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"The Business of Improvisation - Just Firefighting?"

One or two people may know that whilst I can turn my hand to a decent bit of violin improvisation I have spent a considerable amount of time working with the business community developing business teams.

I have frequently surprised myself, in the middle of pretty heavy negotiations, finding myself borrowing from my musical experience, particularly sound improvisation as a potential solution to a business problem. It is often said that improvisation in the business world is something we do only when things go wrong, when things aren't working out, or maybe when we need to ‘chill out’ on a company incentive. I would like to examine the possibility that in the serious matter of ‘doing business’ we improvise more than we know or would care to admit. More than this, that when we are planning, organising and processing, improvising (or making it up as we go along) is not just a separate thing but is thoroughly laced into the whole business activity procedure. My contention therefore is that as organising entities our function in business may be significantly more improvisational than is generally recognised and rather less deliberate than is often portrayed.

This article is therefore intended as a small offering towards the post-modernist integrationist creative spirit of combining somewhat disparate elements such that by examining the subject of improvisation from two apparently distinct and separate view points; musical improvisation and improvisation in business, I hope to show that business development and business leadership in particular have much to gain from an understanding of the art of musical improvisation.

Everyday life can seem to be constructed of separate boxes. We often feel it necessary to hold our private world distinct from our public persona. We maintain our working life separately from our private life. There is a certain something about present-day attitudes to Music and the Arts that makes it very easy for many people to see artistic expression as somehow separate from so-called ‘normal’ existence. The Sciences seem to carry the modern mind-set of objectivity, reason and pragmatism whilst the Arts hold subjectivity, expression and emotion. “Efficiency, cost-benefit analysis and functionalism [have] become the dominant values of [our] culture…” (Critical Modernism, Charles Jencks, 2007)It 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. If you manufactured objects they were created on a small-scale and local basis. The Art and the Work were one. Separating them permitted the business concept of standardisation and the Fordian manufacturing process, which enabled us to have the material living standards that we enjoy today. This act of ‘splitting’ allowed commercialism to part company from hard to quantify human values such as the necessity to be socially responsible on the grounds that business efficiency and profit come before softer, less measurable values.

In business terms, I often hear people talking rather ebulliently of the need ‘to get it right first time’, ‘for competitive efficiency’. In unguarded moments the captains of industry can be heard to say ‘no-one makes money by being nice’ or ‘the only thing I care about is profit’. The mechanistic (Newtonian) approach to doing business is still 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 is that what really ensures success? Our business giants know, without openly admitting it that whilst profit is a key element of doing business that its acquisition comes from, amongst other things, good customer relationships. Despite the fact Customer Relationship Management is very much the domain of human interaction, it has not stopped the creation of powerful business processes and global, networked software packages which attempt to mechanise even these interactions.

But in reality do businesspeople ‘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 might often find ourselves having to justify our time as if to make it seem that we are doing as expected. Even those at the top of the pile, the MDs and CEOs still find themselves having to play this game.

But could we 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 music therapists?

Examine any business and its marketplace. Most businesses in this first decade 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.

The process of businesses planning doesn’t easily lend itself to coping with disaster when the plan doesn't work out. It is too easy in this environment to create a culture of blame and the power games that go with it. Things do go wrong. Employees find themselves on the defensive. This defensiveness in its turn militates against individual and team creativity. Implementing a truly creative environment is being hampered by old thinking and out-of-date attitudes.

In business there is a need for a new approach. Jazz groups and other forms of improvising groups seem to naturally find a way out of unnecessary competitiveness. If looked at differently, business processes might be seen as a much more random, improvised and perhaps even playful. Formal meetings do take place but so do cigarette breaks and decisions may be made by meeting around the coffee machine. Other serendipitous events happen too. Agreement is reached and goals are 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.


There is a major problem with improvisation as a metaphor because musicians and composers are unable to agree what improvisation is. In some arts circles improvisation is even regarded with some suspicion. Not only that, musical and theatrical performance are coloured by the same characteristics as those that exist in business, e.g. perfectionism, a potentially destructive blame culture, overweening control dramas, and a hypersensitivity to the fear of error. What musicians do seem to have on their side is a passionate commitment to freedom of expression and seeking the effective means of personal creativity.

Can the musical community form an understanding of improvisation and its relationship to the output of their creativity? For many musicians, improvisation is in some way separate from composing and performing. In the case of performance, as this mainly consists of playing and practising previously composed pieces, the player normally focuses on what he or she sees on the paper in front of them and would find difficulty in perceiving ‘something between the notes’. The processes of practice, preparation and performance seem not to be viewed as remotely connected to the characteristics of improvisation.

From this one could draw a generalisation from some musicians that there are things which are distinctly improvisational and some things which aren’t such as musical pieces and recordings. For survival's sake there is a strong need to objectify musical output e.g. create ‘pieces’, notate them, record them and get them played if at all possible. This raises the question of the ‘reality’ of music. Is music a ‘thing’ or is it actually rather more ephemeral? There is a kind of ‘either-or-ness’ about musical creativity which seems to hint at musical creativity being somewhat dualistic in character; the object that music becomes and everything else that isn’t. This peculiarly bipolar world can be somewhat artificial and rather unhelpful.

If instead composing and its performance on the one hand and improvisation on the other are seen as part of a continuum then it becomes possible to consider the notion that all musical behaviour could in some way be improvisational, that improvisation is not a separate activity. It might even be more beneficial (and a good deal more interesting) to consider composition and performance subset of improvisation.

If the improvisational universe can be extended, with composition and its performance being a more controlled part of that universe and improvisation itself tending towards the freer, less controlled dimension then something rather interesting occurs in the ‘fuzzy space’ between the two extremes.

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. Improvisation seems to offer some kind of order to chaos. 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’. In business, this might mean that after transforming current-style management to an improvisational management style, we might expect the newly transformed managers to say that their world has been made significantly easier now that the team has started to perform optimally. This is because they will be intervening less. We might expect this because the now more effective team should have reduced substantially old negative behaviours such as excessive ‘gossip’ and other compensatory behaviours. The ‘sounds’ they now produce no longer lead to disharmony that ordinarily would have led at some point to management intervention.

It means that by adopting improvisation as the general case, to foster creativity, we need to be in position to flexibly move between different parts of the improvisational universe. If the improvisers and the composers can agree that all musical behaviour is in some way improvisational then both as a metaphor and maybe even as reality the notion that all behaviour is to a greater or lesser extent improvisational is extremely helpful.

By adopting a global improvising mindset we can start to view control processes in a different context and with a different meaning to their purpose. We can begin to rebalance the machine-like stranglehold that modern existence seems to have over us. Within a 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 can be thrilling, engaging, motivational or at the very least sufficient for the purpose at that time. This is the kind of mental map that will aid creativity wherever it’s needed, both inside and outside the field of music.

The improvisational metaphor supplies the nurturing landscape through which we creatively move. We no longer need be driven purely by the loneliness and rigidity of process.

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