“Where’s jazz going? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.” Jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk reflected on the mystery of this quintessential American music. Trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Miles Davis once said: “When you hit a wrong note it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” Where the music goes depends on choices made in an instant.
Origins of a New Music
Jazz originated in African-American communities in the late 19th century, with origins in blues and ragtime. It took root in New Orleans, where concerts, parades, and dances were a big part of everyday life. Many of the later icons of jazz got their start there. What emerged was a distinct New Orleans style of music making called ‘collective improvisation.’
The 1920s came to be called ‘The Jazz Age.’ A number of New Orleans groups moved to Chicago, where they continued to evolve collective improvisation. At the same time, driven by the music’s rising popularity, big bands abandoned its roots and took another path with composers, arrangers, large orchestras, and star soloists. They chose flawless execution over risky exploration.
In “Jazz Improvisation and Organizing: Once More from the Top,” an article published in Organization Science (2000), Michael H. Zack traces the history of this music. New Orleans jazz evolved into Swing (1930s and 1940s), then Bebop (1940s and 1950s), and later post-Bebop (starting in the 1960s), coming full circle and returning to its improvisational roots. In the 1970s, Zack says, some jazz groups “improvised essentially their entire performance….. Within this genre, notes, structure, and harmony emerge spontaneously. There are no harmonic or scalar constraints on what notes may be played. The musicians are spontaneously and simultaneously improvising the rules for improvisation as well as the performance itself.”
A Metaphor for Business
Jazz improvisation has often been used as a metaphor for improvisation in business. An Academy of Management meeting in Vancouver in 1995 specifically explored the subject. The meeting triggered new research and led to publication in 1998 of a special issue of Organization Science dedicated to organizational improvisation.
In a seminal article published in that issue – “Introductory Essay: Improvisation as a Mindset for Organizational Analysis” – Karl Weick described the characteristics of jazz improvisation. Above all, he said, the music is spontaneous and unrehearsed. A simple melody provides a starting point for real-time composing.
Bands are organized in a way that mirrors the structure of their music.
“Jazz bands have minimal hierarchy, decision-making is dispersed, and they are designed to maximize flexibility, responsiveness, innovation, and fast processing of information,” Ethan Bernstein and Frank Barrett said in “Strategic Change and the Jazz Mindset: Exploring Practices That Enhance Dynamic Capabilities for Organizational Improvisation,” (Research in Organizational Change and Development, 2011).
“A jazz band is a form of social organization that produces order with little or no blueprint, organized from the bottom up: individuals have personal freedom to take initiative and operate on their own authority (their musical imaginations) guided by the constraints of the task, the conventions of practice, and the enactments of other players.”
A long-time jazz pianist, Frank Barrett toured with the Tommy Dorsey Band. He is now a professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. With Ethan Bernstein he described seven practices jazz bands use to stay at the top of their game. The italicized quotes below are taken from their paper. I have added comments on the parallels with improvisation in organizations.
“Great jazz musicians ‘‘trick’’ their automatic responses by throwing themselves into actual playing situations ‘‘over their heads,’’ stretching themselves to play in challenging contexts.”
When organizations work this way they are not intimidated by uncertainty, complexity and turbulence. Challenges act as an incentive to dig deeper. People are fearless. There is a high level of optimism about their ability to solve tough problems. When they encounter roadblocks they use collective ingenuity to find a way through.
“Since jazz players cannot prescribe where the improvised music is going to go beforehand, they are left to make sense of what has just happened and guess what is likely to happen next.”
When organizations work this way they rely on emergent strategies instead of detailed pre-planning. There is no sense of where things will go. People resist formulaic responses and push the boundaries of what is possible. There is greater acceptance of intuition, and what Karl Weick calls “disciplined imagination.”
Leaping In and Taking Action
“Jazz players… are anything but detached. If you look at photos of jazz musicians playing their instruments, you see individuals fully immersed, completely absorbed in their playing.”
When organizations work this way there is little time for theorizing, particularly in high-velocity organizations. As in jazz, there is a strong emphasis on performance. People act creatively and spontaneously, experimenting with new ideas and seeing how the system responds. Real-time feedback is used to shape the next action.
Minimal Structure, Maximal Autonomy
“[I]n some moments, the task trumps the rules… I must be open to the invitation, the stimuli coming from others, and be loyal to those moments rather than… to a set of a priori rules.”
When organizations work this way leaders enable teamwork instead of imposing top-down control. Constraints are relaxed to increase freedom of action. Information is shared widely to create broad situational awareness. Flexibility and autonomy increase the organization’s ability to respond rapidly to sudden change.
Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning
“Errors are a source of learning. They are often integrated into the musical landscape as an occasion for further exploration that might lead to new pathways otherwise thought impossible.”
When organizations work this way they understand mistakes are inevitable. They are open to risk-taking and are accepting of errors. Errors are used as an opportunity to discover new possibilities. People avoid behaviours that kill curiosity and suffocate new ideas. Bold creativity is encouraged and there are safe spaces for experimentation.
“Jazz musicians know that learning depends upon your relationships with others in the jazz community. They do not innovate by isolating, breaking off from others.”
When organizations work this way they embrace diversity and draw the latent talent out of everyone. There is mutual respect and trust. People share experience and learn from each other: how to improvise, and how to work together. In jazz, it’s all about the music. Here the goal is to achieve creative outcomes.
Alternating Between Soloing and Supporting
“Jazz bands… take turns soloing and supporting other soloists… Each player has an opportunity to develop a musical idea, while others create space for this development to occur.”
When organizations work this way they focus on teamwork rather than structure, control, and authority. People support and depend on each other. They coordinate their actions, knowing when to take the lead and when to follow others. Like playing jazz, teams are ‘in the groove’ when this collaborative chemistry is working well.
Finger Pointing at the Moon
Today, organizations have to perform spontaneously in a turbulent world. We are not limited to command-and-control structures. Organizing differently opens up new possibilities. Jazz shows we can choose to work differently — in liberating ways that draw from the deep well of human creativity.
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on February 13, 2018, on LinkedIn.