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The Future of Work Is Jazz: Mastering the Art of Improvising for Success

The Future of Work Is Jazz: Mastering the Art of Improvising for Success

My relationship to jazz permeates deeply in my life. It was part of the soundscape of my childhood because my dad was a passionate jazz devotee. He learned how to play the acoustic upright bass while serving in the US Air Force in the early 1960s, straight out of high school. I didn’t get jazz immediately. At first, it was just a way for me to cozy up to my dad and spend time with him. It wasn’t until years later that the music disseminated beyond my ears and into my heart. It became an emotional connection to my father and a personal connection to my African-American culture.

I love jazz. As a creativity strategist and business innovator, I also love the way jazz reflects the organized chaos that defines the future of work. In fact, I talked about the ways jazz is a model for new ways to work and optimize creativity in organizations in a TEDx Philadelphia talk. I especially love it when I meet kindred thinkers. In a conversation with Michael Gold, founder of Jazz Impact, we chatted about the value of looking at organizations through the jazz lens. Michael is a jazz bassist. In his consultancy, he uses arts-based techniques to inform business strategy—this has been the basis of a regular class he teaches at the Kellogg School of Management, as well as his contributions to an NSF funded project called The Art of Science and Learning.

One of the interesting outcomes of our conversation about the jazz improvisational lens is that you can make small changes in the way you work to result in greater impact on your employees’ communication and work.

Here are 3 ways that jazz principles can ramp up the way you run a standard meeting:

Idea Transfer. Frank Barrett, author of Yes to The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz is an academic and jazz musician himself. When he originally contributed his ideas about the jazz heuristic for improvisational organizations, he noted the element of “soloing and comping” among jazz musicians. You see this regularly in a jazz set during “Trading 4’s”—that is, where the drummer trades solos with other instrumentalists in the band. Deliberately going back and forth with ideas and building on each one is a fun and conscientious way of saying “Yes and…” to a colleague rather than knocking down their ideas. True collaboration and creative synergy comes through our ability to improvise with one another. Use the jazz art form as inspiration to provoke and transfer ideas to new, unexplored realms.

Get Physical. When is the last time you saw jazz musicians sitting while playing? Jazz musicians have a wonderful physicality to their playing. A start up in Finland, called Catchbox, may have invented just the thing to help you get more physical in your meetings, especially when convening larger groups. The Catchbox is a cube shaped, foam-covered microphone. The Catchbox gets tossed and thrown across the room by audience members, from person to person. Thus, the person with the microphone is no longer in control—the group is, and emergent leadership results. Play becomes central to the tone of the meeting and more people engage in the conversation. Try inserting physicality into the way you run your meetings.

Emergent Leadership. In a jazz quartet, leadership is emergent, depending on which instrumentalist is leading the song. Jazz operates as a chaordic system, bounded by structure and chaos; and jazz groups are organized as holacracies—a form of organizational structure that is based on self-organizing clusters, instead of linear hierarchies. Zappos has explored organizing itself as a holacracy, and there is even a company, named Holacracy, that sells technology which enables this self-organizing method of working in a large company. This approach also involves valuing the outlier. In jazz, valuing the outlier manifests as musicians take turns stepping out on solos and then receding to the back to support the next soloist. Valuing the perspective of your most junior staffer can lead to new discoveries, and it also empowers people.

The influence of jazz and art converge to leverage your employees’ larger creative capacity in small ways. More companies are yearning to employ people with an “aesthetic sensibility.” Such a mindset requires empathy, an attunement to people, and an ability to implement lateral thinking. Why not experiment with leveraging that creative capacity in your employees in small ways? Start with your next meeting.

[A variation of this article originally appeared in Inc. magazine.]


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by Natalie Nixon // Natalie Nixon, PhD is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, and the president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC. She helps leaders apply creativity and foresight to achieve transformative business results and amplify value. Natalie is the author of The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work (Berrett-Koehler; June 2020), a regular contributor to INC., and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Learn more at figure8thinking.com and follow her @natwnixon.

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.