One of the greatest challenges in communication and leadership revolves around preparation and improvisation.Sometimes the amount of preparation done for a presentation, a facilitation, a meeting, an interview, or a conversation is dictated by how much time is available. On a short deadline, preparation and planning time might give way to the necessity to improvise. The 80% rule of thumb, often attributed to the US Marine Corps, is a splendid example of this. This guideline specifies that you act when you gather 80% of the information that you need. The premise is that decisive action with an 80% solution is better than no action at all and lives in the tactical adage:
“Decisions without actions are pointless.”
“Actions without decisions are reckless”
It’s a testament to boldness over hesitation.
In other instances, preparation and planning time is influenced by personal operating style and preference. Some of us excel with an unstructured and organic approach; others require the rigor of planning to be at their maximum level of comfort, confidence, and performance. That’s not to say that “improvisers” can’t plan or “planners” don’t improvise. Mark Twain’s speaks to this:
“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
I appreciate Twain’s perspective because it recognizes the relationship between these two, seemingly opposed, elements and alludes that successful improvisation requires a foundation of preparation.
This concept entered my life last week. I was involved in the delivery of a 3-day education session where most members of the delivery team were not able to dedicate the preparation time that they normally would have liked to. Since postponing the event was not an option, as a team, we realized that that there were times in the session that we would have to “wing it.” Interestingly, after identifying this reality, the team felt loose and confident on the eve of our delivery.
So how did it go? Well, good and not so good. For the first two days we were right on spot. Our knowledge, experience, ability to improvise, and our teamwork allowed us to perform swimmingly despite our relatively skimpy preparation. The trajectory was an out of the park home run. The last day; however, hit a wall, leaving us with a mere triple – perhaps even a solid double. Without coincidence, day three was the least planned and coordinated of our session.
Furthermore, looking back on it, we dodged a couple of bullets. Our main speaker was travelling in from Calgary, never a certainty in a Northern British Columbia winter; and, on the first day, the lead person of our delivery team lead was feeling ill. Luckily, the weather held and our lead was able to grit it out. With our lean preparation, we didn’t have contingencies in place to easily overcome these potential challenges.
My take home lesson is that while improvisation is sometimes necessary, being too cavalier with preparation will eventually lead to disaster, no matter the skill and confidence of the performers.
I would love to hear your stories about this?