« Change is the only constant. After two years of health crisis, this quote from Paul Auster resonates in everyone’s mind. The current context is a hymn to the ability to adapt and improvise. For Kristine de Valck, a researcher at HEC Paris, successful improvisation can be identified, taught and reproduced. Thus providing managers and employees with valuable techniques to respond to urgent problems.

How important is improvisation in a professional context?

It is not only important, it is necessary. New regulations, new restrictions, two years after the beginning of the health crisis, it forces companies to act with uncertainty. The current context requires improvisation and this can be problematic for structures that do not allow for failure because everything is protocolised. Before the health crisis, big data and other major technological developments, such as the rise of artificial intelligence, were already suggesting that it was necessary to think outside the box in order to prosper. In a few years’ time, it will be the changes brought about by the climate crisis that will lead to the same conclusion.

How did you go about observing and studying improvisation?

It was very difficult because improvisation, by definition, cannot be planned! My two co-authors are very involved in the role-playing game universe popularised by Dungeons & Dragons. These games have been transformed into real experiences lasting several days where the participants invent a story together. These situations have great similarities with corporate life: decision making, limited resources, power issues, alliances… We followed three different groups of players in Australia and Italy for two years in order to observe the improvisation over time.

During this study, you distinguished several types of improvisation.

Improvisation by imitation consists of observing the more experienced and adapting to their responses to problems. It is a simple starting point for newcomers to learn the ropes of improvisation. The most common type of improvisation is reactive improvisation. It refers to the use of information provided by the other players and the environment to develop original responses. Generative improvisation is the most effective and requires probing the future while trying new things in order to anticipate what might happen. It is no longer about reacting to a given situation but about developing unique and innovative ideas. This distinction is based on whether the players take a collaborative or competitive approach. We have determined that only the collaborative approach leads to generative improvisation. This is a good way to train future managers!

Mannucci, P. V., Orazi, D. C., & de Valck, K. (2021). Developing improvisation skills: the influence of individual orientations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 66(3), 612-658. 

Kristine de Valck

D. in Marketing from RSM Erasmus University (2005). Professor of marketing and dean of degree programmes at HEC Paris. She is the academic director of the Luxury chair in collaboration with Kering since 2016.

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