11. Improvisation

Jackson Pollock

You’ve done your scratching and come up with some interesting stem ideas you want to work with. Now its time to improvise. 

For a long time I couldn’t describe how I ‘do’ strategy, particularly when developing brand ideas. I just sort of do it. There aren’t processes or steps that I go through, or a prescribed routine. Stuff eventually just comes to mind and I latch onto it and work with it. What’s that called? It all seems so random and arbitrary. Other people appear to have or to follow processes but that’s never worked for me – process in my experience crushes imagination.

I was forced to say that mine was an intuitive or instinctive approach. But these are labels other people have applied to my kind of strategic development and I don’t greatly like them. 

And then while I was scratching around I discovered the idea of improvisation. 

Improvisation is the act of creating something using only the tools and materials around you. 

We are familiar with improvisation in many art forms and endeavours. Improvised music uses only the instruments the musicians have with them and nothing else, improvised theatre uses only the actors on the stage and improvised comedy uses only the actors and and audience. 

And they then appear to make it up. To create and perform whatever comes to them, in the moment. 

But of course what we tend to forget is that the greatest tool they have in that moment is not an instrument or their acting talent it’s every experience that they hold in their minds. 

In a quote often attributed to Picasso, the painter Whister said of the price of his paintings “I am not asking this high price for a brief amount of work. I ask it for the knowledge gained through the efforts of a lifetime”. In the moment he painted, he was committing to canvas the experiences and expertise of a life.

A piece of improvised music is not the work of a moment but is built on a complete understanding of musical form. The same is true of improvised theatre and improvised comedy built in many ways upon shared references between the actors and the audience and the deep understanding between performers. There are rules for the improvisation itself but more important is the expertise, knowledge and preparation of the people improvising. The enormous quantity and quality of resources that they are bringing into the moment and that sits in their minds.

And it is improvisation that best describes the strategic process for me. Improvisation in which the tools are naturally my notebook and pen, but also and critically my mind, filled with everything I have been scratching at (data, qual’, interview, hero books, and the like) but also every experience I have ever had and every memory that I can access all sitting inside my mind waiting to be drawn upon.

Just as the choreographer Twyla Tharp, working in an empty room on her own, starts to improvise dance moves, and steps – to try things out and link things together. So I sit on my own with an empty page and start to improvise ideas, links and connections. Working with the raw materials from scratching.

Usually this is alone and not in concert with others because I have to be able to free myself from any constraints or restrictions. I have to be able to improvise anything and everything however plainly stupid and ridiculous. 

Tharp says about improvisation, “It’s your one opportunity in life to be completely free, with no responsibilities and no consequences. You don’t have to be good or even interesting. It’s you alone with no one watching or judging. If anything comes of it you decide if the world gets to see it. In essence you are giving yourself permission to day dream during working hours.”

There are a small handful of people I can do this with. Where the level of trust is so deep that I would be able to share this process. But speaking out loud about an idea to anyone at this stage leads to its censure and censorship. This is one of the reasons that I’m not fond of workshops or brainstorms for idea creation and I shudder at the thought of ‘sprints’. I think, for all the rules about not evaluating ideas this is actually impossible in any collaborative situation. In fairness it’s not the evaluation of the idea by others that’s the problem. For me it’s one’s own self-evaluation and criticism that stifle the life of an idea, and that’s just more likely in company.

And let’s be clear about these ideas. At this stage they are mental scribbles, barely worthy of the name idea. They are the product of improvisation, the trying out of a sound, a thought, a shape, a meaning. In music they would be the equivalent of a bar, in dance a step, in painting a brush stroke. In time they will coalesce into something that you are prepared to start tentatively sharing with others. But not yet.

After all, one of Stephen King’s greatest pieces of advice to writers is to write the first draft with the door closed and only the second with the door open.

I also believe that everything has to be written down during improvisation, everything. This is for two reasons.

I am improvising and because this particular set of ideas or thoughts haven’t been thought before they have to be captured otherwise they will be gone, I never rely on my memory and memory will always distort what you recall, the subtly of a turn of phrase may be lost. Think, note down, think, note down.

And because every thought has value to me, even the valueless. Though very few of the scribbles will end up making it to a finished idea, most will act as the stepping off point for another thought and another until an idea is finally reached. I have to stop myself editing even in the moment a thought comes to mind and I write it down.

I don’t know if the great post impressionist painter, Jackson Pollock would have described his paining as improvised or the process of creating a new painting one of improvisation, but I have always loved the sense you get from his work that the paint is a record or the movement of the painter’s hands, arms and his case body. In looking at a Pollock it feels like you are able to witness once again the physical moment or Pollock’s body 42with which the piece was created. Of course all painting must in a sense be a record of the movements of the artist but for me it is visceral with Pollock’s work.

And so the scrawled words in my notebook represent thinking but also a record of thinking. As everything goes down on paper the evolution of ideas in general and phrases and words to represent those ideas are all recorded. This creates a snail trail of thoughts as they emerge and are fashioned by the improvisation. 

Thoughts can ignite on the page and kindle into ideas that then burn out and leave just ash. Others burn brightly and start to gather force and set fire to other ideas building something bigger. 

Many people are fans of distraction as a route to new ideas. The belief that their best thinking comes to them in the shower or some time and place where they are doing something different, where their mind is not fully occupied and able to wander.

We have all have ideas in this way, where you come back from a walk or run with an idea that came to you along the way. But I am rather more fond of focus, or at least times and places where I am deliberately trying to fashion ideas, when I am deliberately improvising. 

Time and places where I can close the door and focus on the problem. I find it a far more reliable approach than waiting for ideas to come to me while I am doing something else. 

I say focus but its a strange mental state. In that moment I am focused on one task, developing and shaping ideas. But I am also in a slightly abstracted state of mind.

I call it slipping into neutral. Like an old manual gearbox, where you slip out of gear and the motor just runs. That’s the state I’m trying to achieve, the motor is running but it’s not grinding through any of the gears. That’s when the ideas flow. In this state I can really improvise. I am able to think anything and everything, almost like that alpha state people describe about the moments before sleep but without actually falling to sleep and losing all those dreamlike ideas – the day dreaming that Twyla Tharp described.

I can’t promise improvisation will work for you. It’s a technique, a creative habit, that much like the notebook and pen tells my mind to do its stuff. But try it. Try sitting on your own with your tools infront of you and your mind connected to them so there is no friction between the spark of a thought and its appearance on paper. Fix your gaze on the problem you are trying to solve or the purpose you have for these ideas. And then slip your mind into neutral, let it spin and spin and see what you get.

Beyond that point there is no advice I can give you. What comes will be the result of all the scratching you have done, the store cupboard of experiences that are sitting in your mind to draw upon and frankly how good you mind is at doing this. Of course, this is something that you can train, a muscle that you can exercise and the more that you open yourself up to this kind of improvised and imaginative thinking the easier it will become to find something really good. 

But at this point you need to start your own improvisation and see where it takes you. 

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