Life Lessons #7: Improvisation vs Models in Professional Advisory Work

Trick question!  Both approaches have their place and their legitimate uses.  Combining them can deliver superior results for clients and advisers alike.  It all comes down to CONTEXT.


  1. Flexibility and Adaptability. Improvisation gives advisers “permission” to adapt quickly to unique and unpredictable circumstances – enabling them to think on their feet, solve problems creatively, and tailor their approach to the specific needs and circumstances of the client and their own capabilities.

Flexibility and adaptability can be critical where set models aren’t entirely appropriate and can’t fully address the complexity and nuances of the client’s situation.  They also define advisers as being “agile”, or not.

  1. Customisation and Personalisation. Improvisation allows advisers to customise their approach, advice, and solutions to their client’s specific needs and goals – enabling them to consider personality differences, human dimensions and preferences, cultural and economic factors, and other contextual variables that may not be adequately identified and accommodated in standardised models.

Clients feel more confident accepting, and are more likely to implement advice that’s been customised and personalised to resonate specifically with them.  That requires the nature, form and style of delivery, and the actual content, to be presented in ways that make sense and feel right to the client, as well as to the adviser.

  1. Efficiency and Effectiveness. Set models provide structured and systematic approaches that increase assignment efficiency and effectiveness by avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel for new engagements.  Acknowledged best practices, industry standards, and personal and collective experiences are processed through an intelligent dot-joining exercise designed to make simple sense of complex situations.  The resulting model empowers both experienced and inexperienced advisers to address recurring and unique situations more efficiently and effectively.

This works well when most of the variables are known and understood – which requires them to be fundamentally objective, factual and quantifiable. However, set models start to wobble when subjectivity, emotions, unknowns (and unknown unknowns) start to emerge.  When factors beyond the collective experiences that created the selected model start to emerge, the rationale for sticking rigidly to the model disappear.  At around that point the agile adviser starts to improvise at least some aspects of their response.

  1. Risk and Uncertainty. Tried and tested frameworks and approaches can increase the likelihood of assignment success and minimise the risk of the adviser, or the client, making mistakes.  Where the stakes are high and/or the consequences of failure are significant, following set models can provide a sense of security and confidence.

However, this can be a double-edged sword, especially in highly regulated environments.  Advisers are often called upon to help clients in dangerously high-risk situations that can only be addressed by taking further risks in response (eg: identifying the real causes of a family conflict so they can be directly addressed, rather than sugar-coating the situation to avoid short-term pain, or termination of the engagement).

This invariably requires improvisation to address the needs of individuals in unique circumstances that don’t lend themselves to set models.

  1. Consistency and Predictability. Following set models ensures consistency and predictability in service delivery.  Many advisers prefer to stay safely within their personal and professional comfort zones, where they can follow standardised processes on which they’re received appropriate training, and which help to ensure they address critical requirements in a consistent fashion.  This is particularly important for repeat work and when multiple advisers are involved.  It also reassures clients who need or expect a degree of predictability and reliability in the work done on their behalf.

Although a strong commitment to consistency and predictability produces desired results in most engagements, most of the time, it can also seduce advisers into committing a cardinal sin that removes their right to think of themselves as Trusted Advisers – flying on professional auto-pilot.

When an otherwise appropriately balanced commitment to consistency and predictability results in a form of intellectual rigour mortis that filters out inconvenient evidence of challenging factors, the client who believes their adviser has their back is in for an unpleasant awakening – later, if not sooner.

And that adviser is susceptible to being replaced by a more perceptive and responsive adviser if their client is in anyway connected to the outside world.

  1. Quality and Compliance. Following set models helps to ensure quality of service delivery and compliance with practice, professional, and regulatory requirements.

Improvisation can increase or decrease quality, depending on the training, standards and competencies of the adviser.

By definition, improvisation is unlikely to sit well with strict compliance regimes.  Consequently, it’s critically important to ensure that the nature, objectives and requirements of any engagement are carefully defined to ensure the client gets what they need and that the adviser can respond to those needs to the best of their ability without placing themselves at risk of litigation for negligence – or worse, for straying too far off the (professional) reservation.

In practice, a balance between improvisation and following set models is often desirable. Advisers can leverage their expertise, experience, and intuition to adapt models to specific situations and use improvisation to fill gaps, address unique challenges, and explore innovative solutions while still benefiting from the structure and reliability offered by relevant models.

Ultimately, the value of improvisation versus set models depends on the specific needs of the client, the complexity of the problem, the skills of the adviser, and the level of risk tolerance in the advisory work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *