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By Steve Chapman, ABP Conference Speaker 2013

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The economist J.K. Gailbraith once said “The sole purpose of economic forecasting is to make astrology look credible”.

Never before has the uncertainty he was alluding to been so present in our personal and business lives.  There appears to be an ever-growing multitude of volatile economic, environmental and societal trends that are making uncertainty more of a norm and the arrival of disruptive technologies, such as social media, are making the flow of meaning, information and differences of opinion far more rapid and inter-connected. It seems to me that, as these trends appear to be gathering increasing momentum, it isn’t leaders, who are simply good at predicting and controlling, who are going to thrive in the future but those who are also masterful at adapting.

Despite this emerging picture, I’m yet to come across an organisation that has imagination, creativity or improvisation specified as critical leadership capabilities. The closest I typically find is ‘flexible thinking’ or ‘innovation’ but without an ability to imagine, be creative and improvise it is virtually impossible to fully develop these capabilities. I fear that in an attempt to make our language about leadership sound more adult and corporate we miss the point that the underpinning capabilities required to think flexibly and innovatively are, by their very nature, more abstract and child-like.

Intent + Adaption

For me, Improvisation is the embodiment of a slightly paradoxical combination of INTENT + ADAPTATION. Leaders who possess a good balance of these capabilities are able to use their well-developed strategic, financial and commercial skills to form a bold intent, a compelling vision of the future and are able to maintain a deep awareness of the here and now that enables them to adapt, change and alter their plans in-the-moment. Whilst we appear to have some very strong capabilities associated with intent, the adaptive, improvisational skills required to compliment them appear atrophied in many leaders of our organisations which sadly leads to many wonderful, motivating and inspiring strategies quickly going past their sell-by date, as the world moves on at such a pace.

An ability to think imaginatively and creatively is a helpful underpinning skill in improvisation. It is absolutely critical, however, when it comes to innovation – an essential component of any modern corporate strategy. A stand-alone innovation process starves and becomes stagnant without a creative process to feed it novel concepts, to be developed into prototypes and experiments. Similarly a creative process lacks spark and energy without an imagination to feed it abstract ideas. In his book “Out of our Minds” (2001) Ken Robinson describes innovation as “applied creativity” and creativity as “applied imagination” and talks extensively of the importance of taking a holistic approach to developing these capabilities in order to unblock frustrated innovation efforts in organisations.

The good news…

The good news here is that we don’t necessarily need to spend lots of time, effort and money in order to create development programmes to nurture the imaginative, creative and improvisational capabilities of our leaders. These are skills that we once had in abundance in childhood that gradually fell into disuse as we grew older, or were never fully activated in our early lives. Rather than losing them, I believe we simply put them into a deep freeze as we grew older; all we need to do to defrost and re-activate the imaginative, creative and spontaneous little genius inside us all is to create the right kind of developmental heat!


About the author

Steve ChapmanSteve Chapman is an independent researcher, writer and consultant who is fascinated by change, creativity and how human beings relate to each other in these things we call ‘organisations’.

Steve is “a trained improviser, a daddy, a husband and a doodler” and holds an MSc in Organisational Change from Ashridge Business School where he occasionally visits as guest faculty.

Steve writes a popular blog at and tweets via @stevexoh

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to hear more, Steve will be speaking at the 2013 Annual ABP Conference on Saturday 5th October,Wokefield Park, Reading. To find out more about the conference and Steve’s session click here for more information.

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