Improvisation and Management: Research on the Great Italian Chefs

13 September 2018

Although management literature has produced numerous and significant contributions on improvisation in recent years, improvisation is still considered almost exclusively as a problem-solving modality to be used in cases of emergency. In reality it is a complex phenomenon, a creative process in which ideation and execution coincide, merging into a single phase where experience and competence make it possible to face uncertainty without planned behaviors.

Through a study based on the haute cuisine sector in Italy, the article (published in full on Economia & Management) illustrates how improvisation in business works at the individual level and proposes a new categorization that highlights improvised behaviors that go beyond the emergency choices.

Management studies on improvisation started from the observation that in performing arts, especially in jazz and theater, it often leads to innovative results. Unfortunately, however, in the common language, improvisation is negatively connoted, associated with unreasonable decisions or unprepared actions. Instead, improvisation is a deliberate behavior and often a genuine deviation that represents a very effective resource if based on structured and consolidated skills and experiences, as it allows to face levels and types of uncertainty difficult to manage if treated only through usual strategic planning tools and classic managerial skills.

Haute cuisine, a context based on experimentation and creativity, but at the same time strongly characterized by defined roles and highly structured internal hierarchies, as well as high is the reliance on predetermined organizational routines, can offer ample possibilities for studying improvisation while happening. The study, carried out on a group of 27 chefs – at the time of the interview 3 had three Michelin stars, 10 two stars, 10 one star and 4 no stars – four types of improvisation emerged: improvisation on requestspontaneous creative improvisation, improvisation by emergency and organized improvisation.

Improvisation on request, probably one of the most common types of improvisation, is triggered by a customer’s request, such as a desire to try a new dish not on the menu. The immediately evident elements are the external request, extemporaneous and unexpected, the possibility to act in complete freedom and the realization of a new solution, the temporal constraint and the tension given by the expectations to be respected.

The most classic case of improvisation, where the creative process does not follow a planned design, is spontaneous creative improvisation. Unlike creativity based on composition that implies long and thoughtful times and creative moments, meditated, defined and separated in time, in the spontaneous creative improvisation the process and the result take place at the same time, becoming confused. The result in itself loses almost importance with respect to the process that generated it and which itself becomes the fulcrum of improvisation.

The collected data confirmed the idea, already consolidated in the literature, that we turn to improvisation to manage unexpected situations or to solve emerging problems. Here improvisation acts exactly like a problem-solving process realized through the resources immediately available on hand. This behavior does not lead to particularly innovative results, but it generates a new process, a new solution that is useful at the moment. In improvisation by emergency, dependence on the rapid recombination of the available knowledge is evident, as well as on the immediately available material resources.

The fourth type, organized improvisation, may at first seem a contradiction, but there are many respondents who have revealed that they organize and plan improvisation. In the kitchen there are two main situations in which this type of improvisation can occur. In the first, the chefs have already decided that some actions of the day will be improvised, such as the creation of amuse bouche (the welcome of the kitchen), pre-desserts or dishes out of the menu. In the second situation all the solutions potentially subject to improvisation are foreseen in advance: the chefs have already decided how to manage a potential improvisation at the moment, in order to avoid the difficulty generated by unexpected challenges. The idea of ​​organized improvisation has significant managerial implications as it can be a complementary tool to strategic planning. There are cases in which organizations come to develop very strong improvisation skills, generated by cases of improvisation that they are facing. Over time, improvisation itself becomes a routine that can be planned and organized.

The nature of improvisation is much more complex and multifaceted than we know. We usually identify improvisation as an impromptu behavior, the only way out in difficult situations. The identification of the organized improvisation process is rather counterintuitive because it tells how improvisation can be organized to the point of planning its use. Companies can look at different types of improvisation and embrace them differently depending on the potential behind each one.

It is not said that all types of improvisation occur in all business realities, but the ability to turn improvisation into an opportunity is important, thinking about how we can move from one type of improvisation to another, considering that they are all determined by the routines and the knowledge accumulated over time. The study was conducted in haute cuisine, an extremely creative sector where the process of developing a new product is the main driver of success. However, all companies, even those operating in less creative contexts, need to constantly adapt to the market to manage the unexpected in a fast and effective way. Today, often the skills to respond to changes in dynamic and constantly evolving environments are those that determine the success of the company.

It is not only necessary to be in situations of catastrophe or emergency to improvise. The creation of improvisational skills that are complementary to ordinary strategic planning tools can be useful to innovate and build competitive advantage over time.


by Ludovica Leone, Scientific Director of the Global MBA in Food and Wine 


The full article can be read on Economia & Management following this link.




Improvvisazione e management: indagine sui grandi chef italiani


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