Birdland, Take Five, Son of Mr Green Genes: Jazz lessons on improvisation for business

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weather-report_heavy-weatherThursday evening I attended an awards function interspersed with the sounds of a jazz trio, the double bassist plucking notes that still reverberated in my head this morning.

A jazz band these days adds a touch of sophistication to an event. It’s not in-your-face music but rather brought out at the right times when the audience needs to be surprised, delighted… energised.

I am not the world’s great expert on jazz but I grew up with a jazz musician. My father was a double bass player in the 60s, playing in Johannesburg and Cape Town, while making his living as a journalist. Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and others filled our house in Kalk Bay with jazz sounds from a Yamaha record player. My father cut his own jazz record which I heard once and wished I still had a copy.

My father gave up playing his double bass in the 70s. He had a carpenter remove the face of his double bass, insert shelves and used it as a liquor cabinet.

Business people have often used the quality of jazz as a metaphor for leadership. Max du Pree, the CEO of Herman Miller, said in “Leadership Jazz” that leadership in business is more art than science. Successful leaders need to be attuned to the needs and the ideas of their followers and even step aside at times to be followers themselves. Leaders cultivate communication, spontaneity, diversity and creativity and the unique potential of people to contribute to the success of the team.

The spontaneity, improvisation and surprise of jazz is celebrated in a new leadership book “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Lessons from Jazz” by Frank Barret. An accomplished jazz musician, Barret says that when faced with complexity and constant change, leaders and teams iterate, invent and improvise. “An improvisation model of organising creates a kind of openness, an invitation to possibility, rather than leaning towards a narrowness of control.”

Idea Accelerator was started to encourage start-ups and small business owners to break free from narrowness and see possibilities, to riff off creative fire.

If you listen to jazz this weekend, give a moment’s thought to how you can improvise through the “mess” of constant change and disequilibrium and still create something of value.

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