Business Improv


Remember the TV show “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” It’s a comedy improv show packed with wild and funny sketches, recorded in front of a live audience. The comedian actors and actresses are hilarious. The show came to the US from the UK if I recall. Both series are side-splitters.

Leading any organization can be a little comedic, too. Improvisation is unfortunately (or fortunately) the name of the game. Sometimes, this improvisation can be GREAT. It leads to opportunity, inspiration, new ideas and services and – as a result – growth.

But if all we do is improv, we can easily end up flailing. Spinning. Like a pinwheel in a tornado.

What’s the balance between improv and planning (and executing the plan)? And, how do we strike the balance?

I would never recommend a leaders improv every day, all day. Nor would I recommend that they draft and execute a plan without adjusting as you go.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” What this means is the act of preparation is what gets you ready to deal with the reality that unfolds.

What this means to me is that finding the balance between improv and planning is critical. As a leader, we need to do both. Not only for ourselves, but for the team who depends upon our success.

Here are 5 things that will work for you to be absolutely successful at both.

  1. Make sure you have a vision. This may seem basic, but ask yourself, “What picture do I see before me when I think about my organization?” If you have a clear picture of it, ask your key leaders what they see as the vision. Do they agree with you? With each other? When the vision is clear you can move forward with confidence.
  2. Tie your strategy to your vision. What’s the difference, you ask? It’s simply this: vision is the BIG PICTURE and should pretty much stay the same over time. STRATEGY is a time-based set of goals you’ve identified which drive you toward your vision. Time-based does not mean 5 years or more. We prefer ‘seasonal priorities’, near-term strategic goals that can actually be accomplished. If they’re hugely different than your vision, ask yourself, “Which is not aligned?” Then fix that misalignment. Most importantly – don’t craft strategic objectives that can’t be executed. What I mean is, if you don’t have the team in place to kick off your strategy, then it probably can’t be implemented. Think practically. Then take action.
  3. Execute your strategy. Sounds simple, but get this. A LOT of leaders execute only what’s right in front of them. There are two root causes of this that we see. One is the leader who is highly strategic and visionary, yet ‘allergic to details’. What happens is the organization moves from opportunity to opportunity. It can be a very fun environment, but also highly chaotic. The second root cause we see frequently is the absolute opposite. The highly detail-oriented leader who moves from project to project. Sometimes it leads to broader, ancillary projects. But this is not strategic. It’s reactive. Here’s the deal. Both are key. Build a strategy that can be executed. Execute within a strategic framework to move yourself (your organization) forward.
  4. Evaluate your team resources honestly. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Does everyone understand the vision? Strategy? Do you and they have the skills to implement the strategic objectives? If not, what is needed? This is hard, but necessary. Don’t abandon the strategic goals when you encounter objections, obstacles or opportunities. Do focus on the missing pieces and supplement with help, training, and accountability to get (and stay) on track.
  5. Build leaders. Imagine if your strategy succeeds. Rather, imagine WHEN your strategy succeeds! Now, imagine what would happen if you don’t have the right types of leaders ready, in place, trained and anxious to handle that success. We’ve seen great strategies collapse under the weight of their success. What a tragedy that is. If you know you’ll need twice the number of leaders in place in 3 years (for example) to handle the success of your strategy, start NOW to develop the leadership you’ll need then. Bonus points: developing your leadership from within will build unwavering trust among your team, and will solidify leadership development as a priority in your culture.

Culture is your growth engine. That’s two sides of the same coin. Good culture? Growth. Not growing? Look at your culture. You can do the math. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) talks about the importance of their staff (paid and non-paid staff). But what does that mean, really? People do want to be recognized, true. But what attracts and retains people the most is a strong culture. Culture is not nebulous, it can be defined and grasped. If this is of interest to you, let me know and I’ll be happy to talk this through with you in more detail, specifically as it pertains to your context. In short, building and investing in a strong culture will be highly valuable to you in the long-run.

The key to developing the balance between improvisation and planning & execution is clarity in your vision and tying everything else to it.

Think of it as river-banks. When the banks are clearly defined (the “plan”), what happens in between them can be free-flowing, highly creative (“improv”).
Develop a clear strategy that is tied to your vision. Make sure you have resources in place so the strategy can be executed. Invest in leadership development so when your strategy works, you aren’t left high and dry. And finally, focus on your culture to energize perpetual, even exponential growth.

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