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.

No comments

  1. Great post Stephen. I have a post coming up in IX and you may enjoy today’s post on Prince.


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