If Miles Davis Taught Your Office To Improvise

The controlled chaos of the social web sounds a lot like jazz. That means it’s time to reinvent the standards.

If Miles Davis Taught Your Office To Improvise

Nurturing spontaneity, creativity, experimentation, and dynamic synchronization is no longer an optional approach to leadership. It’s the only approach. The current velocity of change demands nothing less. It demands paying attention to the mental models, the cultural beliefs and values, the practices and structures that support improvisation.


Following practices can help your organization emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise.

Approach leadership tasks as experiments.

When you approach leadership actions in this way, you are uncommonly receptive to what emerges, and you heighten self-awareness while in the middle of taking action. By definition, successful experimentation requires suspending a defensive attitude. In paying close attention to your own experience, you notice the constraint of your own bias as well as the nuances and gradations of others’ responses.

An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery, floating hypotheses about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces. You might run several experiments simultaneously, testing various programs and approaches to see what works and extracting lessons to fashion your next moves.

Boost information processing in the midst of action.

Jazz players act their way into the future. It’s only by looking back at what they have created, that jazz soloists realize how the notes, phrases, and chords relate. Organizations can use the same sort of after-action review to help people become aware of the goals and values they implicitly hold and what constraints these values place upon their future actions. Sharing the multiple interpretations of diverse participants close to the action helps everyone involved retrospectively make sense of or construct a story or justification for what they have already done. These stories then can become the seeds for greater discoveries and inventions.

Prepare for serendipity by deliberately breaking a routine.
Serendipity doesn’t just happen. It takes preparation. Work teams are particularly vulnerable to falling into a pattern of activity without explicitly thinking about it or deciding to do so. Even a simple process question in the midst of team activity can serve to disrupt routines just enough to trigger people to consider options: “I’m thinking we should talk about what we’re doing here. What if we try something else?” This kind of statement is a small way to break up a practice that might have become habituated and is handicapping performance outside of anyone’s awareness.

Generous listening might be the core factor that allows you to escape the seduction of outworn routines and automatic habits. Jay Parks, a veteran New York actor, told me about the challenge of keeping each performance fresh. Imagine that you’re delivering the same lines each night, eight times each week for fifty weeks. How can you keep your performance fresh? Parks was clear that the secret is what happens before you say your lines–in the way you relate to your fellow actors. In order to avoid automatic pilot mode, you need to be open and receptive to those around you. It’s all about listening.


Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no.

One of the biggest blocks to creativity and improvisation is getting stuck wishing the situation was different. Telling yourself, “If only I could get off this team” or “Why did I get stuck with this set of tools and these people?” shuts down improvisation. Instead, do what jazz greats do: assume that you can make the situation work somehow, that there exists an opportunistic possibility to be gleaned. This is an affirmative mind-set–the assumption that a positive pathway will be found, that there’s a potential to be noticed and pursued.

Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic.” It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination.

Everyone gets a chance to solo.

When self-directed work teams are performing well, they are often characterized by distributed, multiple leadership in which people take turns heading up various projects as their expertise is needed. The same happens in jazz bands, where everyone gets a turn to solo. In both instances, though, there exists the problem of influential members who might control or dominate a group.

A simple organizational development tool called the nominal group technique is structured to avoid just this issue: Every individual in turn brainstorms out loud, while others listen to his or her ideas. No one is allowed to interrupt or redirect; instead, people are encouraged to build on other ideas they have heard. A variation of this approach is to require that no one speaks twice until every other person in the group speaks at least once. This is an impersonal, nonnegotiable structure that monitors airtime, cultivates group creativity, and ensures that every individual has a voice. Every now and then, let your talented people run free. Google and 3M both understand this. Both organizations thrive through innovation because they encourage their employees to solo, to take 20 percent of their time to engage in any project that they think will help the company and that they are passionate about.

Encourage serious play. Too much control inhibits flow.

There is a sense of surrender in play, a willingness to suspend control and give yourself over to the flow of the ongoing events. Organizations like Southwest Airlines try to encourage much the same when they declare that having fun in the workplace is a core value. In effect, they question the conventional separation between work and play and recognize that legitimate play can be a fruitful, meaningful activity, one that enhances the sheer joy of relational activity. Play and practice are places where it’s OK to experiment and fail. This is one reason IDEO’s motto is “Fail often, so you’ll succeed sooner.” We might amend that to “Play often, so that you might execute better.”

Cultivate provocative competence: create expansive promises as occasions for stretching out into unfamiliar territory.

The need of leadership in a distributed age has never been greater. Instead of imposing competence–a virtual impossibility–leaders provoke it by designing the conditions that nurture strategic improvisation and continuous learning, and thus help their organizations break out of competency traps. Great leaders like Miles Davis are able to see peoples’ potential, disrupt their habits, and demand that they pay attention in new ways.


One common learning obstacle in organizations occurs when managers choose to address only those problems that are familiar and those issues for which a solution is imaginable. Miles Davis did just the opposite. He surprised his band by stretching them beyond comfortable limits, calling unrehearsed songs and familiar songs in foreign keys so that they would have to experiment in the margins. That’s provocative competence at work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz. Copyright 2012 Frank J. Barrett. All rights reserved.

Frank J. Barrett is Professor of Management and Global Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior from Case Western Reserve University and is an accomplished jazz musician. In addition to leading his own trios and quartets, Barrett has traveled extensively with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His research interests and expertise include organizational change, social constructionism, organizational innovation, improvisation, and appreciative inquiry.

[Image: Flickr user Dan Iggers]