Improvise your way forward – especially when you get stuck!

Mostly, when they get stuck, leaders and managers in organisations simply want to come to grips with the situation, improvise and gradually find a way forward. Too frequently, though, they are led to believe, particularly in more formal training programmes or by “expert” consultancies, that the only way to get unstuck is through extensive data-gathering as part of an evidence driven approach. And yet the way we typically go about resolving on next steps and adaptive moves is generally  to trust our intuition, improvise and pay attention to what happens next. We do this because often in practice it turns out to be more effective!

Very often the seemingly rational problem-solving strategies we adopt trap us immediately in a formulation of the problem that constrains potential action and possible ways forward. Similarly a focus on “solving” the problem seems to constrain our ability to improvise or experiement our way forward. And yet it is often only through improvising, conducting a short, sharp series of tests of the possibilities, that we are actually able to discover their potential.

One important way in which we can go about deciding on these next (experimental) steps is to remind ourselves that every situation we find ourselves in is “in motion” and still developing and that our observing of the situation and our thinking about problems, possibilities and potentialities is part of that emerging situation, not something separate from it.

With this in mind useful questions might include:

  1. What decisions and courses of action brought us to this point?
  2. What were the courses of action that were open to us, but that we did not take?
  3. What is happening in the current circumstances that doesn’t fit with our expectations or seems inconsistent with our thinking when we set off on this path?
  4. What possible future courses of action can we imagine?
  5. What do we imagine might happen if we proceeded along the obvious (and less obvious) of these paths or trajectories?
  6. What would each of these course of action enable and constrain?

But where do we start? How do we discover how to do this?


  1. Think of a situation that has become difficult for you.
  2. Pay attention to anything you are doing in that situation that feels less comfortable or “out of sync”.
  3. Find a way of safely “amplifying” what it is you are doing?
  4. Pay attention to what happens as a result?
  5. Devise another experiment based on the results of your initial action?
  6. Keep going until you get a sense of whether this might be a useful adaptive move.

I would love to hear from anyone who tries any of this out. Please feel free to contact me. Likewise if you would like some help putting this stuff into practice please feel free to be in touch.

These ideas draw on:

  1. Thomas Kuhn’s observation in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. that the evidence for changes in scientific paradigms are there long before someone notices them and/or puts together the beginnings of a new view.
  2. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s comment in Philosophical Investigations that often what we are seeking is “… hidden in plain sight”.
  3. Gary Saul Morson’s examination of fore-shadowing, side-shadowing and back-shadowing in Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time
  4. Edgar Schein’s idea of an “adaptive move” first introduced in Humble Inquiry
  5. Dave Snowden and Cognitive Edge’s work on safe-to-fail probes.


This post was written by Phillip Bonser and originally appeared on his Emerging Ideas blog.

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