30 things #4: We can learn a lot about learning from jazz musicians

Metheny_Pat_131aJimmyKatzMetaphors are powerful ways of exploring ideas from interesting and apparently unconnected directions. During the course on organisational development that I teach each year, I introduce the idea that organisations can learn from how jazz musicians work together to perform their art. If we think about organisations as if they were jazz groups, all sorts of fascinating learning possibilities open up. Here are some of the things jazz musicians do that we in our organisations can learn from:

  • Develop individual competence | To be a valued member of the group, each member must be an accomplished musician with musicianship skills, a deep understanding of music theory (scales, chords, progressions), and a comprehensive knowledge of compositions that have become jazz standards. All jazz musicians must have not only the skills and knowledge needed to perform, but also the attitudes that make them a valued group member – a tricky balance between ego (think Miles Davis) and humility (think Pat Metheny)
  • Apply reflective practice | Improvisation (which is the essence of jazz as an art form) requires the ability to listen and think simultaneously whilst playing. It comes as a surprise to most people that for long periods in a performance the jazz musicians literally do not know what they will play until the notes come out of their instruments!
  • Challenge habits and conventional practices | Some jazz musicians repeat familiar routines rather than risk failure. They can be technically brilliant but lacking in imagination. The truly great jazz musicians continually push their own boundaries, move out of their “comfort zones”, and question their previous ideas about even the most familiar tunes they play. As the great pianist Keith Jarrett once said, “The music is a struggle. You have to want to struggle.”
  • Everyone solos | In a balanced jazz group everyone solos. This is seen as both a right and a responsibility –  musicians are expected to solo and they also want to take the opportunity to show what they can play.
  • Good accompaniment is necessary for good solos | In a jazz group, everyone is expected to accompany the soloist in a way that creates space for the soloist’s ideas to emerge and encourages their creativity.
  • Dialogue and exchange | Jazz musicians continuously “play off” one another, exchanging phrases and chords, interpreting, and building on each others’ ideas, and exploring new musical patterns and sometimes deliberately trying to defy each others’ expectations!
  • Embrace errors as sources of creativity and learning | Jazz groups thrive on improvisation and that means musicians must take risks with their playing – going outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes the risks don’t immediately pay off but everyone learns from that because of the continual musical dialogue between the musicians as they play together.
  • Balance structure with improvisation | Jazz music is created by improvising around songs. The songs provide the guiding structure for the music but do not constrain the musicians. In fact, the songs provide a sense of order – a continuous sense of cohesion and coordination (but not the individual notes and rhythm) from which the improvised music flows.
  • Meet and practice with others regularly | Musicians often take part in ‘jam’ sessions – informal opportunities to “hang out” together, share ideas, ask questions of experienced players, learn new techniques, and hear stories.

And if you want to hear how all this comes together, in my view you can do no better than watch Pat Metheny’s group here.

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?