11/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama's Improvisation Trumps McCain's Script

We live in a Networked World. A person doesn't have to look beyond the current global roil in the financial markets to see it. Almost everyone's business these days gets conducted at least in part via internet-enabled networks. Being productive in this fluid, hyper-connected environment calls for different kinds of behaviors than the 'Industrial Age' strategies that served America and its business interests so well in the past.

One way to describe this monumental shift is this: In the past, success came from sticking to the script. Today our success depends on how good we are at improvising.

This, to me, is the most fundamental difference between Barack Obama's world view and John McCain's. It transcends political ideologies, personal histories and campaign promises. Obama is an improviser. McCain follows a script.

For this reason alone, Barack Obama is better equipped to be President than John McCain. Obama, Inc. has the skills to be productive in the Networked World. McCain Ltd. does not.

The roots of modern improvisation were sown in the 1930s, on the South Side of Chicago, not far from the neighborhood where Barack Obama lives today. A Northwestern sociology professor, Neva Boyd, and her protégé, Viola Spolin, received a grant from the WPA to conduct theater workshops for multi-ethnic children, most from families recently arrived in America.

It was Spolin, in particular, who saw improvisation -- expressed via theater games -- as an avenue to communication, learning and transformation. The reason we think of improvisation today primarily as a form of comedy is that Spolin's son, Paul Sills, became the first director of Chicago's Second City Theater, where he introduced many of Spolin's techniques. At its heart, improvisation is a still a way for people and groups to communicate, learn and transform.

For any organization like the U.S. government that has a significant presence in the Networked World, improvisation is vital. Effective communication, non-stop learning and steady transformation are the cornerstones of innovation and growth. Accomplishing anything of scale takes the kind of improvisational talent Obama and his team have shown during the campaign.

McCain, by comparison, lurches erratically from scene to scene like an actor whose script is getting re-written while he's onstage. Because that is, in fact, exactly what is happening.

By improvising instead of following a script, Obama and team can stay nimble, operate more freely and authentically, and invite the participation and entrepreneurship that are essential to success in the age of the internet.

By limiting himself to what's in his script, McCain narrows his options for solving problems and misses opportunities that come his way. Electing John McCain as President would be like playing a game that has only one possible outcome. It would not be a game at all. It would be a fix. A con. Another Bush administration.

Improvisation demands that players deal with the reality they are presented. It makes Obama a better listener, more responsive to the concerns of the electorate, and it means that he doesn't expend energy selling the fictions called for by a script.

John McCain's script is a fantasy he and his supporters would like to see become reality, like the fantasy that drilling in ANWR will eliminate U.S. dependence on Middle East oil, and that V-I parade he promised that we're still waiting for in Baghdad. McCain and his team, like all scripters, waste time and energy stage-managing events to fit their narratives and re-writing their narratives to account for unscripted events. All that effort distracts focus (sometimes by design) from solving problems we've got in the the here and now--like the ten years until ANWR can supplant any Middle East oil and a centuries-old Sunni-Shiite conflict we have tasked our troops with mediating into peace.

Voters can argue all they want about the merits of McCain's narrative vs. Obama's. Those arguments are secondary to the fact that in this day and age, scripted narratives like McCain's are too rigid and dogmatic to keep pace with reality. This is the biggest reason that, no matter what his intentions are, McCain will make an ineffective President.

As improvisers, Obama and his team can change the game so that it's at least not totally tilted toward the house like it is now. They can cast an administration that responds more quickly, communicates more clearly, learns quickly, and performs without all the hidden agendas that currently characterize politics in Washington. And the promise is transformation.

John McCain, the not-so-poor player strutting and fretting across the national stage, does not have this potential. All he can do is perform the same Karl Rove script that has been worn out by eight years of bad performances by the The Bush-Cheney Company. He can cast all the perky ingénues he wants. It won't change the fact that we have seen that show before.

Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers - Improvisation for Business in the Networked World. His website is