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Can you improvise your way to success?

William Crozier

When your best laid plans hit a snag, your ability to adapt and improvise is what counts. Here’s how to be at your most agile in the face of adversity.

When you’re working in a complex environment, interacting with diverse groups, or striving to resolve deep-seated problems, you can’t anticipate all outcomes.

Writing for Strategy+Business, Adam Kahane, author of Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, says he has “come to view unexpected results not as a problem but as a spur for the learning and adaptation we need to do”. Here the director of an international consultancy that helps groups to resolve intractable conflicts explains how he improvises his way out of trouble.


The challenge was to get “politicians, judges, journalists, activists, academics, police, and clergy” to work together to strengthen the rule of law in Mexico. Although the consultancy team had designed a process for helping the disparate interest groups to work together, it didn’t function as planned, and by the end of the second day, the plan had to be completely reworked.


When unforeseen circumstances force you to revamp your plans, avoid the temptation to look for sources of blame; you cannot rerun the past. The strategy here is to determine the best way to move forward from where you are now. The emphasis must therefore be on identifying the things you got right so you can keep doing them, and the things you need to do differently in future.


“You can only improvise if you have practised a lot.” When seeking to solve complex problems in which the outcomes are uncertain, if repackaging old solutions doesn’t work, you’ll need to try a new approach.

Base new ways of working on deep knowledge of the old – the author’s conflict resolution agency had to take some risks to get its Mexican project to work, but it based its strategy on decades of relevant experience – you can’t expect new approaches to succeed if you don’t fully understand how and why old ways failed.


“You can’t rely only on your own perspective.” The author felt that negotiations were going well, but not everyone agreed. Don’t be afraid of criticism, but seek feedback, casting your net as wide as possible. Ask everyone involved for their opinions and, rather than responding immediately, write their responses down.

Now go away and think about the information you have received. Put your ego aside or how can you expect others to do the same? What did you get right? What might you need to do differently? Share what you have learned.

When working on difficult problems learn to see the problems you encounter as route markers which, if you study them properly, will guide you towards success.

Source Article: How To Fail Successfully
Author(s): Adam Kahane
Publisher: Strategy+Business