How Playing Jazz Influences My Consulting

How improvisation helped me implement enduring change for a client.

So, what does my playing jazz have to do with consulting?


When you play a jazz tune, the tune itself provides the framework or essential structure within which you live for the duration of that tune. A tune is played in a certain key, with specific chord progressions, etc. The tune sets the context; it is the target that you have to stay within the entire time you are playing it.

As jazz musicians, we play the tune, several of us take improvisational solos within the context of the tune, and we conclude by replaying the original tune in its fully-recognizable form—bringing it home as we say. The start and ending are completely predictable; it’s the middle that holds the mystery.

In many respects, consulting is a lot like playing jazz. You know what the outcomes are that you are intending to produce. What you don’t know is all the twists and turns that project will take in the middle as you seek to create the outcome(s). But, just as in music, you know what the ending has to look like to successfully conclude the effort.

Here is a story about an improvisation I made with a client in mid-Michigan back during the year 2000.

Powell Fab is a capital equipment manufacturer located in St. Louis, Michigan, a town of about 4500 people. The company employed 43 people at the time. The culture in mid-Michigan could not have been more different from what I was used to in Silicon Valley. The majority of the team members were not very keen about me being there to implement changes to the way this 35-year old company had done business. Here’s a bit about the situation I faced:

  • I was helping the company implement a small ERP system that the president had invested in but had not been integrated with any of the core business processes.
  • There was an open stock room accessible by everyone.
  • The president rejected the idea of installing a cage around the stock room to secure the inventory.
  • The inventory records accuracy was deplorable.

The challenge I faced was getting the employees to:

  • Transact all inventory consumed or returned with the person who oversaw the stock room to properly account for inventory usage and improve inventory accuracy, and,
  • Ensure that the parts were properly charged to the jobs they were used on.

In my gut, I knew I could never sell them on the idea of “transacting inventory.” Those words would hold no appeal. I’d be laughed at.

So, given my jazz and improvisational background, I challenged myself to define a powerful metaphor that would change the behavior forever and ensure that my client got what he wanted: compliance with the new processes.

As I drove by the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town, it dawned on me: None of these people would ever think of going into the big open stockroom called Wal-Mart and bypassing the cash register going out the door. That would be shoplifting. Nobody wants to get caught shoplifting.

When it came time to train people about the new process, I told them that if they didn’t stop by the check-out stand as they left the stock room on their way to the shop floor, that action would be the equivalent of shoplifting. The team connected with that immediately. They got it and we had instant, enduring compliance.

When people would come out of the stock room with one or more parts in hand, others would immediately look at that person, point and ask, “Did you shoplift that?” They held each other accountable.

My clients benefit from me implementing appropriate, sustainable solutions to their business execution challenges. Sometimes, you have to improvise to create enduring change. It works in jazz and in business.


Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, author of Mass Customization: An Enterprise-Wide Business Strategy and blogger who resides in Silicon Valley. He helps companies resolve business execution problems that threaten profitability and growth. He can be reached through his website at


About the author

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, blogger and author based in Silicon Valley. He's been in the front row for the birth and evolution of Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world