Project Manager Skills: Improvisation

Improvisation is not a skill that comes to mind when discussing project management. When disaster strikes, though, project managers who can improvise will weather the storm far better than those who can’t. What kind of improvisation is important for a project manager? And how do you develop it?


Let’s start with a small example. As the next milestone nears, a meeting is called to discuss the next phase of the project. For the meeting, you prepare a presentation with one of the team leaders. This presentation is the main part of the meeting – it will summarize project progress until here, map out the next phase of the project, and highlight the risks and challenges everyone needs to pay attention to.

The meeting is set for 10am, the remote teams are coming in to the office for the day, and everything is going to be great.

The day of the meeting, the team leader you’re co-presenting with calls in sick.

Now what? Cancel the meeting? Give a presentation alone you’re unprepared for? What do you do?


Improvisation is the ability to react to the situation on a dime, making use of what you have available. 

In a project management context, improvisation means finding the next path forward to your goal. If this contingency was prepared for, great. Just switch tracks. If the problem wasn’t foreseen, well, you’re going to have to react immediately.

Improvisation is a skill, and it can be learned. It starts with asking three questions: What is this situation? What do we have available? What is the goal?

Here’s a humorous example. Craig Ferguson was a late-night TV host. One day, the guest he was supposed to have for the show just didn’t make it in. Watch what he does:

Craig Ferguson asked himself:

What is the situation? We are missing a guest and there is one slot of the show unfilled.

What do we have available? An empty slot, and our staff.

What is our goal? Entertain the crowd.

And so he tells the crowd what happened, and then promptly brings out the poor producer who was responsible for the slot. Everyone laughs, enjoys, and Craig wins.

Project Management Improvisation

Now let’s bring it back to project management. In our small example above:

What’s the situation? The milestone meeting presentation is missing a presenter.

What do we have available? The entire project team, except the missing presenter.

What you have to work with
Imrpovisation means taking stock of what you have, and working with it

What is our goal? To inform the entire project team about the project up until now, the next phase, and the risks and issues they need to be aware of.

And so you could go tell the team what happened, and invite other people to the stage to read off the slides. Or turn that half of the presentation into a quiz, asking relevant people who’d know the information. Hey, you can even turn it into a game of charades. Only you will know the energy and mood of your project team, and only in the moment will you be able to diagnose exactly which option will work best based on the mood and energy in the room. Get creative.

Executive Summary: The Improvisation Checklist

  1. What is the situation? Here is where you diagnose the problem.
  2. What do we have available? Here is where you take inventory of what you have to work with.
  3. What is our goal? Here is where you identify the desired outcome of the situation, utilizing the inventory you have.
  4. Act. Take what you have available, and apply it to your goal, within the situation you find yourself in.