10/9 – Integral Design Leadership: “Improvising in Uncertainty”

Lisa Norton

Lisa Norton 

Lisa Norton

Lisa Norton

 “Jazz is not a what, it is a how.”  Bill Evans

 “One Halloween, our group is excited to do a scary Halloween show. To start our play we ask the audience to give us an example of something that scares the living daylights out of them. I’m eager to get started, imagining suggestions like spiders, snakes, or zombies. What suggestion do we hear? “Commitment.” …What is happening is not what I want to have happen. I’m invested in a certain picture, and suddenly that picture is taken away from me. I feel uncomfortable, frustrated, fearful, vulnerable, out of control. My default reaction is to fall out of the moment and into the “should” compartment of my brain… “Ah shucks, it’s Halloween for crying in a bucket, not Valentine’s Day! The audience should give us something better to work with!” When I feel the discomfort of being out of control, I want to bring things back to where I feel okay again…I want to tell the audience they can do better and try for a new suggestion that better fits my picture… The goal of improv is to construct a shared reality together. Saying “no” kills the creative story we are building…And mostly I am saying no because of my own inner discomfort — my fear of not knowing and looking dumb.”

My friend and colleague Hannah du Plessis, quoted above, is a bellwether of the shifting role of the designer in our times.  In “Improv: a way to design in uncertainty“ she invites us into her first-person adventure in personal capacity building, a journey she self-designed by way of the zigzag path of improv theater. Her major career pivot, from a first career in interior design, to organizational consulting in design and social innovation, is an inspiring demonstration of how the practices of design are morphing at the intersection of design briefs characterized by interlocking complexities that cannot be addressed by means of design thinking alone, and integrative designers who long to weave in more dimensions of experience than conventional design foci on aesthetic, sensual and systemic dimensions alone can allow.

Growing up immersed in the wounded, divisive context of apartheid South Africa and experiencing the difficult and hopeful transition from apartheid to post apartheid motivated Hannah’s yearning to design in service of the social well being of the world. When her unique personal transformational journey began, Hannah had no idea where it would take her — in fact, it was unclear whether a career in service of her ambitious dream would, could or even should involve designing. Hannah began by supplementing her degree in interior design from the University of Pretoria with a Masters in Design Methodology from Illinois Institute of Technology.  Over the next six years she developed a distinctive personal and professional approach to design for social innovation that embraces organizational dynamics and makes space for embodiment, improvisation, collaboration and personal development. Hannah is on the faculty of Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York and The School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Along with her partner Marc Rettig, she is co-principle of Fit Associates a social design firm working at the scale of human systems and organizations.

Hannah’s path exemplifies a trend among designers who wish to augment their professional design capacities with a second area of deep expertise (“t-shaped” in Tim Brown’s language) or sometimes a complementary pairing of professional qualifications (“h-shaped” in Peter Jones’ language) such as assistive technologies and organizational learning for example. In Hannah’s case it was design methodologies for all scales – from product to systems, including human systems. In her Medium post mentioned above, Hannah shares some of the insights gained from her regular practice of leaning into her growth edges. In particular, improvisation as an analog for surrendering control – in designing and in life. Frequent, sustained engagement with improvisational theater sharpens her capacity to be in the moment, to let go of control, and to listen in. She describes improvisation as choosing trust over control in order to cooperate with what is emerging. For many designers this is a tall order because as the ‘how’ of process innovation, design best practices are often variations on the theme of controlling  “I can’t run a Photoshop filter over cynicism or order collective purpose from Amazon.” (du Plessis)

In The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schön discusses how improvisational dispositions disclose life-worlds in moment-to-moment becomings. Bodily experiential knowledge yields what Schön refers to as reflection-in-action, as distinct from reflecting on, or making an object of, our experience.  Building on hermeneutic theories of iteration, Schön describes reflection-in-action in terms that any designer would relate to —as “a conversation with the situation.” In the context of design, this reflection-in-action takes the form of an iterative process unfolding over time and not reducible in form, space, matter, or meaning. Schön describes the recursive qualities of improvisational processes – in this case jazz improvisational skills of listening into patterns and voids in the field.

“When good jazz musicians improvise together, they also manifest a ‘feel for’ their material and they make on-the-spot adjustments to the sounds they hear. Listening to one another and to themselves, they feel where the music is going and adjust their playing accordingly.  They can do this, first of all, because their collective effort at musical invention makes use of a schema a metric, melodic and harmonic schema familiar to all participants – which gives a predictable order to the piece.  Improvisation consists in varying, combining and recombining a set of figures within the schema which bounds and gives coherence to the performance. As the musicians feel the direction of the music that is developing out of their interwoven contributions, they make new sense of it and adjust their performance to the new sense they have made.”  (Schön)

Why might we call conscious embodied designing an emergent capacity? Forms of design practice exist along a continuum from the command and control orientation of modern top-down planning, to nonlinear, post-postmodern collaborative processes inspired by improvisational stances, and beyond. In trusting that the system has everything it needs, we understand ourselves as an integral part of the system rather than an outside observer/intervener.  Trusting in collective intelligence eliminates barriers and hindrances to collaboration, including our own resistance. In trusting the wisdom inherent to the system, we make ourselves available as a medium for creative Eros. By trusting the emergent properties of the system we cultivate the ability to listen from the field.

“This work is more like hang-gliding. I’m working with something bigger than myself. The stance required is not to be the expert who knows, but to be the person who pays fierce attention to what is happening and what wants to happen, and who is willing to be moved by that.”(duPlessis) The core disposition of improvisation is an agility that says “yes and” to whatever arises in the moment —even if it happens to be “commitment” on Halloween.

Fit Associates establishes a level of trust and mutuality with clients that enables more meaningful dialogues. Everyone involved in the process discovers anew that the rewards outweigh the risks.

“…As a result an invisible tent of trust opened among us. Inside this structure, we relaxed, slipped off our guarded busyness and opened. We opened to the reality of one another: candid conversations helped us see how we affect other people for better and for worse. We opened to ourselves: our discomfort, past difficulty, confusion, clarity, wisdom, solace, and more. We opened to the stillness and song of the steadfast, yet ever-moving landscape around us. Such openings are transformative. Old beliefs about ourselves and the world can rise to the surface and fall away. Ironed-in relational patterns get to be worn differently and soften. Old hurts get some air and a chance to heal. Fears find themselves suddenly in the midst of good company, making uncertainty less daunting. Doubts get to dance with the experience of others and feel encouraged to move on ahead.” (Fit Associates)

Consciously embodied and improvisational designing is a fuzzy emergent – unrecognizable by current professional standards. Reading this, I hope to convey that Hannah du Plessis is in a sense still doing interior design. By innovating new roles for the designer, she is expanding the inner spaces and places available for designing — as collaborative reflection-in-action —one conversation at a time.

“Some time ago I was having a conversation with a group of managers about cultivating innovation and creativity in the workplace. I used the word “love.” They moved away like a wave pulling back into the sea and said, “No, we can’t use the word ‘love’ in the business environment.” But I am not so sure that is true. If we take the best hours of a person’s life and ask them to get out of their comfort zone and risk so much, in equal measure we need to create the safety net to catch them when they don’t succeed. And that net is not lined with incentives or strategies, it is lined with soft things like vulnerability, trust, love, mercy for what we’ve done and acceptance for who we are becoming.” (du Plessis)



Integral Design Leadership: “Improvising (Planning)”

Brown, T. (2009) Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. New York: Harper Business.

Du Plessis, H. (2015) “Improv: A Way to Design in Uncertainty”

Jones, P. (2013) Design for Care: Innovating Healthcare Experience. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

 Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

About the Author

Lisa Norton is a Professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She holds the B.F.A. from Cleveland Institute of Art and the M.F.A. from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The engaging power of crafted objects led her from fine art, via human interaction, into integral design. Norton teaches, writes, facilitates and consults to designers and organizations on curricular development and other values driven and designed change processes.


1 Comment

  1. Tom Christensen on October 9, 2015 at 10:04 am


    This was a very exciting read! I’m deep in an MIT Theory U course this fall and the heart of improv as you present it matches very well with the Presencing element of Theory U. Theory U is offered by Otto Sharmer, an engineer. Your piece here has more of the rounded corners of the artist, more of the poetry of a heart first approach, and a beautiful section of a colored glass creation holding all of the paths to reach that quiet center of creativity within….and with others. Good medicine….thank you.

    Tom C.

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