Improvisation comes from Latin and literally means “not seen ahead of time”. It is about being in the moment, proceeding without a plan and responding to novel situations. But it is also about having the right level of preparedness, and a foundation to build on and innovate around.
Life is unpredictable, everyday we are dancing with risks and unforeseen events (I am writing this in the middle of the second wave of a pandemic). From a very young age we develop our ability to sense, respond, and adapt as life happens. So, improvisation is more natural and integrated in our daily life than we are aware of.
Improvisation in dance, music, theatre and arts starts with learning basic phrases and patterns and gradually building a rich vocabulary. In the same way children learn how to speak by imitating other speakers, repeating what they say and memorising words, phrases and expressions. Similarly, we learn how to dance by imitating our dance instructors, repeating their moves, and gradually building our own range.
At its very core improvisation is a learning experience that leads to new insights. But to improvise, you need first to have a baseline structure, or a basic set of rules. It sounds like a paradox, but to liberate yourself, you need constraints, or the result will be chaos.
You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.Charles Mingus – Jazz composer
In Toyota, they are famous for allowing their factory employees design their own workspaces and processes as they see fit within the organisational constraints. This departure from predetermined routines results almost to thousands of improvised dances on the factory floor which have led to extraordinary levels of throughput, new ideas and quality. Their philosophy of minimal structure/maximum autonomy is what has given Toyota such a competitive edge.
Choreography versus Improvisation
Once, I was waiting for a long-haul flight at Heathrow Airport. I was in the seating area near the boarding gate, next to a big piano. Suddenly, a woman approached and started playing. She was playing what sounded like a really difficult piece of classical music, and at a really fast speed. It was flawless and yet at the same time utterly uninspiring. It sounded more like I was in a music school with a student practicing the perfect execution of notes. This was the antithesis of improvisation.
In dancing, choreography is a preplanned and predetermined sequence of steps and moves that the dancers rehearse in order to flawlessly execute. A choreography usually allows for more speed and technicality through careful design of moves and transitions. The focus is on perfect execution, and avoiding mistakes. In fact, in dancing competitions mistakes incur penalties that define the final score.
On the opposite, due to the social nature and style of Cuban Salsa, dancers are not expected to follow a pre-determined choreography when they meet at the dance floor, but choose their moves and patterns as they go in a continuous interplay with their partners. Cuban Salsa comprises of a mix of musical styles, rhythmic patterns and a basic syllabus of steps and moves, which the dancers use to improvise. Experienced dancers can intuitively understand how the different moves link with each other, and discover the available pathways within the constraints, creating unexpected outcomes.
The power of improvisation
Improvisation is the ability to think of your feet, be aware of the space around you, acting and reacting in the moment, and connecting moves as they come to you. This requires a highly cognitive effort, which leaves no room for distracting thoughts. Often dancers find themselves lost in the moment. It is almost like a form of meditation where you connect with your energy and express yourself with no inhibitions and limitations. Mistakes do not matter, perfection is irrelevant. In fact, making mistakes becomes a fundamental part of improvisation as it leads to new unexpected moves, leaving much more room for personal interpretation.
It is both about control and surrendering to your flow, it is about striking a balance between exploring the endless possibilities and exploiting the familiar paths. Being able to surprise yourself and discover something new. In the short-term there is always the risk of embarrassment or mistake but in the long-term this is the path to learning and high-performance. You need to be bold and try new moves, difficult moves, or even awkward moves. There is no need to repeat them, and you can always discard them until you find the moves that fit you stylistically.
What really counts is your connection with your self, your partner and the music. It is a journey of self-discovery where you learn to be confident, trust and have faith in yourself, not despite of your mistakes, but because of them. There is always something new to explore, always a beautiful and unexpected possibility. Once you grasp this concept and take the leap of faith, there is no fear and self-doubt anymore.
You grasp imperfection and that on itself is perfect.
The trap of predictability
Contrary to the unpredictability of our world, organisational leaders focus on predictability, control, and following set plans. Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of using a choreography of mechanised moves to create an illusion of perfection, efficiency and achievement. As a result, many struggle to let go and embrace an unpredictable world that requires them to dance with risks, to constantly sense and adapt, to learn and innovate.
They are like dancers executing always the same choreography, hoping that this time it will lead them to somewhere better.
The strange paradox is that the best choreographies are those that are built on improvised moves. Traditionally, all great ideas and innovative dance moves come from some form of improvisation, which are then captured in a choreography. Nevertheless, it is easy to get trapped into great ideas from the past, and the fragile image of perfection.
Cuban salsa can help you shape the right mindset for a complex, unpredictable world that requires you to read your environment, connect with others, think of your feet and adapt. Personally, it has opened up a whole new world of possibilities I never knew existed.
If your mind is focused on not making mistakes and following a routine to perfect execution you will not learn anything. Perfection is very limiting and soon you hit a ceiling of performance, as you cannot do any better than you designed for. There is nowhere to go from there.
However, life is meant to be experienced. Humans are good in making tools, coming up with ideas, and learning from every waking moment. Every mistake is an opportunity for a new unexpected idea. In fact, this is how many major discoveries have happened. Our focus should be on how to build the right foundation within which we can liberate our minds and improvise. Sometimes the outcome might not be perfect, might not even be good. But it is the experiential learning process that matters, that’s how we enrich our lives.
The potential is endless.