Innovation and Improvisation: Insights from the Classics, Jazz and Rock Music

Innovation and Improvisation: Insights from the Classics, Jazz and Rock Music

By Peter Cook

You are invited to explore the connections and contrasts between leadership of innovative enterprises and the art and discipline of music.  Here I offer a review of leadership and innovation, as seen through three diverse forms of music: classical; jazz and; rock music.


Once upon a time


Through the industrial revolution many people have led companies as though they were orchestras. Driven by a desire for order, efficiency and control in the way work should be organized, they created structures into which people were fitted. This meant that one person (the conductor / leader) held all the ‘operating instructions’ and company strategy (the score). The performer / worker’s main role was to follow the score without deviation (improvisation).  This model gave leaders a feeling of absolute control and certainty about the future. It also enabled them to plan future strategy based on extrapolations from the past.  It gave followers certainty about their role and required performance levels.  It gave shareholders a sense of direction and trust in the business strategy.  The orchestral model is essentially about conformity in terms of ‘getting it right’ and collaboration around a set of instructions, in other words ‘doing what you are told.’ The main questions a traditional orchestra must ask itself are: ‘Did we get it right?’ and ‘Did we give a good rendition of the composer’s idea?’


The orchestral model is useful when: The business environment and product / service mix is simple and stable and; staff expectations of work and its meaning are consistent.  But how do many enterprises fit this profile in the 21st Century?  The model also assumes that the conductor (the CEO) has the right sheet music, is supremely good at conducting and that the orchestra members are good at following a pre-planned score and are compliant. In a knowledge based innovation economy the CEO usually does not and cannot know everything required to run the enterprise via a top-down strategy.  At best they only have some of the sheet music, or, even worse, might be using an outdated score. They may also be better at playing than conducting.  The orchestral model is increasingly out of step in a world where product / service half-lives are shortening and where deference to authority is in decline.  Just look at Kodak’s failure to capitalize on digital photography when they invented it and Nokia’s recent myopia in their misunderstanding of what business their customers were in which led to the sale of their mobile phone brand to Microsoft.


In the jazz groove


By complete contrast, Professor John Kao of The Harvard Business School noted the connections between jazz and leadership in his book Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. Kao points out that creativity is fuelled by contradictions: between discipline and freedom; convention and experiment; old and new; familiar and strange; expert and naïve; power and desire. He suggests that leaders should not try to resolve contradictions but work with them.  This is very valuable advice indeed for those seeking to make innovation a key note of their enterprise.  So the jazz model is fine for Research & Development and perhaps start up enterprises where leaders are trying to profit from the diversity of thinking required to develop complex innovations.


However, Kao’s vision is mostly about genius level creativity – he uses Charlie Parker amongst his examples of successful freeform jazz musicians who operate at the ‘edge of chaos.’ You have to be a brilliant player to be able to do this and this points to one difficulty with the jazz model at work; that much business creativity and innovation is quite ordinary and does not always require or value genius level contributions.  For example, in public sector organizations, innovation is often about incremental process improvements and not breakthrough innovation.  Furthermore, have you ever tried to get subject experts to work together in an academic institution?  I’d suggest that ineffective collaborations inside ‘brain based start-up companies’ are often at the root as to why such companies don’t always succeed in the innovation game, e.g. some university spinouts.  So, what is the middle ground?


Let there be rock


Both the orchestral and the jazz genres offer complementary insights into leadership for innovation. The rock music model is essentially about breaking away from the score and doing your own thing but within the context of the overall structure, as endless improvisation and creativity are wasteful in terms of successful innovation. Unlike an orchestra, the individual is as important as the team in a rock band, although there are some star soloists as per the jazz model. The main questions a successful rock band must ask itself are: ‘Did we stand out from the crowd?’ – in other words ‘Do we have a unique point of difference that will not fade away?’ and ‘How was the performance?’  These are directly relevant to the questions that 21st century companies must ask:  ‘What difference do we make?’ and ‘What do our customers think of us?’


Richard Branson once indicated that larger businesses are best at doing simple things.  In  musical terms this equates to 4/4  tempo and AC/DC, Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Madonna, U2 etc. as exemplars or relative simplicity in pop and rock music.  We however also need Prince, George Benson, Nigel Kennedy and Genesis et al in the Research and Development function if our innovation is to be constantly fresh, sustainable and rigorous!


I am, of course, not referring to the idea that to run a successful innovative enterprise you need to think and act like a rock star in terms of the ego levels, excesses and other cosmetic aspects of the analogy!  Like all business models, some aspects offer parallel insights and others have no direct value for people in business.


The rock music model offers us what Tom Peters called ‘simultaneously tight and loose properties.’  Rock music is not as tight as orchestral music, but not as loose as to need the genius level contributors required in jazz music.  It occupies the middle ground, which is where most 21st Century Businesses are, disciplined and creative, where both the team and the individual matter, with distributed leaders at all levels and where the customer is involved, engaged and contributing to company strategy.  Here are some comparisons:



In practice of course, these divisions are blurred – there are orchestras that improvise and some jazz is very structured.  The smart leader knows when more structure and a disciplined approach is needed and when to commission some ‘research and development’ freeform experimentation / improvisation.  Nonetheless, the broad facets of the model offer us important lessons on how to lead and manage 21st Century Businesses.


As a new generation of leaders emerge from the tipping point of the financial meltdown and recession, they will need to have new ideas about leading and managing people.  This will require both structure and improvisation, both control and creativity and leadership that recognizes and rewards both individual and group achievement.  The leader’s job will be to design best-fit strategies that help leaders to achieve exceptional performances under conditions of inherent uncertainty and rapid change.  That will, at times, require them to conduct, let their people improvise and rock their customer’s heads, hearts and souls to keep them coming back for more.



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