Jazz improvisation and teambuilding

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What good teams have in common with good bands.

Jazz improvisation and teambuilding

As a trained guitar player I love some good jazz. Well, I love all kinds of music. But even those who are not much into jazz music at all, have to admit that they are astonished when musicians seemingly effortlessly deliver the wildest improvisations. But what is behind this genius? Dark arts? It is said that Jimi Hendrix never had a single music lesson in his life. So is it all talent? Or is there more than just pure musical sense? And what does all this have to do with teams?

First, let's clarify what jazz improvisation - or generally improvisation in music - actually is. Improvisation is when one or more people make music without previously written down fixation. That is, the played notes and melodies arise spontaneously.

Again, what does that have to do with teams?

In our daily project work, we are experiencing this every day. This interaction of people, which has not previously been fixed. And even if our planning is good and detailed and almost perfect - at the implementation level we are owing much to the spontaneous ideas and inspirations of individuals.

And here is our big 'but'. As in making music, this is only working when the people involved know exactly what they are doing, and are prepared well.

Learning from the best

Here we can learn a lot from musicians like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, or Judy Carmichael. Good improvisation has a rock solid basis. Because none of the above just went on a stage and started playing music. On the contrary, there is a lot of training and rehearsing and preparation behind it. So spontaneous improvisation is not so spontaneous at all. And it is not totally free either. There are chords and scales and a lot of formality. Does that ring a bell? Let me say it in other words: there are methods and processes and a lot of formality. Ha! Our daily business, right?

Of course, I can handle projects without these methods and processes. And there are certainly some Jimi Hendrixes of the project management world, who can do without formality and without their company going bankrupt. But personally, I have never experienced a haphazard project that did not go up in flames at some point. Did you?

Jazz and project management

So what are these good jazz bands doing and what lessons can we draw from them?

  • Formality
    Even free jazz is formal. And even completely self-organizing teams are operating within a framework or a ruleset. Be it Scrum, PMBOK, DSDM. But there is a formal basis for our teamwork. And we should pay particular attention to this basis.
  • Clear rules
    Well-playing musicians follow clear rules, such as key, scales, tempo, etc. And all good teams I’ve met have defined certain basic rules as the cornerstones of their cooperation. For freshly assembled teams, these are often the corner pillars and artifacts of the frameworks used. However, in teams that have already completed several Tuckman rounds, I often find very clear, concise rules that all members of that team are adhering to and which - most importantly - have been put together and accepted by everyone.
  • Agreement
    Functioning teams all have some things in common: their members listen to each other, the atmosphere is open and appreciative, decisions are made together. And also in the musical improvisation, it is about togetherness. Often there is one who - literally - sets the pace, but before entering the stage the band agrees on the most important basic rules.
  • And most important, mutual trust
    When I can rely on my colleagues, I am able to focus on delivering great work. And only then I will deliver top results. On stage as in the office or at a construction site or.. you name it.

Conclusion - how can I use that for myself

It does not matter if I am building a team for a big project from scratch, or if I am working with a veteran group. But I always try to create an atmosphere in which teams can live those above points.

I can not force formality and rules. This has to come from the team. I can only pave the way and make suggestions. And mutual consent and trust can also not be created on command. They come naturally when team members feel secure. And only when everyone has agreed on basic rules and everyone knows how things are going, valuable improvisation can arise.

Jimi

Oh, if anyone still wonders if it's true that Jimi Hendrix never had any music lessons: Jein, as we say in Austria. Yes and no. Billy Davis (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Davis_(guitarist)) showed him a few things on the guitar. And Buddy Guy (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddy_Guy) once claimed in an interview, that he had given Hendrix some lessons. So by and large, Jimi Hendrix is self-taught. But that is a different story.

Posted on: May 14, 2019 06:23 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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I have been espousing the power of Improvised work in projects for over 15 years.
Adept improvisers need to work within a framework that 'sets the standard' for what they are trying to achieve. Improvising musicians do this using a key, a time signature, a chord progression, etc., but it is more difficult to sot the boundaries of a framework in PM.
However, there is a significant literature 'out there' about how PMs improvise - you may want to look at http://blogs.bu.edu/sleyb/publications/ for my contribution to this - and this 'stepping away from the plan assists in dealing with emerging requirements in turbulent organizational domains.

Steve L.

Stephen, thank you very much for the link! Lots to read. I love to see that you are researching improvisation in project management.
And yes, I totally agree with you. Improvising in music is much easier than in PM. The stakes are not that high. And there are no organizational frames. But I think, knowing how to improvise in music helps a lot when it comes to busy project situations.

Most of the published papers are downloadable from the 'link' - which is usually the title of the paper...
I sometimes make the distinction between project 'mechanics' and project 'artistes'. Artistry comes with expertise and experience, and I believe that the Bricolage and Adaptation constructs within the organizational Improvisation literature are particularly valuable for the PM.
Bricolage is a constant issue - PMs don't have time to marshall additional resources when they need to make an improvisational intervention, and in any event, maximizing scarce resources is a constant for PMs in most organizations or domains.
Adaptation, relies on 'experience', and the tacit knowledge of what worked in similar situations in the past. I believe that 'adapting' a previously successful improvisational intervention to suit new circumstances allows the PM to have more confidence in the outcome, and because 'adapting' means using something that is not 'wholly untested', it is also a way of reducing and/or controlling risk.

Steve L.

Steve, I agree with you, especially about the adaption part. It's the same in music. I am improvising a short sequence of notes - a bricolage based on a scale that is matching the underlying chords - and it turns out to sound good. So I am going to adapt the same pattern when it will come to different chords. And I am seeing the same approach a lot in PM.
You have a very solid theory. I will dive deeper into this, this is great work!

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