The FAMCare Blog

Running Your Nonprofit: Improv vs. Strategy

Posted by GVT Admin on May 21, 2019 10:56:04 AM


The Military Model

Most industrial corporations are organized on the military model that emerged after World War II. This “top-down”, “pyramid”, “span-of-control” model of authoritarian decision making was thought to be the most efficient, effective, and disciplined form for complex, sprawling organizations. It was all about the rank and file executing the will of the top decision makers and not roaming “off the reservation” with ideas of their own. It was a model of discipline and efficiency designed for execution.

 Not for Nonprofits

BossThis organizational model has always been an uncomfortable fit in the nonprofit world. Although most large nonprofits unwittingly adopted the “top-down” “span of control” model of organizational behavior, most became moribund over time because they stuck to structure, tradition and legacy decision making that gradually rendered them unable to interpret and communicate their mission to an ever-evolving staff and marketplace. The more “controlled” and “institutionalized” these organizations became, the less they were able to respond and react to change. The survival of the organization replaced the nonprofit’s true mission. 

A New Self-Image for Nonprofits

A four-part series in Nonprofit Quarterly entitled The Sensemaking Organization: Designing for Complexity explains in some detail the historic work of US organizational theorist Karl E. Weick. Unfortunately, his groundbreaking work has gone largely unnoticed by the nonprofit world for the past 50 years. If you are working in an institutionalized nonprofit and feel like you’re aboard a large ship wallowing in an unfamiliar shallow bay, a review of Weick’s work may be enlightening. 

Karl E. WeickKarl E. Weick

Weick described the evolution of post-industrial organizations away from the military model and toward organizations where cause and effect relationships are less clear, lines of command relatively irrelevant, and uncertainty the norm.

The Post-Industrial Organization

In Weick’s Post-Industrial organization, he viewed what he called “sensemaking” to be a precursor to decision making. His fundamental insight was that we can only make decisions about things we perceive and understand.

  • Thus, he defines organizations as rationales for commitment that work around individual cognitive processes.
  • Weick saw post-industrial organizations and nonprofits as loosely coupled systems due to the gap between their complexity in size or environment and the micro-cognitive processes of the individuals that comprise them.
  • People have what Weick called bounded rationality—limited information processing capabilities, changing memories and short attention spans that lead people to notice different things, reflect at different times and process different segments at different speeds.
  • Weick proposed that instead of planning, the nonprofit organization’s task is to accept uncertainty and design for ambiguity
  • For Weick, the recurring question is not, “What decision should be made?” but “What’s going on here?” 
  • This is an important distinction because, as Weick observes, “more attention is paid to organizations as decision makers than to organizations as interpretation systems that generate meaning.” 

How to Manage This Post-Industrial Organization


Weick suggested that to be successful, the post-industrial nonprofit organization must capture the learning from the past, but not be controlled by it, in order to meaningfully engage with generally unforeseen events.


Jazz improvWeick viewed management’s task as more akin to improvisation than strategy, which had been the “holy grail” for most organizations that operate defined plans of action to achieve stated goals.

Weick quotes jazz musician Paul Berliner, “‘Improvisation involves reworking precomposed material and designs in relation to unanticipated ideas conceived, shaped and transformed under the special conditions of performance, thereby adding unique features to every creation’”. The ability to improvise, to combine the old with the new, creates continuously relevant order.

Four Levels of Improvisation

  1. The first level is interpretation—a shift that does not change the essential nature of the structure in place.
  2. A bit more change would be embellishment—an addition that changes the structure, though it is still recognizable.
  3. Variation starts to move us to the other end of the spectrum. It is an alteration of the structure; something new is added, though it is still in relationship to the existing structure. 
  4. At the far end of the change spectrum is improvisation—the creation or discovery of a new structure.

A Final Thought

“Successful quality management occurs when people are newly authorized to paraphrase, embellish and reassemble their prevailing routines, extemporaneously” (Weick 2001, 295).

Have you ever been authorized to embellish and reassemble?



Topics: Nonprofit General, nonprofit mission, nonprofit

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