he/she can encounter “in the now” mileposts which prompt the actor to do the next move… 

But then we are told:
Since improvisation occurs on the spur of the moment, what is important is the cutting edge of time, the instant of action. In this sense, improvisation lies “outside of time.” However, this does not mean that the past does not matter. On the contrary, improvisers draw upon past experiences, possibly even more than planners do. However, they do so in ways that they are not consciously aware of before the moment of action.

Sound agile, emergent, and current? Sounds like it to me. The main theme of Ciborra's paper is that improvisation is in the human spirit and instinct; any formality aimed at removing it and replacing it with a planning paradigm that is only the future played as the past-present is doomed to fail. Remedies such as risk management are insufficient or inappropriate to suppress improvisation. Indeed, it's improvisation that is needed to deal with the unanticipated.

So, as in all things, it's a matter of balance. Projects are not jazz sessons or improv events; a modicum of planning is needed and required--in mission critical projects, more than a modicum is required. But projects are not production operations either, so rather suppress and defeat improvisation, embrace the possibilty!

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