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Applied innovation: balance method and improvisation

Joleen van der Zwan
September 12, 2022

Work in applied innovation is a balancing act between method and improvisation. On the one hand, there are tried and tested methods and processes for it. On the other hand, you inherently don’t know where these processes will take you – it will be something new. And, you don’t know how your team dynamics will be. So, that requires an interesting mix of the right amounts of method and improvisation.

When we want to find a solution to a clients’ business issue, or find out how to best apply a new technology in their business, we use the SogetiLabs Thinkubator approach to applied innovation. Before development, this starts with a team effort based on design thinking. In three workshops, we flesh out the problem and design a first Minimum Lovable Product (MLP). For that, we balance the use of method and improvisation.

Method and Improvisation defined

The Oxford English Dictionary defines method as: “1. A particular way of doing something. 2. The quality of being well planned and organised”. And improvisation is defined as “the act of inventing music, the words in a play, a statement, etc. while you are playing or speaking, instead of planning it in advance; something that is invented in this way.” They are seemingly opposite, but prove to complement each other very well.

In this phase, method is the moderators’ job

In the process, we involve several roles, that will differ depending on the challenge at hand. However, one role we always have present is the moderator. This person is responsible for guiding the team towards results. They design what the team will do and when. Up front, they script the process minute by minute. The reason for that is, this way we can be sure of a high probability to deliver good results in the given time. So far for method.

Improvisation is everyone’s job

In walks the team. By definition, not everyone will know each other. The reason for that is, we need different experts for each challenge and we don’t always know the clients’ experts. And this is where improvisation steps in, for 2 reasons. First, the team is all about improvisation. Second, there are limitations to the predictability of team dynamics.

We task the moderator with method for a reason. And the reason is, when they do it, no one else needs to worry about it. What steps should we take, will we be done in time, that is the moderators responsibility. As a result, the team can be fully in the moment and improvise while they go along. This way, they are open to whatever they find in the process. Of course they prepare, they know the client, the context, the challenge and the technologies. But once there, they observe, listen, talk, consider perspectives and come up with solutions whilst doing it. They improvise.

The same goes, in part, for the moderator. Of course they know who are on the team. They prepare by finding out about personalities and preferences. But team dynamics exist in the moment. So once guiding the team, the moderator will improvise within the frame of their script. On the one hand, by playing with time: maybe one part of the process needs a bit more time. Then think ahead where to gain it back. On the other hand, with people: is everyone engaging? How to get this silent person to speak their mind? When and how to stop a discussion irrelevant for the workshops’ purpose? It is all about improvisation.

Applied innovation: balance method and improvisation

So, in applied innovation you need a careful balancing of method and improvisation. You should use proven ways of working, and plan and organise carefully to drive result. Also, to get to these results, improvisation is very important. The team should have the freedom to be in the moment and invent on the spot, by tasking the moderator with method. And the moderator should use improvisation to guide the team to the best possible results without smothering them with method.

About the author

Innovation Consultant | Netherlands
Joleen van der Zwan is an energetic consultant with broad experience in multiple industries and a variety of roles. With her passion for innovation, she provide customers with insights and advice on their strategy related to innovation and new technologies. She connects both people and ideas, and use this skill to envision and realise business opportunities. Joleen is head of organisation for the


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