This is truly a time for learning agility.

We need to embrace the jazz player within.

Jazz, as in life and in organisations, is where we are faced with numerous possibilities. And incomplete information. Yet we have to take action anyway.  And that what learning agility is.  The ability to be in a novel situation, not know what to do, and then figure it out and take action anyway.  Feel like that is you, right now?

Frank Barrett spoke about leadership lessons from jazz in this HBR idea cast.  We can draw on it, to remember to:

  • take a big breath.
  • say ‘yes to the mess’: to embrace an improvisational mindset and go ahead despite the ambiguity.
  • build on others’ ideas: the power of ‘yes and’
  • take turns soloing and supporting.  There are times when we have to step back and let others shine.
  • notice when the things we have learnt in the past get in the way of experimenting. And how we can learn from mistakes in the present
  • create structure in order to allow for flexibility in the moment.

One of my favourite bands is New Zealand’s 7 piece Fat Freddy’s Drop.   They have been described as one, or a combination of styles: jazz, reggae, soul, rhythm and blues, techno, dub, and gained popularity by their improvised live performances.   Check them out.

Amongst other things, they seem to be pretty good ‘yes to the mess’ role models.


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Penelope Mavor
11 years ago

This is an interesting, non-aside-but-completely related. Thanks for sharing Chris. As people do we ultimately side with structure as opposed to flexibility? Are we too quick to try and put 'chaos' into order, and go with what we know? I guess what is important is that we are mindful about our patterns; recognising when they serve us and when they don't.

11 years ago

As an interesting aside, a few years ago I attended a session that was run by a jazz group to illustrate the very point you're making. In particular, they wanted to draw attention to the similarities between organizational interactions and conversation. They had begun by demonstrating their ability to play music from a wide range of genres, unrelated to jazz. However, what intrigued me was that when they ended with an improvisation session they immediately settled into a jazz 'pattern' of play. Although anything might have emerged from the initial combination of notes – given their seemingly unlimited capacity –… Read more »

Penelope Mavor
11 years ago

Thanks Chris, I won't take full credit for the words – they are drawn from Barrett. As it happens, I did think of you when I was writing it; reflecting on the 'messy side' of change. And thanks for Stacey's courage comment: it is right on the mark, isn't it?.

11 years ago

Hi Penny,

I like your comment, "Jazz, as in life and in organisations, is where we are faced with numerous possibilities, incomplete information and yet we have to take action anyway."

As you say, Jazz – especially in its improvizational, "jamming" form – offers a useful metaphor for what's happening in the everyday conversations and interactions in which organization emerges.

As Ralph Stacey has commented, "Managing and leading are exercises in the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing."