Improvising Amidst Instability: A Balanced Handling of Paradoxical Tensions

In this post, author António C.M. Abrantes reflects on research he and his colleagues Ana M. Passos, Miguel P. e Cunha, and Sílvia A. da Silva published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science: “Looking at Team Improvised Adaptation Through a Paradoxical Lens: The Role of Team Plasticity.” Their thoughts appear just below the abstract of their published paper:

When time is of the essence and teams face unexpected contextual changes, they must adapt quickly, sometimes even in real time, that is, they may have to improvise. This paper adopts an inductive approach to explore how teams decide to engage in improvised adaptation, and what happens during those processes for improvisation to be successful. The study analyzes improvisation from the perspective of paradox theory and identifies six paradoxical tensions driven by these contexts: deployment, development, temporal, procedural, structural, and behavioral tensions. We propose a dynamic equilibrium model of team improvised adaptation that leads to team plasticity. By properly managing the paradoxical tensions emerging from the convergence of design and execution, teams become more plastic and able to cope with sudden change. These findings contribute to adaptation and improvisation literatures by delving into the adaptation process under the temporal and material confluence of design and execution.

The last decades have seen a growing number of studies on organizational improvisation. This topic is relevant because the environments in which companies operate are increasingly dynamic and unstable, and sudden changes are ever more the only constant. In this type of environments, organizations often need to respond in real-time so that they can effectively cope with contextual changes. It is therefore fundamental to understand what happens during a process of improvisation and how organizational agents can better manage such processes. That is what we have done in our article “Looking at team improvised adaptation through a paradoxical lens: The role of team plasticity,” published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. In this article we look at the improvisation process through the lens of paradox theory. Early on in the data collection it became clear to us that the organizational improvisation process is marked by the emergence of a number of paradoxical tensions that have to be addressed appropriately in order for the process to have a chance of being successful.

We chose to do an inductive study based on grounded theory because we wanted to penetrate deeply into the process of organizational improvisation. This type of methodology allows a greater depth of analysis of the processes, but requires a very high methodological rigor to ensure that the findings are grounded in the data. In addition, the methodology used in the paper also requires active participation of the researchers in interpreting the data and an ongoing iteration between data and theory. This threefold dynamic – data, researchers, theory – has high potential but requires rigor, a great deal of time, and much duplicated work at all stages of data analysis.

Another aspect that posed a particular challenge was to be able to redirect the data collection process based on the analysis of the first data collected, as is characteristic of this methodology. It was precisely this aspect that allowed us to identify the emergence of paradoxical tensions and to alter the interviews’ guide to focus on these tensions and how they were managed by the organizational agents.

Our research is innovative for three essential aspects. First, because it identifies the emergence of paradoxical tensions within organizational improvisational processes, allowing for a greater understanding of the phenomenon and its various facets. Secondly, because it not only identifies the emerging tensions but also points out ways to manage them effectively in order to increase the likelihood of success of the improvisational process. Finally, it develops the concept of team plasticity as an outcome of improvisation. Teams are plastic when they are able to shape-shift under the pressure of a current contingency, but at the same time protect long-term success. This happens because the proper management of the paradoxical tensions emerging in the processes of organizational improvisation allows: the improvement of the organizations’ ability to predict the future, reducing the impact of environmental instability; the improvement of the organizations’ ability to improvise; the development of new processes better suited to unstable environments; and the promotion of sustainability, i.e., the resolution of immediate situations while ensuring long-term success.

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Antonio Abrantes

Antonio Abrantes holds a doctorate in management with a specialization in human resources and organizational behavior from ISCTE-IUL. He also holds an MBA specializing in marketing from The Lisbon MBA, a partnership between the Nova School of Business and Economics and the Católica Lisbon Business and Economics. He has also presented his research papers in several international conferences such as EURAM and INGRoup.

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