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Improvisation v. Structure: An Organisational Paradox


Try this thought out for size: “All human behaviour is in some way or other improvisational in nature.” 


We often think of Chaos as happening in an emergency; when “the building’s on fire!”. But this is not so. Wherever you look across the field of the Musician’s Way there is uncertainty, to a greater or lesser extent. Across the entire spectrum of experience, chaos and complexity exist in one form or another. Even in the lens we refer to as Structured we found that it is inevitable that change will occur. In highly ordered setups where there is a defined object or process in motion, circumstances change, the context evolves and neither the object nor the process ultimately fulfil their original purpose. 


You will by now have recognised that we also have an issue with our ‘bubbles’. Some of us seem to prefer being in denial or turning a blind eye to what might actually be in plain sight. There seems to be a correlation between the way in which we allow ourselves to accept discomfort, or the prospect of it, and the way organisations like to invoke a belief of order when in fact what they say isn’t true and not connected to reality. How often do we accept discomfort as part of the ‘order’ of things instead of ‘disorder’ being more present than we’d like to believe? This is how ‘normalisation’ works.  We have found a way of accepting something we really shouldn’t. In this sense we magically perceive order when reality couldn’t be further from the truth.


What does this mean for both the individual and society as a whole?  If we stay in our bubbles then life will inevitably consist of wholly unexpected surprises for which we have few mitigations to attempt to reduce risk. Waking up to just how ‘improvisational’ our life’s experiences actually are leads us to better responses to the risks we face and being more able to take advantage of opportunities which come our way.


Human collaboration and interaction is therefore a complex symphony of words, tones, and unspoken gestures. Through this intricate dance, we create meaning, forge connections, and share the elusive truth of our experience. Our choice of words, the subtle brushstrokes of tone, and even the act of listening itself, form the instruments of this orchestra. 


Words – the tangible notes – carry explicit meaning, but their impact transcends mere dictionary definitions. The rhythm, the weight, the emotional resonance woven into each syllable shapes our understanding. A whispered "I love you" resonates deeper than the same phrase shouted across a crowded room. Nuance becomes the maestro, guiding the interpretation of our melody.


Yet, truth whispers not only in the words chosen, but also in the gaps between them. The attentive, active listener completes the musical phrase, recognising the unspoken emotions that linger in the silence. Conversely, a distracted ear leaves chords hanging unresolved, distorting the melody and muting the truth.


In the digital age, however, this intimate orchestra faces challenges. Emails and social media posts become static renditions, devoid of the dynamic interplay of tone and silence. Sarcasm can be mistaken for anger, humour lost in translation. Nuance, the lifeblood of meaning, fades in the pixelated echo chamber. Further complicating the symphony of truth is the human struggle with understanding our own emotions. We stumble over the vocabulary of feelings, our descriptions hesitant and inadequate. 


An organisation’s ability to recognise and process change is strongly improvisational. Our ability to improvise is one of the most outstanding examples of how human groups working together can be adaptable and be able to process multiple strands of input producing truly immeasurable results. In the serious matter of ‘doing business’ we therefore improvise more than we know or would care to admit.  Improvising (or making it up as we go along) therefore doesn’t need to be regarded as a separate thing, but as something thoroughly laced within the business activity. As organising entities, our function in business may be significantly more improvisational than is generally recognised and rather less deliberate than is often portrayed. Complexity exists across the Musician’s Way depending on the context which means that just hoping our lives and our work will remain structured and stable could well be an unhelpful illusion. Reality appears to be much less orderly which leads us to the inevitable conclusion that it is far better to lead our lives, and our teams, businesses and families improvisationally. 


With a clearer vision of the improvisational nature of ‘the game’ of life, it becomes obvious that we need intelligent long term responses to the problems we face. Short termism isn’t the answer. We also need to recognise that we are in ‘the game’ to keep playing ‘the game’.. In musical setups we just want to keep on playing. Winning in music, except in the occasional music competition, is actually a rather silly concept. Organisationally though, why do we often find ourselves in the business of winning? When we are, then we only have winners and losers.  The winners get everything and the losers nothing. Our tendency towards toxicity and divisiveness is driven by this divisive model of success. Mastering Chaos: Musician’s Way allows for any type of ‘games’ to be played but the underlying process embedded in the Musician's Way is not to ‘win’ but to ‘continue playing’. In the long term businesses and organisations also need to continue playing. We need ways of structuring ourselves to stay safe, feed ourselves, continuing to grow and hopefully achieve contentment. Any set up which is wholly based on ‘getting away with it’ will leave some parts of humanity with little or nothing.


In the UK, one only has to look at Thames Water to realise that its toxic financing has left the company unable to do what their customers have paid for; that of managing the delivery of clean water and the treatment of waste. The ‘winners’ appear to be the finance organisations themselves who bought Thames Water by borrowing heavily to finance the deal, then moving the debt onto Thames water itself whilst paying themselves substantial bonuses and dividends. This is an example of the ‘winners/losers’ game going badly wrong.  Humans, at their best, are co-operators by nature and have to play the game for the long term not for short-term gain.


This competitive excess to doing business is very much alive and thriving.   One could be forgiven for thinking that in business only those with ‘a hard edge’ will succeed.  Business consultants talk of business processes and the need to drive the business by these vehicles.  Within this world, one could easily assume that this ‘hard edge’ is what predominates. If we only care about profit, what really ensures success? Our business giants know that while profit is a key element of doing business that its acquisition comes from, amongst other things, good customer relationships.   Despite the fact that Customer Relationship Management is very much the domain of human interaction, it has not stopped the creation of powerful business processes and worldwide, networked software packages which attempt to mechanise even these interactions. How many companies are losing business because of flaws in their AI robot?


​And in reality do people ‘always follow the process’?   In the spaces in between the targets and the goals, between the KPIs and the activity planning, isn’t there something else taking place?    It’s troubling because, if asked, we often find ourselves having to justify our time as if to make it seem that we are doing as expected.  Those at the top of the pile, the MDs and CEOs find themselves having to play this game too. 

    

​But could we all just be ‘making it up as we go along’?   If we are, then we’re hardly likely to want to admit it and if it’s true then it starts to look remarkably as if we’re improvising; in other words, just feeling our way. Could it be that in order for the business community to operate efficiently in today’s environment it needs to inject an element of improvisational randomness more familiar with jazz musicians and improvisers? Perhaps it’s time to try.


​Examine any business and its marketplace.   Most businesses in the early decades of the twenty-first century operate in highly competitive environments.  Businesses need to maintain their leading edge and be able to consistently offer new ideas, the latest products, and the best and most efficient service.  To do this they need the latest technology, the implementation of best business processes, to aspire to the best performance and orchestrate the best thinking and creativity to go forwards responsively into the future.   The pressure to create and perform is immense.  


But the ‘get it right’ mentality tends to squeeze out error even though allowing error is an important element of fostering the process of creativity. “Efficiency, cost-benefit analysis and functionalism [have] become the dominant values of [our] culture…” (Critical Modernism, Charles Jencks, 2007). This wasn’t always the case.  Early society’s concept of work before the Agricultural & Industrial Revolutions was experienced as something directly connected to the process of living.  You lived and worked on the land. Depending on the season, the work you did each day started when it started and finished when it finished. Being paid by the hour was unheard of.  If you manufactured objects they were created on a small-scale and local basis.   As artisan workers, the Art and the Work were one. You got paid for what you could make and sell.   Separating the work into simpler activities permitted the business concept of standardisation and the development of the Fordian manufacturing process, which enabled us to have the material living standards that we enjoy today.   This act of ‘splitting’ and specialising allowed commercialism to part company from hard to quantify human values such as the necessity to be socially responsible, etc.  The profit motive has moved to the top of the priority list before softer, less measurable values. 


Current business planning struggles to adapt when plans go awry, fostering blame cultures and hindering creativity. When things inevitably go wrong, organisations become defensive, stifling individual and team innovation. This rigid approach impedes progress and keeps us clinging to outdated methods. 


Einstein said: “So far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain.   And so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality”.    Reality is not bipolar.  Truth is blurred, even to the extent of seeming chaotic.   If reality is truly ‘fuzzy’, we can expect form & process to emerge from the fog just long enough to be useful.  Process doesn’t remain fixed.   Instead it’s recycled.  Improvisational behaviour with its fuzzy processes seems to offer us a more creative and productive route towards effectively managing our moment-to-moment relationships with people.   

                            

In the improvising music group, excessive ‘noise’ and extraneous sounds may be produced from time to time but the process of improvisation seems to fold these aberrant activities back into the improvisation either to be utilised constructively or to be, ‘without judgement’, quietly dropped as ‘not helpful’.  The ‘sounds’ they now produce no longer foster disharmony tending to reduce the need for management intervention.  The team is becoming self-regulating, reducing substantially old negative behaviours such as excessive ‘gossip’ and other limiting behaviours. With the team transforming itself to a more improvisational mindset, the life of the manager becomes significantly easier because the team has started to perform optimally, needing less managerial intervention. 

   

By adopting an improvising mindset we can start to view the way we as humans behave in a completely different context. Our behaviours take on a different meaning.  We can begin to rebalance the machine-like stranglehold that modern existence seems to have over us.  Within musical improvisation there is little evidence of blame and a strong desire to work cooperatively on a shared basis.  This means that whilst aiming for high standards of workmanship we can equally value and utilise creatively the well-intentioned mistake.  The output at any moment is often thrilling, engaging, motivational or at the very least sufficient for the purpose at that time.   This is the mental model that will aid creativity wherever it’s needed, both inside and outside the field of music.


There is a need for a new approach. In many ways music is a very effective model of in-the-moment problem-solving. Jazz groups and other forms of improvisation groups seem to naturally 'follow their muse', feeling their way.  If looked at this way, teams that want to solve complex issues are more likely to succeed by losing the sense of rigidity of trying to get it right and instead adopt a much more random, improvised and experimental approach.  Formal meetings can still take place but so do lunch breaks. Big decisions are often made unofficially around the coffee machine.  Other serendipitous events happen too. Agreement is reached informally and goals achieved, but not necessarily by the expected route. What would happen if we could actually stop pretending we’re so certain and do a bit more of what some musicians do?  How would it be if we purposefully adopted an improvising mindset?   This would mean that we could turn the current organisational approach on its head.  It would mean that improvising is something we do most of the time in some way and not just when the building’s on fire.


By opening up to this realisation it becomes possible to show that business development and business leadership in particular have much to gain from an understanding of the art of improvisation. The improvisational metaphor supplies the nurturing landscape through which we creatively move.  We no longer need to be driven purely by the loneliness and rigidity of process. 


Navigating chaos and making sensible decisions can feel like trying to sail in a hurricane, but it's definitely possible. In the next chapter we look in greater detail at the navigational aids which underpin “The Musician’s Way”.



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