Improvisation is the mantra for chaotic times

Virender Kapoor

If I were to sum up what I’ve learned in 35 years of service, it’s improvise, improvise, improvise.”

General James Mattis US Defense Secretary

We live in an age of constant change and upheaval. Though technological support helps in doing things faster, it offers no solution to unpredictability. Forecasting supported by business analytics and computer simulation is no guarantee to ‘what will be tomorrow like?’ or worst ‘what may change or go wrong tomorrow?’Business leaders therefore need to be extremely agile in their thought and action.

What happens- which often happens- if you are made to face a situation which does not fit any of your contingency plans? You need to manage it- people expect this from you. Question is how? And the answer is- improvise. Improvisation is doing something without pre planning. It can be an impromptu speech or joining two single beds to make a double bed if the occasion so demands. Improvisation is possible in almost all facets of our personal and professional life. It is intended to solve an unexpected problem at hand, which needs to be fixed immediately. It is unexpected, but needs to be considered as priority. Improvisation is an attitude for survival.

Armed forces were probably the first ones to adopt improvisation as a part of their ethos. Despite impeccable planning by a military commander, there are several, parameters that are neither in his control, nor can they ever be predicted. For every military situation a commander must be ready to improvise.

Such was the speed, expanse and the unpredictability of military operations during the six year long Second World War that field commanders were often left with no choice but to resort to improvisation. Weapons, medical equipment, road construction and most weird applications of improvisation were witnessed.

Improvising Weapons

When German army was attacking Russia, Red army devised innovative methods to destroy the Nazis. One such contraption was created by mounting a telescope of a rifle on a giant 14.5 mm anti tank rifle to destroy bunkers and pill boxes. It accurately fired a shell (meant to destroy a tank) into a bunker (which can withstand a direct outer hit) through the viewing slits of the bunker which blew the bunker inside out.

Russians during WWI created an improvised Armored Fighting Vehicle ( AFV) by mounting a gun on an STZ-5 Agriculture tractor. The British created “Gun trucks” using commercial Bed ford trucks by mounting antitank and machine guns during WW 2. They also created mobile pill boxes by fitting concrete fighting compartment on commercial trucks. Americans during Iraq war created a Gun truck based on a M939 five ton truck for convey protection.

IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices are homemade bombs. The term IED originated during the Irish movement in 1970s. The Irish Republic Army used bombs made of fertilizers, against the British. In Iraq war, IEDs were responsible for almost 63% causalities for US led coalition forces. While the war heads on these IED’s varied from explosives, chemicals, incendiary or even biological, the delivery mechanisms could employ cars, boats, cycles, animals, two wheelers or even humans . Usually cell phones, radio signals or wires are used as trigger mechanism.

During Vietnam War, Vietnamese used rubber band grenade, which was nothing but a grenade with safety pin removed, and clip held by a rubber band. Such grenades were placed in huts, which were regularly set on fire by the Americans. The rubber bands burnt, releasing the safety lever, killing the enemy.


Spies don’t have resources like military commanders. They have to operate under cover for years and manage things on their own. Presence of mind and improvisation at the spur of the moment is the only way for them to survive. CIA, KGB and Mossad , all have their operatives trained in the art of improvisation.

Medical Improvisation

During Burma campaign — WW 2 medical equipment was scarce in prison camps. Many medical tools were created out of whatever was available. Bamboo, a major resource was used to make water and food containers, brooms, needles, latrines and even bed pans for seriously injured. Cutlery was hammered and sharpened to make surgical instruments. Scrap metal was used to make forceps, curettes and scalpels.

Dr Richard Rowley, a prisoner of war who later wrote a book, “A Doctor’s war” says ‘ we made surgical instruments out of scrap stolen from railway stores. All the doctors in the camp became skilled at the art of improvisation. They used bamboos as stethoscopes and instead used the tubing of stethoscopes for drips and blood transfusion; made artificial limbs, pneumonia jackets, and scalpels as well as stitching needles from Bamboo.’

In a book “Improvised Medicine in the Wilderness,” the authors K Iverson and H Dunner say that at the heart of medicine in wilderness is improvisation which is a creative amalgam of formal medical science and common sense. A lot of work has been done in this area which includes wound management, handling trauma orthopedic injuries, even transportation of patients.

Entertainment, art and craft

When I sit down to write a song, it’s a kind of improvisation, but I formalize it a bit to get it into the studio, and when I step up to a microphone, I have a vague idea of what I’m about to do.”-

Paul McCartney

Actors on stage are great improvisers. Having rehearsed an act does not guarantee a flawless performance. Any of the actors can forget a dialogue, certain prop may not work or a wardrobe malfunction may occur. Good actors improvise. Their brilliance lies in their spontaneity and improvisation.


The most astonishing example of engineering improvisation was undertaken aboard Appollo13 space mission. An explosion of oxygen tank crippled the service module of the space ship which supported the command module.

The crew managed to splash down back despite shortage of water, limited power and difficulty in removing the carbon dioxide from the manned modules. They improvised-a carbon dioxide scrubber cartridge which had been manufactured differently for the command module and the Lunar module. Using whatever was available at hand, Astronaut Swigert rigged things in such a way that a square carbon dioxide scrubber cartridge was fitted into the Lunar module which accepted a round cartridge. Almost like fitting a square peg into a round hole.


How to teach Business managers and leaders improvisation is going to be the next “killer app” in business management.

Performance during crisis is the next management frontier for maximizing ROI. A lot needs to be done to create practical, yet affordable methods and exercises to develop this skill. A combination of hands-on practices and simulation in a class room is a good option.

Another challenge is to make leaders work with “Constrained resources.” Working with partly crippled resources triggers creativity. It pushes you to find instant solutions which are neither taught in B-schools nor can be managed through case studies.

Randy Suborn with Dr W Pratt in business improvisation research paper teach improvisation in an experiential manner by using improvisation exercises. The Attention and Inter Personal Style (TAIS) inventory with 144 questions to test the abilities of business leaders is administered. Used for selecting business, sports and military high performers, it focuses on concentration, working under pressure and other related parameter and is used by US Navy seals.

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”

- Oscar Wilde

With inputs from “What you can Learn from Military principles” By Virender kapoor — Bloomsbury publishers 2017

Thinker,author,Motivator, Inspirational Guru more than 30 books,200 articles plus.Figures with Gr8s like Thomas Friedman,Dale Carnegie.