Warren Bennis once said, ‘I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s more like jazz. There is more improvisation”
I must confess that I really like the symphony orchestra metaphor, simply because it is, well, beautifully uncluttered. But, as much as I would like to think it possible for all things to be in harmony at all times, I know the reality to be a lot messier, or jazzier, metaphorically speaking.
In fact, it is perhaps the jazz of life, (that stuff that requires spontaneity and improvisation), which transforms the vanilla of a well-ordered enterprise into something spiced with possibility and potential for greatness.
So it is with leadership.
In leadership, there are times for following a well-planned strategy. And, there are times when doing so isn’t going to work. The landscape has a way of changing rapidly, often requiring leaders, as creative beings, to rely on instinct to successfully navigate unexpected challenges or opportunities and explore unknown places.
At those times, improvisation is a useful tool. However, as with jazz, improvisation, on its own will not create a joyful noise. It must somehow find its way back to the primary melody no matter how far afield it may go.
In leadership, the primary melody lies in the organizational purpose. And, how far afield we are willing to go from that is usually grounded in a number of principles emanating from considerations like:
How much we know
The more curious we are and the more we seek to learn about our immediate environment, our markets, our politics and our world, the better equipped we are to make spontaneous decisions that will serve our purpose, either now or in the future.
How much we are willing to risk
When it comes to risk, those who extend themselves too far, risk losing sight of their core purpose and those who don’t explore at all, risk missing opportunities for growth that go beyond their current expectations. Being clear about how much we are willing to risk can help us determine the extent to which we are willing to improvise.
How much we believe
If we have our organization’s core purpose etched on our brains and hearts, the likelihood is that we will also feel more at liberty to play with improvisation without fear of getting lost.
How much we imagine
Just as jazz music is highly interpretive, the extent to which we use our imagination in leadership often determines the kind of organizations we build and the ability of the people working in those organizations to improvise effectively.
In short, I think there is a vital role for improvisation in organizations. Our appetite for spontaneity will of course vary but if we are wise, we will allow room for it. It could make the difference between mediocrity and excellence.
What do you think?
Oh, and just for fun, here is Oscar Peterson providing a fine example of what can happen when improvisation blends beautifully with the primary melody.