Managing Organisation Tensions.
Only the Dead Don’t Improvise – life is better in the here and now!
Many of us have a desire for our lives to be mapped out and daily work planned. There are plenty of authors and speakers happy to sell you their secret to creating the perfect life plan. The reality is that there is no plan for life and that we are constantly making it up as we go along; especially senior leaders in our organisations. There is no playbook for every change in context. Not even scenario planning can give you THE answer on what to do. In short, we are improvising.
I borrowed the title for this article from Robert Poynton (2008), partly to grab your attention. But also, to kick off a conversation about the value of being in the present, and how doing so can have a positive impact in organisation life.
This month I participated in what was an intensive improvisation masterclass delivered by Jeff Michalski. The theme was ‘shapeshifting to discover character in relationships’. Putting the title aside, at the heart of the workshop was needing to be in the present moment, not worry how the scene would play out. Rather, focus on noticing and building a connection with others on stage and in doing so let the scene unfold. As I struggled with this, what came to my mind was how ‘Gestalt’ this whole experience was.
Now before you click away, there has been a lot written on how Gestalt principles benefit organisation effectiveness (eg Herman & Korenich, 1988; Nevis, 1987). And this is the heart of this article. The relationship between improvisation and Gestalt and, how the power of being present.
While I am not formally Gestalt trained, Gestalt principles have been part of many of the organisation development and coaching workshops I have completed. I also have many of the cited references on my bookshelf, and have read them. With that out of the way, let’s jump in!
Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of something new in the present moment. It requires those involved to engage in a free-flowing, unscripted expression. Key elements of improvisation include active listening, awareness of what is happening around you, adaptability, collaboration, and embracing uncertainty. These qualities enable players to create something coherent and meaningful without predetermined plans, drawing on their creativity and intuition.
“Find out what is needed and go about getting it” – Nevis
The Gestalt thinking , rooted in psychology, focuses on understanding the human experience as a whole. It is both a philosophy for being as well as a methodology for facilitating change. Gestalt theorists emphasise the importance of becoming aware of what is going on for us, in our bodies as well as our minds, the objects around us, and events in their entirety rather than as isolated parts. By recognising and embracing the interconnectedness of various elements, individuals can gain insight into their experiences and achieve/ experience personal growth.
The Gestalt cycle, often used in organisation development and change work involves perceiving the whole, differentiating the parts, and integrating them for a holistic understanding and experience.
In reading both of these definitions, I am sure you start to see how when applied, both can have a positive impact on organisation performance, navigating change and employee engagement. Both improvisation and the Gestalt framework emphasize the importance of being fully present and connected with those around us.
Let’s look more closely how these can be applied in the workplace.
be in the present moment
There is a library of literature on the benefits of being in and focusing on the moment. Humans are rubbish at multitasking and yet we believe we can (Rosen, 2008; Atchley, 2010).
From a Gestalt perspective our mind acts as an interrupter. Thoughts get in the way of being truly aware what is going on around us and then in connecting with others. Being in the present is hard. Apart from technological distractions, our minds often get preoccupied with past experiences or future expectations. We are also anxious about what others think about us.
By not being in the moment, we miss key cues and insights that can spark creativity and strengthen our working relationships.
Both improvisation and Gestalt emphasize the importance of being fully present. In the world of improvisation, performers immerse themselves in the present moment, tuning in to their surroundings and responding in real time. They actively listen, observe, and adapt, allowing their creativity to unfold spontaneously.
Similarly, the Gestalt framework encourages individuals to be aware of their current experiences, focusing on the here and now and the body rather than dwelling on the past or future, or just the brain
By embracing the present moment, both practices open doors to new possibilities and authentic self-expression.
the big picture
Improvisation and the Gestalt cycle share a holistic perspective, recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In improvisation, performers create cohesive and meaningful pieces by building upon each other’s ideas. They understand that collaboration and interplay are essential for the collective success of the performance.
Similarly, the Gestalt framework emphasizes the importance of the whole picture, acknowledging that our experiences are shaped by the interconnections between various elements.
By embracing the holistic perspective, both practices reveal new insights and promote a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. By being open to the big picture minimises silo behaviour, fosters strategic alignment and optimises resource allocation. When an organisation has a greater awareness of what is needed at any given moment, it can mobilise its energy to get it.
NOTICING THE SMALL DETAILS
Noticing the details is a key aspect of both the Gestalt cycle and improvisation. In Gestalt, we see the whole, or big picture, then we break it down or differentiate the parts. It emphasizes the importance of being aware of the subtle nuances and intricacies of our individual and group experiences. The whole is certainly more than the sum of the parts.
Similarly, in improvisation, paying attention to the details allows performers to be responsive, adaptable, and attuned to their fellow actors, leading to richer and more authentic collaborative interactions. A small idea, even a mistake or interruption such as a mobile phone ringing, can spark a whole new creative journey.
The need to focus on the small details is also true in our organisations, especially during periods of change or transformation. Paying attention to the intricacies of individual roles, processes, and relationships can uncover hidden barriers, opportunities for improvement, and ultimately contribute to the success of broader change initiatives. Culture too here. Culture is so often in the small things.
Spontaneity, Adaptability and Agility:
A Google Scholar search on ‘creating an agile workplace’ yielded about 72,200 results. It is an understatement that this is a hot topic. Nearly every job description, organisation design process or corporate behaviour statement has agile somehow included.
Improvisation and the Gestalt framework share a common emphasis on spontaneity and adaptability. Improvisers must think on their feet, responding creatively to unexpected situations.
Likewise, the Gestalt framework invites individuals to embrace the ever-changing nature of life and adapt their responses accordingly, fostering personal growth and flexibility.
In our workplaces we often promote the rapid cycle of explore, experiment, learn, adapt and then implement. However more often we encounter the speed humps and barriers of authority layers, operating procedures, risk assessments and decision review boards. All getting in the way of being agile, creative and calculated risk taking.
Co-creation and Collaboration:
Both improvisation and the Gestalt framework recognize the power of collaboration and co-creation. In improvisation, performers freely build upon each other’s ideas, weaving a tapestry of collective creativity.
The Gestalt framework emphasises the importance of interpersonal relationships and acknowledges that our experiences are shaped by our interactions with others.
Embracing Uncertainty and Letting Go:
Both improvisation and Gestalt teach us the value of embracing uncertainty, holding paradoxes and letting go of rigid expectations. In improvisation, performers embrace the unknown, stepping into uncharted territory with curiosity and openness. They learn to trust the process and let go of control, allowing creativity to flow.
Similarly, the Gestalt framework invites individuals to embrace the inherent uncertainties of life, letting go of preconceived notions and opening themselves up to new possibilities. Focus on what could be rather than what should be (Herman & Korenich, 1988)
All of this can be a real game changer!
Applying a blend of the principles of improvisation and the Gestalt framework into the workplace can be a game-changer. By prioritising the present moment, focusing on the holistic perspective, noticing the small details, and cultivating spontaneity and adaptability, organisations can unlock a new level of effectiveness and employee engagement. Collaboration, co-creation, and embracing uncertainty are not just abstract concepts but practical tools that can drive innovation and growth.
Below are a few practices you can try:
- Check ins – this is a brief reflective practice where individuals tune into their present experience, becoming aware of and sharing their thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the here and now.
- Play “yes and” – together tell a story and start each sentence with “yes, and..” This encourages accepting and building upon ideas and contributions from others, fostering collaboration and creativity.
- Mirror Mirror – stand facing another person and follow each others moves. No one is the appointed leader or follower. Simply notice and be in tune with each other.
- The finer details – this is a great exercise to do outside. Find an object (flower, stone, leaf) and start to describe it, keep going and as you do focus ever more on the details of the object
a final warning
Don’t mention improvisation or Gestalt. If you want to improve your organisation’s ) or just your own!) performance, you can embed many of the practices shared above without using the labels of improvisation and Gestalt. If you are curious to find out how, let’s have a call (or coffee) and see what we can co-create.
Atchley, P. (2010) “You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying” Harvard Business Review. Accessed online:
Gallup (2023), “State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report”. Accessed online
Herman, S. M., & Korenich, M. (1988). Authentic Management: A Gestalt Orientation to Organizations and Their Development. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. United States: HRD Press.
Nevis, E.C.(1981), Organizational consulting : a Gestalt approach, Gardner Press, New York.
Prentice, S. (2022), “The Future of Workplace Fear: How Human Reflex Stands in the Way of Digital Transformation. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4842-8101-7
Rosen, C. (2008). The Myth of Multitasking. The New Atlantis, 20, 105–110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43152412
Workplace Intelligence (2022): retrieved from http://workplaceintelligence.com/upskilling-study/