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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Innovation, Jazz, and Improvisation

by Stephen Shapiro

Innovation and ImprovisationWhat 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."

A little while ago, 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 seven '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 groove
  • 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 a future 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...

Innovation and ImprovisationStephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

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Blogger Rodney said...

Playing jazz brings up a lot of connotations for me about innovation and meeting process in particular.

Innovation, like Jazz, relies on certain basics, like alignment about the outcome (which song), the process (how fast, what key, what feel, listening to each other), and balances that with an emphasis upon drawing upon individual resources to maximize the user experience, where the user is both the listener and the player.

What would corporate life be like if it better resembled a jazz group?... I think it would be a lot more effective, not just more innovative.

For more comparisons see blog on project management as compared to classical versus jazz music at

Rodney Brim,

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Nancy Grossbart said...

What a great idea, jazz and innovation together in the same thought.

Brainstorming is just like jazz, only for the brain and mouth. Where else can it lead but to innovation plus lots more fun at work.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Marguerite Granat said...

The reason why improvisation is tough for some organizations is the risk of making mistakes and the level of ambiguity that results in this process. When roles are not clearly defined in order to allow people to innovate, it is hard for those who like structure to give up control. As you said, innovation can be messy. Great post.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Arjaan said...

Hi, maybe you'll enjoy the publications of Sergej van Middendorp on 'Groove' in organisations too...


12:49 AM  
OpenID 6p012875e6ee5e970c said...

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.

Some additional 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 drives the momentum, ends it 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.

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

Subhra Das
Harvard Business School Alumni
Jazz Guitar player

4:13 AM  

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