Jazz improvisation and organisational learning

Although it may sound like an unlikely combination (that happens to bring together two of my key interests) I’m not the only person to think that jazz improvisation may provide us with some insights into the way effective teams and organisations work and learn. The tired metaphor of an organisation being like an orchestra doesn’t really fit present-day realities. Orchestras work from detailed scores and the analogy of organisations working from predictable strategic plans no longer seems relevant when our working environments are so unpredictable that flexibility and responsiveness are what’s needed. But start thinking about organisations as jazz groups made of individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to improvise around a basic tune, able to solo when necessary and ‘comp’ when others take the spotlight and aha! now we are getting somewhere. When my colleague Moira Halliday suggested I bring these two passions together I assumed few others would have given much thought to the juxtaposition of jazz improvisation and organisations. How wrong I was. Not only has a lot been written about it but there was even a conference devoted to Jazz and OD in 1996 with jazz musicians playing and speaking about the nature of improvisation. I really wish I had been there. One of the speakers/musicians was Ken Peplowski who I saw at the wonderful Islay Jazz Festival in Scotland.

I’m reading about jazz improvisation at the moment in order to see what insights from that discipline might apply to organisational learning. The possibilities seem very fruitful. I’m also reading what others have said about jazz and OD. A particularly stimulating paper entitled Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning’ was written in 1998 by Frank Barrett (who is both a professional jazz musician and OD consultant) You can download it here.

The whole nature of metaphor as a way of creating meaning and understanding complexity in organisations is beautifully explored by one of our Framework Community members, Bill Sterland, in his publication ‘Metaphor and Analogy‘.

To give you an idea of what can be achieved through improvisation in jazz check out Pat Metheny’s Quartet playing ‘Song for Bilbao’ on YouTube. What would it feel like to work in a team with that amount of energy, creativity and communication?


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