Brain Food: Why business is like ... jazz

In business, the absence of tightly controlled procedures, detailed road maps and extensive scenario planning could be construed as the absence of conscientious management. But if we uncover the secrets of the best jazz artists - adept at teamwork and innovation - we might think otherwise.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Each musician in a jazz ensemble seems to follow an independent path.

Apparently dissonant sounds come together as if by magic to create a coherent whole. A superficial analysis suggests that the environment most conducive to creative genius is a state of anarchy - sit back and wait for the surprise.

Of course, it's not magic and the effect depends on having high-calibre performers. Improvisation in jazz works by a careful balance of rules and freedom. Exponents adhere to flexible rules of engagement: a pre-specified number of bars, an understanding of harmonic progressions, agreed intervals at which soloists can enter and exit and an agreed rotation.

Like syntax, metre and vocabulary, this creates a framework within which to operate. But beyond that, each artist use the form's elements as they wish. They also listen carefully to one another to create what they like to call 'a relaxed knowingness'.

The late management guru Peter Drucker has referred to the orchestral conductor as a metaphor for leadership. But a conductor co-ordinates musicians who perform pre-scripted musical scores with a beginning, middle and end.

Jazz makes a better model because the real world, by contrast, is filled with uncertainty. In business, one never knows exactly what will happen next. In the words of Miles Davis: 'Jazz is the big brother of Revolution'.

Mind you, he also said: 'Do not fear mistakes. There are none.' Only a brave CEO would go that far.

Jenny Harris is Young Businesswoman of the Year and director of JRBH Strategy & Management,


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