I was at the Applied Improvisation Network conference in San Francisco last week as a speaker, attendee, and conference organizer. I – like many attendees – apply principles of improvisation (not improv comedy, although I do that on stage) to improve client outcomes.
Improvisation does not mean “winging it.” Improvising requires preparation, fluency, and knowledge – the oxymoronic “art” is in knowing when to deviate from the plan. Great improvisers plan. Improvisation is co-creating, being present in the moment, and being prepared and willing to let go, and even fail, in order to get better results.
The CMIO: Chief Marketing Improvisation Officer
Successful entrepreneurs (and companies) are improvisers who prepare, fail, learn quickly, and “pivot.” They know when to adapt, and they empower others to do that as well.
In a world of increasing complexity, the ability to improvise and to manage change is critical. According to the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study, the ability to embody creative leadership is among the most important attributes for navigating and succeeding in a world of increased complexity. The study also revealed that there is a shortage of flexible, creative leaders in top companies. That’s a big issue for managing the next wave of change.
Marketing – and business in general – is undergoing tremendous change. Because of social media, the rapidly evolving social enterprise, increasing amounts and complexity of information (the rise of “big data”), marketers are inundated with choices, “facts,” the promise of greater insight, and a constantly changing set of “rules” for connecting better with customers.
Create the Playbook and Be Ready to Ditch It
So what’s a marketer to do? The answer is to create a playbook and improvise as needed. I have launched products, online campaigns and stories, and start-up companies. In the day to day, real-time trenches, the unforeseen – both good and bad – happens. When stuff stops working, great marketers improvise and change course. Failure is part of the improviser’s motto; it’s a chance to learn and grow. Yet, continuing to fail because of inflexibility is just poor management.
Successful Products are Co-Created
Companies can’t wait until products are perfect to ship them. There is no such thing as completely done. Consider all the bugs in software. Great marketers create the best products they can by involving customers early on, getting products out the door and continuing to get feedback that helps shape the next revision or product upgrade. Product strategies should and will evolve –it’s an orchestrated and organic blend of co-created development with customers over time. Great marketers deviate from the plan – improvise – when customer feedback requires a new direction. Plans are roadmaps, not fiancés. Like them; don’t marry them.
Great Storytelling Means Letting Go
The narrative of a company must always adapt to the changing market conditions, customer needs and the competitive landscape. Company narratives evolve organically and are adapted by customers who shape them and make them their own. There is no such thing as waiting until a narrative is perfect. In fact, this is where great brands thrive – by allowing their customers to co-create the company story with them. By doing that, great brands build customer loyalty by letting customers define what the larger company story means to them.
Campaigns can also be co-created with customers – it means letting go of controlling the story and enabling customers to shape that story the way THEY experience the brand. Like improvisation on a stage, this requires trust. Letting go almost always means better outcomes than can be achieved by “control.” Customers ultimately decide if a brand succeeds or fails.
Social Engagement Requires Experimentation
In a world where social media is still evolving, companies must embrace experimentation with a number of tactics to see what works. Marketing is filled today with examples of companies that are failing. That’s a great thing in a way. Now is the time to try, fail, and learn by improvising – not the time to stick to long-term playbooks. Measure, see what works, and improvise a new plan. Yes, some stuff won’t work, and even best laid plans can fail. Nothing in marketing is guaranteed; there is no template. Marketing – the iterative, improvisational dance – is some science, yes, and a hell of a lot of art. Thriving in uncertainty means accepting the situation or offer at hand (improvisers call it, “Yes, and-ing”) and moving forward by building (and-ing) on the reality of the moment.
While overall strategies shouldn’t change frequently, tactics should because knowledge and tools will. The point is lots of mistakes will (and should) be made as companies find their footing in a new world where customers have more power and transparency. Be married to your company’s values and the narrative it creates – not to tactics that aren’t working. Intractability is lethal.
Improvisation Requires Leadership and Mastery
Improvisation isn’t winging it. It requires preparation, fluency, mastery and big values such as trust. It can only be successful when companies have leaders that embrace change, and trust their people enough to decentralize flexible decision-making. Companies with solid brands are capable of improvisation precisely because they are prepared – and open to change.
The beauty of jazz isn’t in the predictable notes; it’s in the improvisation. The same is true of marketing. Marketers who prepare and are willing to improvise as needed will be the ones to succeed in a business climate of constant and rapid change.