Strategic Planning Lessons from Jazz

Strategic Planning Lessons from Jazz

In a rapidly changing environment businesses can learn a lot from improvisation and flexibility, underpinned by a team spirit of jazz, argues musician Noel Dennis.

Just a few weeks after the General Election and things are still settling down. Any political changes bring uncertainty and often force businesses to rethink their strategic plans – which in my view can be a positive thing. In fact, as I sit here writing this piece listening to one of my favourite trumpet players – Wynton Marsalis, I would argue that sticking rigidly to any strategic plan is a dangerous move – particularly given the dynamic and turbulent business environment we operate in today.  

For a number of years now I have been researching and teaching management students and business leaders about the lessons that can be transferred from jazz to the organisation, in collaboration with internationally acclaimed jazz musician and educator – Pete Churchill.

Through practical and participative demonstrations, we examine the roles of the individuals in the jazz group; highlight the importance of communication and trust and provide ideas on to how to foster a culture of creativity and improvisation in organisations.

Some might think that the link between jazz and business is tenuous, but there is so much that organisations can learn from jazz and the intricate workings of a jazz group. Over 100 years old, jazz originates from the blues and is renowned for its sprawling diversity, with many different styles of jazz, ranging from traditional (New Orleans) through to free jazz (no pre-composed ideas or structure). Central to all jazz though, is improvisation.

Jazz groups come in all shapes and sizes and are exemplars of how organisations should operate. The core competencies of a successful jazz group are collaboration and trust. In essence when jazz musicians perform they engage in a collegiate dialogue with each other – innovating, supporting and sharing ideas.

The roles of the musicians are clearly defined: each musician has invested time in learning the material; there is mutual respect and trust; a tolerance for mistakes and most importantly – strong communication between the players.  

Jazz musicians take risks every time they perform and could be thought of as creative entrepreneurs. Sometimes things do not always go to plan, but because one of the essential attributes of a jazz musician is self-reflexivity, mistakes are treated as learning experiences, with every performance being critiqued to enhance future performance. As my dad used to say to me, ‘you are only as good as your last gig, son.’

Through my research and consultancy, I have developed the ‘jazzer’ and ‘reader’ continuum, which is a vehicle to classify organisations’ individuals’ level of flexibility and improvisation. Reader organisations are those that take a logical approach to their strategic planning, but do not necessarily treat it as a working and flexible document.

They will stick rigidly to the plan, regardless of changes in the external environment and often suffer the consequences for doing so. Reader organisations share similar traits to the orchestra where there is clear leadership from the conductor (no bad thing at all) and each person plays their own individual part, but with no flexibility to deviate from the notes
on the page.

Contrastingly, the jazzer organisation behaves more like the jazz group, with a collective approach to developing and implementing the strategic plan. There is an embedded culture of creativity within the organisation and improvisation at all levels is actively encouraged.

Like the jazz group people assume leadership roles at different points in the process, knowing when to step up and when to step down, but all within the parameters of the strategic plan. Jazzer organisations tend to be much more proactive and seek out new opportunities, whilst having the necessary structures and leadership in place to respond to exogenous changes in the environment when they arise.  

In conclusion, then, arguably the jazzer model is more appropriate for today’s challenging business environment and particularly for entrepreneurial and market-orientated companies. A word of caution though, I am not suggesting businesses ‘ditch’ their strategic plans and become pure free improvisers. Instead, I suggest that adopting a mixture of reader and jazzer is appropriate for most organisations today.

There is a time to read and a time to jazz, but we must be cognisant that the strategic plan is an evolving melody, composed and performed by all of the individuals in the organisation.