Organisations can be like orchestras. But we’ve found that there are some which are like jazz ensembles.
Some people love classical music, with it’s rhythms and the layers of history that build upon new iterations of the same score.
Some people love jazz and the way it flows spontaneously. Jazz is hard. And jazz is wonderful too. Professor of American Music Travis Jackson described jazz, saying ‘it is music that includes qualities such as swing, improvising, group interaction, developing an ‘individual voice’, and being open to different musical possibilities’. We’ve found these qualities make sense in a business context too.
A ‘swung’ note is one that’s written in the score to be played on a beat, but which is deliberately played short or long. In business, swing is having the flex in your plans to spend more or less time on a thing, in order to bring it to life, rather than being wedded to a script. Something gets done faster than you thought? Great! Go with the flow. Something takes a little longer than you’d planned. Better to spend the time and get it right than move forward before you’re ready.
The joy of jazz is in its unpredictability. Rather than being threatening or leaving the listener with a sense of the music being out of control, improvisation is joyful, and innovative. Like life, no business can forsee every eventuality. Sometimes we have to improvise. The skill of the jazz musician is that they practice improvising so that it becomes music not just noise. In business having the freedom to improvise can free up creativity, and open up new routes and opportunities you might never have explored otherwise.
Jazz ensembles are highly collaborative. The musicians know and trust each other’s skills and lead together. They constantly check in with one another to be sure they can see where the others are going in the music. In organisations too, it’s clear that great teamwork is founded on an implicit trust in the competence of your colleagues, and grows because of constant positive communication. These elements make teams incredibly creative spaces, empowering the group’s members, and producing a collective energy and momentum that can lead to something truly striking.
Developing an individual voice
Individualism feels risky in an organisational dynamic, but if we believe every person has strengths to contribute to the whole, then allowing people opportunity to flex their strengths in a collaborative context, will definitely bring out the best in your team, and could create something extraordinary. Think about how the jazz ensemble gives each member a turn to show their excellence, and then how potent it sounds when, as a listener, the musicians come back to play together as a unit, and you realise the full value of all the parts making the whole.
Being open to different musical possibilities
Change is hard. But the joy of jazz is that it’s heartfelt music. Though clearly jazz musicians are employing their intellect as they play, it’s less cerebral, and more gut led. There is a place in business to go with your heart and gut, to trust your business instincts in the same way that a skilled musician trusts their musical instincts. This means being clear on your vision and your strengths, and then being open to reviewing the plan of how you get there as you go. Like jazz, it could be terrifying or wonderful, or both all at the same time.
There are businesses that have the order of an orchestra with distinct sections, a score to follow, and a conductor/director who oversees the whole. And then there are organisations that play business like Miles Davies played jazz, fluidly, collaboratively, with a leader who is also an instrumentalist, and where there’s no fixed plan, the music they make together may be completely different every single time.
Whichever kind of organisation you are, at the end of the day, as Duke Ellington once said: ‘It’s all music.’