Sounding Board: The art of improvisation

A sense of humor and the ability to think on your feet can be valuable assets in the grocery business.

By Len Lewis

So, this young guy arrives for his first day of work at a supermarket and the manager greets him with a big smile and handshake.

“Welcome. Great to have you here. Your first job will be to sweep the store.”

The guy looks confused and replies indignantly: “But I’m a college graduate!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” says the manager. “Give me the broom and let me show you how!”

This isn’t going to be a diatribe on the pitiable state of higher education or store sanitation. Nothing so mundane. The message here is, get a sense of humor—literally.

In fact, let me take that a step further. If you’re not feeling that post-holiday glow and are more than a little uneasy about the state of the economy and your business in 2010, you might be better off canceling that next convention and hitting a couple of comedy clubs. At least that’s the attitude of some leading business schools such as UCLA, Duke and Columbia and a host of academicians and strategists who are encouraging industries of every stripe to hone their business skills by looking at the unscripted world of improvisational comedy, theater and jazz.

When I read about this trend, I had the same reaction as you’re probably having now—namely, that this is another expensive and esoteric exercise developed by someone looking for a quick corporate payday. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. At its core, improvisation is about role playing, keeping an open mind, abandoning the routine and having the ability to think on your feet. Has there ever been a better time to develop these skills?

Look around and you will clearly see how deeply improvisation is embedded in popular culture and an art form in and of itself. In comedy, groups such as Second City and The Groundlings have produced generations of improvisational performers such as Bill Murray and Robin Williams whose comic genius lies in quickly responding to events around them. In music, improvisation has made legends out of everyone from Mozart and Beethoven to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and jazz innovators such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

A course for senior executives at the venerable Columbia School of Business actually takes students to a jazz club to talk with musicians about how they improvise, choose on-stage partnerships and how they work together to create this highly complex art form.

But can the concept of improvisation make the leap from popular culture to the corporate world?

Mary Crossan is a professor of business policy and strategic management, and director of the Leading Cross Enterprise Research Centre at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. She works with the famous Second City comedy group, but in a recent article in the Financial Times notes that improvisation is not about being funny or clever. Nor is it something that companies should think of as a last resort during tough times. In other words, it’s not about throwing something against a wall to see what sticks.

Rather, she and others firmly believe improvisation is a real skill and perhaps even a new business imperative. It is about getting people to think and act outside their highly regimented comfort zones. And there is research from other quarters that underscores the strong connection between good leadership, innovation and the ability of an organization and its managers to improvise and generate ideas on the fly.

I’m not minimizing the need for planning. This is, of course, the essence of best practices in retail or any other business—everything from manufacturing to distribution to sales. But having a strategic plan doesn’t mean blind obedience to a pre-determined course of action. At a time when change is the only constant, there’s a lot to be said for the art of thinking on one’s feet, dealing quickly with negative feedback and breaking down the barriers between you and those you are trying to reach.

As the poet said, even the best-laid schemes go astray. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you are spending so much time scripting every minute detail of your operation that you’re losing the ability to be change and be more spontaneous.

So anyway, a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer walk into a bar…Stop me if you heard this one.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at lenlewis@optonline.net or at www.lenlewiscommunications.com.

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