Improvisation and Relationships

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Last week I had the opportunity to hear Rob Cross deliver the results of a social network analysis to the top 100 R&D; leaders in a client organization. He highlighted, among other things, the importance of managing overload points as well as leveraging the periphery of the informal networks revealed by the mapping. This prompted me to juxtapose our work with relationship capital.

We define relationship capital as the sum total of interfaces, interactions, and interventions among and between people. It includes the tacit, often unrecognized behaviors and patterns of interaction that define and differentiate an organization’s performance. The practice of the Politics of Creativity helps leaders more effectively invest in relationship capital.

An essay in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “Competitive Advantage from Better Interactions” helpfully describes how tacit interactions more and more define how employees must relate to one another. (The authors’ research was based on a study of some 8,000 companies.) One of their conclusions: “Tacit interactions reduce the importance of structure and elevate the importance of people and collaboration. …Tacit work is improvisational and difficult to define in advance, for it follows the problem being solved and the nature of the opportunity at hand.”

I actually spent a day not too long ago at an improvisational workshop with Stevie Rae. While it may seem like a big stretch from an improv routine to a research lab, there were many aspects of the workshop that informed our work with “relationship capital”. For example, Stevie Rae reminded us again and again, “At the end of the day, the audience won’t remember your words but whether they liked playing with you.” ‘

When, if ever, have you last asked yourself the question “What feeling or emotion do I want others to leave this conversation or presentation with, not simply what information?” This is a specific way for one to invest more in relationship capital. Too simplistic? Too soft? Pay attention and see what happens.

There is mounting evidence that such tacit dimensions differentiate those who successfully generate trust and establish an environment where creativity and innovation flourish. All the information and data in the world is no substitute for some of the most rudimentary principles of building relationships that are more than connections on a network map.

  • Deary Duffie

    Your blog reminds me of two “tensions” or continuum I face with client organizations. In data-driven organizations balancing the feeling/thinking continuum is often challenging for leaders. Leaders may over-rely on data to make critical decisions and become paralyzed. The planned/spontaneous continuum is often unbalanced in deadline-driven organization. A tightly held, rigid agenda and project plan can stifle creativity. An effective leader facilitates conversations that moving freely along these continuum.

    Improvisation encourages participants to show up, stay present, tell the truth, and let go of pre-determined outcomes. And by the way, have some fun.

    I often coach leaders to do the same.

  • Jack Johnston

    Improvisation, individual or collect, entails risk. It seems to me that the role of relationship capital is to help mitigate and share that risk. It does this because it embodies the trust in intention and confidence in competency that are essential to collaboration and sharing of risk.

    Generating it begins by sharing ourselves, not just our knowledge, with others. It grows as we share experiences, achievement, even failure with others.

    With an ample supply of relationship capital improvisation is transformed from theratening to exhilirating and productive. This is where creative organizations thrive. The tacit interactions involving trust, confidence building, competence sharing are the vehicle for creating relationship capital.

  • Steven Gonzalez

    Yes, I have to agree with Mr. Duffie. Improvisation in a high data need culture is a challenge. Especially in an organization that has been highly successful. They limit their scope of improvisation to stay within the domain of their successes. If the exercise stretches too far beyond their historical data then it will be quickly dismissed.

    We have found in our technical aerospace culture that trust is a by product of a demonstration of technical depth and expertise rooted in data. This trust is essential for the critical missions that we are engaged in, but it’s roots in data makes improvisation difficult. These relationships are based on strong historical successes.

    Improvisation requires new relationships to be established. Recently in order to infuse a spirit of improvisation we solicited the ideas of the Next Generation of Engineers and Scientists. Their perspectives were validated by a Senior leader who served as their champion. Where trust does not exist at first, a champion will help to bridge the gap.