Jazz, Improvisation and Innovation

April 23, 2009  

What do jazz and innovation have in common? Quite a bit.

Many years ago, in 24/7 Innovation, I wrote..

“Most businesses are run like classical symphonies – long, with elaborate compositions (detailed workflows) that leave little room for interpretation. Employees are expected to follow these compositions rote.

“Unfortunately, by the time they learn the score, the music would have to be changed. This organizational symphony no longer works in today’s age of change.

“Instead we need jazz-like organizations. Innovation is not random. In fact, it emerges best when there is a structure to nurture it, much like jazz in the world of music. Jazz is heavy on innovation (“improvisation” in musical terms). Just as innovation is not random, neither is improvisation. Jazz has a simple structure, like 12-bar, B-flat blues. It has a rhythm, chord progression, and tempo.

“Businesses need much the same to succeed: Simple structures that allow innovation to emerge, in the moment, when it is needed most.”

Yesterday I attended a session at Harvard’s Kennedy School led by Frank Barrett. The title of his presentation was “Cultivating a Culture of Creativity and Innovation: Learning from Jazz Improvisation.”

He focused much more on music and jazz than on practical application to business. Regardless, there were some interesting points. He has 7 “tips” for improvisation:

  1. Unlearn habits – Be suspicious of patterns. He quoted Miles Davis, “If it sounds clean and slick, I’ve been doing it too long.”
  2. Say “yes” to the mess – No matter what happens, don’t go into problem solving mode. There are no do-overs. Appreciate the screw-ups and figure out how to leverage them. He quoted Peter Drucker, “A leader’s role is to maximize strengths so that weaknesses become irrelevant.”
  3. Have minimal structures that maximize autonomy – see my quote from 24/7 Innovation
  4. Embrace errors as a source of learning – Builds on point #2. He quoted Miles Davis again, “If you aren’t making a mistake, it’s a mistake.” I like that one.
  5. Provocative competence – This is my favorite. I wrote about this last year in an article entitled, “Relearning What You Know.” His point is to add just enough “provocation” to disrupt habits just enough to force creativity. His example was a jazz standard which is always played in the key of F. On stage, in front of a live audience, the leader counted off and said, “Play it in E flat.” Although 99% of the song was the same, it was down one note causing band members to pay extra attention. Instead of playing rote, they were fully present.
  6. Alternate between soloing and support – On high performing teams, everyone leads some times, and follows on other occasions. Both are needed.
  7. Strike a grove – This is when the musicians are “in the zone.”

These are great rules for any form of improvisation whether it be music or improv comedy.

After the presentation, someone asked, “What is the business equivalent of chord progressions?” For jazz to work, musicians need to know which chords to play when. This builds “trust” that everyone will know what to do and when to do it. But there are few similar, unambiguous structures in business.

In my next blog entry, I will discuss my thoughts on the business equivalent of jazz and chord structures. In the meantime, I welcome any thoughts you might have…

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5 Responses to “Jazz, Improvisation and Innovation”

  1. Stefan Hauptmann on May 4th, 2009 6:43 am

    I always wonder why Bill Evans played the chords as he did in ‘Kind of Blue’. They do not really fit, but anyhow, it swings despite of this – or even because of this – and it sounds great. And even more do I wonder how the combo did anticipate his play. It’s marvelous.
    BTW: The special issue “Jazz Improvisation and Organizing (Sep. – Oct., 1998)” of “Organization Science” here: http://twurl.nl/4mwoiu

  2. Marcio Domene on May 6th, 2009 1:44 pm

    I agree, as a musician and as an innovator manager. Once I saw Chick Corea (and his Electric Band) playing twice at same weekend. First they performed at a Theater and next day at an open field park stage. I noticed that Michael Brecker played on the night before all songs in a Bb (B flat) tenor sax and next afternoon he used for all songs his Eb alto sax. That makes a complete difference at his solos and final result.
    For sure he needed to concentrate in both performances 100% to avoid bigger mistakes, but he gave himself opportunity to be more creative.
    We need this flexibility at our workplaces. High mangers should incentive employees to use different “saxes” to let the opportunities to grow.
    http://e-innovate.blogspot.com

  3. Stephen Shapiro on May 22nd, 2009 9:27 am

    Thanks for your comments.

    Stefan, yeah, “Kind of Blue” is a pretty amazing recording. Knowing more background on it makes it even more incredible.

    Marcio, I love your Brecker story. Being a tenor sax player myself, I know how difficult it is to switch to the alto. Having to deal with chord changes definitely causes you to pay much closer attention! And yes, we need the same concepts brought into the business world. Too often, we are on auto-pilot, not consciously thinking about our actions and being present to new opportunities.

  4. Subhra Das on November 28th, 2009 3:23 pm

    My take on Jazz improvisation & Business Innovation
    Jazz improvisation is an intense creative exercise triggered by a common understanding of a simple musical idea among the participating artists. It requires participating artists to deliver ( often volleys of) creative ideas and on-the-spot improvisations at every instant of the exercise.

    The link with Business Creativity and Innovation is apparent from the above.

    The following are some thoughts on the similarities:

    !. “In and out”: The ability to blend the expected ( in key) with the unexpected ( outside key) . The contrast leads to refinement and keeps things fresh. New and contrasting ideas, however provocative and bizarre, are essential to the innovation process.

    2. “Create-Sustain-Destroy in repetitive cycles ”
    This is what a soloist does: starts with a simple yet profound remark- builds on it and delivers momentum-ends it thereby paving the way for another cycle(s) by another soloist. This is akin to the life-cycle concept in business.

    3. “Out of chaos comes cosmos” is another feature of jazz improvisation. This manifests in organisations which need to continually reinvent and rediscover themselves.
    4. “Less is more” is a dominant design theme for improvisation and business innovation alike.

    5. Other similarities between elements of jazz and business creativity and innovation:
    Rhythm: Overall energy levels and pulse of the organisation. Penchant for innovation in an organisation.
    Melody and motiffs: The key business idea and the Brand DNA
    Harmony: Co-ordination between people and functions; Teamwork.

  5. Andile Meshack on May 7th, 2010 9:29 am

    Improvisation is like a pilot who’s getting into trouble thousands of kilometers above the ground and he must do something (improvise) to get out of the situation in order to save lives. When he has succeeded and has landed safely on the ground; what a big rejoice from everyone on board!!! He becomes famous overnight. A music improvisor is always doing the same thing as proven in the “kind of blue” recording session. There is no right or wrong but only what works the best to make the audience enjoy what you are doing. Challenge yourself by getting away from cliches and then you discover new territories and you become an innovator and a creative improvisor.