Jazz groups, string quartets and organisational learning

I have had some time recently to follow through my earlier blog post on the links between jazz and organisational learning and have tried to distil some of the points raised in Frank Barrett’s wonderful paper (see my earlier post). I have prepared a handout Jazz and OD with a few ideas about how jazz musicians work together and what organisational teams could learn from them. The handout forms part of an exercise I will be facilitating in a forthcoming training course. In the process of looking up some material on teams and teamwork I came across a reference to an article by Keith Murnighan and Donald Conlon in Administrative Science Quarterly (1991) 36 pp165-186 which examines classical music’s nearest thing to a jazz group – the string quartet. Although working from a score and definitely not improvising the leadership in the string quartet resides in the group itself and not with an external conductor so the musicians must be closely attuned to each other – rather like a jazz group. The article identifies three paradoxes in the way they operate (leadership versus democracy; the paradox of the second fiddle and confrontation versus compromise) which show just how different string quartets are from jazz groups but how equally worthy of study they are as a source of insights concerning teamwork and learning in organisations.

I have always thought that orchestras, of necessity, demonstrate a very ‘old school’ model of leadership and organising but I recently came across an example of a chamber orchestra without a conductor which has developed some fascinating and challenging principles about self-organisation. Olivier Serrat, a colleague at the Asian Development Bank, has written about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in an interesting piece on Distributing Leadership.

It seems that nothing is ever as straight-forward as it first appears. Even widely-used metaphors!


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