Leading Comments

Russ Volckmann


I am grateful to the almost 400 subscribers to Integral Leadership Review. Your support means that we can move closer to a way of viewing and being in the world that is integrative, generative and supportive of our evolving integrity – learning to align our theory and our action, our values and assumptions with achieving what is important to us. Also, I am grateful to the many kindnesses, suggestions and offers of support we have received.

The mission of this e-publication is be a practical guide to the application of an integral perspective to the challenges of leadership in business and life and to the effective relationship between executive/business coaches and their clients. My vision includes that this will be a place where others, as well as myself, can continue to develop and share ideas about Integral Leadership and integral coaching.

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Rosabeth Moss Kantor, “Strategy as Improvisational Theater,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2002.

For many of us we are comfortable dancing in the world of new sciences popularized as well as the challenge of integral thinking/feeling/sensing/being. A writer on organizations who has been able to bridge many fields in her work is Rosabeth Moss Kantor, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She has recently drawn from her book, Evolve! Succeeding in the Digital Culture of Tomorrow, to offer the essay summarized here.

The traditional model of strategy development resembles traditional theater: well crafted, predictable with unvarying conclusion at the end of each performance.

“The improvisational model throws out the script, brings in the audience, and trusts the actors to be unpredictable–that is, to innovate. Innovation has an inherently improvisational aspect, and writers have long used the metaphor of improvisation in jazz or rock music to describe the actions of innovators on project teams. The metaphor of improvisational theater takes the idea a step further. It shifts attention from the dynamics among members of a project team to the way in which an organization as a whole can become an area for staging experiments that can transform the overall strategy.”

Such an approach brings several advantages, not the least of which is that when the company’s formal leader issues a major pronouncement about a shift in strategy the organization has already executed it. Kantor denies that her approach is conservative, but fails to examine the implications for leadership (which becomes fostering a climate for improvisation).

The elements of improvisation theater are several:

  • Themes: “Improvisation is just chaos and messiness unless it is driven by a clear theme–a topic, a headline or a direction that engages imaginations and gets the action started. (Leaders may generate these themes.)
  • Theaters: Examples of theaters are skunkworks, internal venture capital funds and incubators. You cannot effectively foster innovation in highly structured environments.
  • Actors: Players must have the capacity to improvise, innovate, taken on unfamiliar roles in unfamiliar contexts. They must adopt behaviors and attitudes that further the action.
  • Audiences: They are a part of the performance. Stakeholders need to be brought into the action.
  • Suspense: Avoid moving to definition and completion too quickly. Hang out in the potential.
  • Successive Versions: Deal with false starts and wrong moves. Do it over again.

Through the use of iterative improvisations a company “can constantly reinvest itself.” Improvisation is an organizational strategy for engaging with continuous change in a rapidly changing environment.

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Dedicated to Chris Newham with deep appreciation.
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