we've talked about
I get the impression that some people freak out when they hear
the notion of improv being applied to software creation.
"Improv! That's where people just start making up random stuff
outta the middle of nowhere! We can't have that
in our nice, disciplined, 100% predictable software production process!
That would be chaos!"
The short answer is that improv isn't about guessing,
or grasping at straws, or
pulling stuff out of the air.
Improv isn't a crap shoot. There are solid underpinnings
to improv, which is why skilled performers can reliably do it.
First, a bit on Improv
Improv is something that
happens in most every field of endeavour, not
just those we think of as artistic. It's common in music; famously so
in jazz. Improv in the kitchen is a familiar notion; tweaking a
recipe or putting together a unique new dish both spring to mind.
The Army, on the other hand, isn't usually thought of as a hotbed of
creativity, but you just have to speak the jargon: look for the term
"field expedient", and you'll find improv being used for everything
from building customized radio antennae to repairing vehicles with gun
tape and para cord.
It's an age-old approach to solving problems in a small-a agile
manner, and it has a discernible modus operandi.
Improv Involves Preparation
As oxymoronic as it may sound, improv requires preparation.
When the time comes to improvise, you must be ready with the knowledge
and tools you need to act.
A sig (military communications tech) who wants to create an improvised
antenna needs the formulae that dictate its dimensions as well as the
wire and sundry bits required to construct it.
A chef who wants to create a meal that will address a diner's special
needs must have ingredients prepped and at the ready.
A jazz musician who wants to be able to solo needs to know their
way around their instrument, not just how to play a scale.
Improv Involves Expertise
To improvise effectively, you need expertise and judgement to know
how to apply your ability to the situation at hand.
A sig needs the wherewithal to know when it's useful to set up
an improvised radio antenna and which types the local terrain
will support. A chef must know how different flavours hang together,
how different ingredients of a dish complement each other, and what
kind of meals they can assemble with what they have on hand.
A jazz performer needs to know where they can take a tune given its
melody, chord progressions, mood, and so forth.
Improv Involves Creativity
Creativity is improv's defining element. It involves taking your
preparation and expertise and, in the moment, creating something
that addresses the unique situation at hand. A sig comes up with an
antenna that gets the radio range they need while blending into the
surrounding landscape. A chef comes up with an off-menu dish that
looks spectacular and tastes amazing, but doesn't contain the nuts or
eggs their customer is allergic to. A jazz musician blows a solo
that's unique, expresses their style and mood, and gels with the
tune, the rhythm section, the previous solo, and
the atmosphere of the evening.
Improv Involves Style
Finally, every practitioner has a different approach to improv.
Whether they dub it their style, their reperoire, or their bag of tricks,
different improvisors will come up with different things in similar
situations. Sigs may have a favourite set of go-to antenna designs;
chefs specialize in different regional styles of cooking;
jazz musicians have trademark riffs. Styles are unique to each person
and their background, and while they seem to bring an element of
randomness into the equation, they're internally consistent --
styles evolve over time, but don't change at the drop of a hat.
Moreover, oftimes style is a factor of the improvisor bringing
their most exceptional or best-practiced skills to bear on a
It's not an accident that skilled improvisers can reliably and
repeatably come up with something when called upon to perform.
While improvisations are not reproduceable in a carbon copy
sense, neither are they arbitrary, capricious, or based around mere
hope or chance.
They're based on a foundation of preparation, judgement, creativity, and
Far from being irresponsible, improv highlights
how prudent it is to be prepared and agile -- it
makes it possible to react to a situation quickly
with a response that is masterful, timely, and appropriate.