Where Improv and Strategy Meet

When I was a kid, I had to take piano lessons. I was kind of excited when I found out my mom was forcing me to do it, but a little nervous. I had an aunt who was an incredible pianist, and I loved to hear her play at church. I was a musical kid - loved to sing, could do harmony at an early age, and was just really in love with music. 

Then I had my first lesson. 


I had to learn to COUNT! and READ MUSIC! and USE THE CORRECT FINGERS! and, oh, the worst thing of all - PRACTICE THIS BORING STUFF! 

The first song I learned was playing three keys off of middle C, all quarter notes. I wanted to die. There exists a hilarious photo of me as a kid slouching and pouting, looking at the camera forlornly as I practiced during this era. It perfectly captures my disappointment at the whole piano playing gig.

I am taken back to this time because I just gave my awesome niece, a six year old kid, her very first piano lesson this week.

I could see it in her eyes she felt EXACTLY the same way. Her face said to me, "Counting? Really, Aunt Sarai? Just play ONE NOTE over and over again so I can learn the counting thing? Ugh." 

But the thing is, you have to do that boring stuff, the foundations, so you can learn to be awesome at doing WHATEVER YOU WANT! 

I will always remember the first day that my aunt, who taught me in my second and third years of lessons, introduced me to a little something called "Improvisation." 

"What is that?" I asked warily, assuming it would require more of the dreaded counting or finger drills or whatever other boring stuff I hated to practice. 

"It's where you get to add your own flair to the song you're playing." She said. 

I quickly realized I could REALLY get down with improvisation. 

I quit lessons after that year and wrote my own songs. I was all improv and no boring stuff. I did finger drills and scales and all that, though. But now, it was because I WANTED to do it. It was helpful and useful, and made me so much better at my craft. 

Music theory went from drudgery to delightful. Practice wasn't a chore, it was my favorite thing to do. It defined my youth, really. 

But, as much as I still a tiny bit hate to admit it, it was that foundation of the technical things - understanding the STRATEGY of playing the piano - that made it possible for me to explore, be nimble, be creative, and eventually, to really truly enjoy playing my instrument. 

Now it's simply a part of who I am. Something I do that just flows from my heart and my guts, and it is natural. It reflects quite well how I feel about working with nonprofits and doing good in the world. 

See. Nobody wants to do a strategic plan anymore. They think it's out of date, it makes them too slow and logy. It makes them get stuck in the hassle of having to articulate where they're going, chart their course, and keep track of how they're doing. 

Let's just DO it! They say. Let's just GO for it! They announce. We are NIMBLE! We can be QUICK ON OUR FEET! if we don't have some boring old strategic plan weighing us down! 

But the problem is, they are dead wrong. 

Strategy is the foundation for all your actions. It is the place where you decide what you're in this business to do, and how you are going to make your mark on the world with your amazing mission. 

You can improvise within the boundaries of a plan - a framework - just as you can within a piece of music. There are always boundaries on creativity that make it work. You can't push the boundaries until they are defined - and better for YOU to define them than for someone else to impose them upon you. 

I'm a huge believer in the strategic plan. I think there are ways to do it that make it come alive and breathe energy and action into your organization. I believe you can take a strategy, turn it into action, and execute on it to get incredible results that bring a whole lot of good to humanity. 

I hope you agree - and even if you don't, I hope you'll let me convince you in a lot more pages than this in my book "Strategic Planning That Actually Works!" It's coming out on Tuesday the 20th of January - and you can get it for free if you grab it before the 25th! Sign up here to get on the list to find out about it when it arrives! 

Sarai JohnsonComment