Improvisation: The Cure for Unpredictability

I just finished Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. It’s one of those mind-opening books that shine a light on the everyday world in a way that makes you say, “Oh, I never saw the world that way, but I will always see it that way from now on.” A few summary insights:

  • When we see effects we reflexively infer causes, not because the cause is real, but because we are wired to infer it.
  • We assume that outcomes are based on features, factors and fortune, when they are often driven by randomness.
  • We create patterns in our world even when those patterns don’t exist.

These facts cause us to see the world as deterministic: If I make a sales pitch in a certain way to executives of a certain demographic, I should expect certain outcomes.

But the world doesn’t work this way. The world is not deterministic. Yes, there are factors that favor certain outcomes, but in real life the most influential drivers of outcomes are often seemingly minor, chance happenings.Examples: You work your whole life to prepare for your career, but one chance meeting opened the opportunity for your current job. Another time, you decided, at the last minute, to attend a party, and you end up meeting your life partner. We all have examples in our lives where random events had major effects on us.

Like life, a sales conversation is not deterministic. A sales conversation is not like a software program where commands lead to outcomes. There is no pre-set course and no pre-determined set of rules about how the meeting will unfold. Anything could happen. (And something will happen!)

This shows us another reason sales pitches don’t work, and why we need to ditch the pitch. A sales pitch is filled with assumptions, and it bets on deterministic predictability. A sales pitch is like an imaginary Rube Goldberg machine, where the marble can’t help but move from chute to bucket to tube, gravity guiding the progress.

But the world of sales does not have predictable gravity, and it punishes assumptions. So if you enter a sales call with a pre-determined idea of what will happen, and a script that is based on that pre-determined idea, the chances of success are not in your favor. You will have a hard time adapting to the randomness.

Improvisation is the way to be open to randomness. If you are alert to every random event that happens, always open to new information, and if you are able to say, “Yes” to this new information, working with it no matter what it is, you will be able to ride the randomness. A sales pitch struggles in vain against randomness, but you can ride the randomness if youditch the pitch.

I recently interviewed jazz saxophonist/clarinetist Douglas Ewart, who is also a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His ensemble, Douglas Ewart and the Inventions, plays completely improvised concerts, with no prior conversation among the players about what they are going to play. When I interviewed Douglas, the first thing he said was:

“Improvisation is a daily activity. Crossing the street requires improvisation. Even when you cross with the light, you have to be alert, and you have to judge if the person driving a car is being mindful of you. If not, you have to adjust. You improvise.”

Crossing the street with the light may seem like the most routine, simple activity. But randomness happens, so you keep your eyes open. The same is true of a seemingly routine sales conversation. Don’t go on autopilot. Be ready for the randomness. In fact, be eager for the randomness, because randomness gives you the opportunity to improvise and create a fresh sales conversation that won’t seem routine to your customer.

Take Notice

In your next customer interaction, notice how many things happen that you hadn’t expected. It may be something small, such as your customer telling you about his recent vacation. Or it may be large, such as your customer unexpectedly bringing his boss to the meeting.

Do the same thing by observing your daily life. How many things happen each day that are the product of randomness?

Try This

As you notice randomness, consciously adjust your actions to deal with the randomness. Change course. Improvise. Eagerly adjust your plans to fit each random moment.

1 Comment

  • Clemens Rettich
    Jul 29, 2010 - 16:58 pm

    Another excellent article Steve. I read Mlodinow’s book a while ago as well and it had the same impact on me.

    Your recommendation to ‘Take Notice’ in particular hit home. Listening is the core of great improvisation.

    If you have a moment, check out my articles on Improv and Team Building. Let me know what you think.

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