Think Like a Jazz Combo

I've had the privilege of performing jazz guitar on stage for nearly 30 of my 40 years. Live improvisation is an adrenaline rush like no other. Spontaneous creativity in real-time. At moments the drama, suspense, and intensity are hotter than an issue-charged political race or a summer blockbuster film.

With less than 1% of the notes on the written page, we jazz musicians have to make it up as we go. It's art in real time--no going back to correct mistakes or rethink a passage. The pressure is huge, but so is the excitement. Sounds a lot like the current hyper-competitive business environment, no?

To win today, you and your team need to function more like a fluid jazz band than a tightly controlled orchestra. You must constantly reinvent your work and seek fresh, new approaches. Responsible risk taking and originality now trump compliance and rigidity.

Like jazz, business success is most often determined by creativity and original thought, not just technical mastery. Jazz and business legends are both remembered by what they create, by how they change the world. Here are four ways to make your company more like a jazz combo:

Encourage risk taking. Jazz musicians who play it safe rarely find gigs. The same can be said about you and your company. If you're not making mistakes at least 10% of the time, you're not risking enough.

Be remarkable. Audiences don't remember technical competence. They remember the musician who dares to be different. Our world is full of sameness, and no customer of yours needs another me-too solution.

Let each individual shine. At a jazz gig, every musician takes a turn in the spotlight. That allows the best ideas to flow and makes for a highly engaged team. Grant each person in your group autonomy and room for creative expression and you'll build a stronger, more innovative team.

Mix it up and keep it fresh. Jazz musicians are known for exploring the never-been-done-before. They're constantly trying new things and new combinations. In your world, move desks around. Try a job-swap program and give people new projects to develop. Arrange a field trip for inspiration. Shake things up, embrace change and avoid repetitive ruts.

As commoditization, cost-cutting, and a global workforce continue to erode competitive advantage, you have to create in order to win. The jazz musician's ability to improvise, take risks, adapt to change and forge new ground are the exact skills we all need to develop in our current economy of bureaucratic sameness. To make a real difference in your company, think of your business as a blank sheet of music and unleash your inner jazz cat.

This is your opportunity for creative expression. This is your opportunity to jam.

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  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Love it! I like classical music, too. But as a business metaphor, jazz describes the business climate much better. The jazz combo is more flexible and less hierarchical than a symphony orhestra, the dress code is more relaxed, comfortable and personal, and the combo is certainly far more innovative. How often have you been surprised at the symphony? (for me, once, and that's more than most), but jazz is a surprise every night. That's the point. I'm gl;ad to see that business is moving in this direction, thanks for calling it out, Josh!

    BTW, nice guitar? Gibson? I'm a Fender guy, I love my Strat

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach for Authentic Leaders
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com