Improvising and being creative in real time under pressure is a skill that we appreciate in the arts such as music and theatre. We also admire athletes who develop an ability to ‘read the game’- especially a fast paced sport such as basketball or hockey. However, when I started researching improvisation for business applications I came across applications of its use in other professions as well.
One of the earliest and most interesting stories is Mann Gulch; where there was a very large forest fire in Montana in 1949. An experienced wilderness Firefighter, Wagner Dodge (great name for a firefighting hero), found himself and his crew surrounded by a wildfire. Conventional training at the time would have suggested that their best method of escape was to try to outrun the fire (some did try this- without success unfortunately). Dodge, however, improvised a solution to save his men: He started a new fire and he and his men took refuge in the burned away area as the larger fire raged past them and they managed to survive thanks to his quick thinking.
This is just one of many examples of how improvisation is utilized in non-traditional, non-arts environments. Corporations, for example, also often use an improvisation based process called ‘Wild Card Theory’ [Frank Ruff 2004] to prepare for unforeseen disasters like contaminated food, scandal, etc. In my opinion, of all the applications of improvisation out there, the most crucial is in the emergency services. I recently spoke with Dwayne Macintosh the Deputy Fire Chief of the Fire and Emergency Services Training Institute (FESTI) at Toronto Pearson International Airport about how improvisation plays a part in how they train firefighters to use the Jaws of Life when they face the challenge of extrication at a crash scene. Continue reading