Blow, baby, blow! Miles Davis, here in his 1990s fusion finery, never stopped experimenting

Editor’s Note: Frank J. Barrett is a Professor of Management in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. His latest book is, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz Improvisation.”

Story highlights

Talents of best jazz musicians are applicable to business people

The best in their field need to be expert improvisers

Balancing free expression and rules is another important skill

'Hit a groove' and work in teams to get the best from individuals

How do you cope when faced with complexity and constant change at work? Successful leaders do what jazz musicians do: they improvise.

They invent novel responses and take calculated risks without a scripted plan or a safety net. They negotiate with each other as they proceed, and they don’t dwell on mistakes or stifle each other’s ideas.

In short, they say “yes to the mess” that is today’s hurried, harried, yet enormously innovative and fertile world of work.

An improvisational “jazz mindset” and the skills that go along with it are essential for effective leadership today. But how do you bring that into your work-life?

Frank J. Barrett

First, master the art of unlearning. Jazz musicians guard against the seductive power of routines and habits. They challenge themselves to explore the very edge of their comfort level, to stretch their learning into new and different areas. Leaders could stand to take a page from the jazz playbook. When organizations become locked in a dominant design, people find themselves trapped in roles, and dynamism is lost.

Second, develop affirmative competence. Leaders frequently find themselves in the middle of messes not of their own making or in over their heads, having to take action even though there is no guarantee of outcome. Jazz players face the same issues, but what makes it possible to improvise is an affirmative move, an implicit “yes” that allows them to move forward even in the midst of uncertainty.

Human beings are at their best when they are open to the world, able to notice what’s needed, and equipped with the skills to respond meaningfully in the moment. Improvisation grows out of a receptivity to what the situation offers.

Third, perform and experiment simultaneously. Leaders need to do what jazz musicians do – anticipate that when people are encouraged to try something new, the results will be unexpected and can include errors. Innovative cultures maximize learning by nurturing a mindset of enlightened trial and error that allows managers to take advantage of errors to offer new insights.

This involves creating a psychological comfort zone, one in which it is safe for people to talk about errors and what can be learned from them. Failures are occasions for learning.

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Fourth, balance freedoms and constraints. Jazz bands and innovative organizations create the conditions for guided autonomy. They create choice points to avoid getting weighted down with fruitless rules, while also maximizing diversity, inviting embellishment, and encouraging exploration and experimentation. To foster innovation, leaders hedge against the trap of “too much consensus.” The underlying assumption is that when people disagree, they’re both right. Thus, such organizations tolerate and encourage dissent and debate.

Fifth, learn by doing and talking. In jazz, learning and ideas for innovation take place in jam sessions, the creative equivalent of conversations in 19th-century coffeehouses.

It is here that musicians get innovative ideas, and learn whether their playing is up to par. Organizations need to create similar room for jam sessions as Steve Jobs so deeply understood. They need to deliberately design for serendipity, to encourage happy accidents and unexpected discoveries. The key to this in organizations is opportunistic conversations. Great insights occur in the context of relationships and exchanges, as people share each other’s work and ask questions.

Sixth, take turns soloing and supporting. We put so much emphasis on leadership today that we have forgotten the importance of followership, what jazz musicians call “comping,” or accompanying. In organizations, followership – supporting others to think out loud and be their best – should be an art more fully articulated, acknowledged, and rewarded.

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Leaders need to model and support the practice of taking turns as leaders and supporters, just as great jazz players do. Followership can be a noble calling, but organizations need to let it flourish.

Seventh, practice provocative competence. Provocative competence is a very special leadership skill that helps people break out of competency traps. To do it leaders need to discipline their imaginations to see a person’s or group’s potential. Leaders also can introduce a disruption that demands people leave their comfort zones and attempt new and unfamiliar actions.

Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were masters of provocative competence; they understood that it was an art form in itself. Leaders in every sector would do well to heed the lesson.

Eighth, hit a groove. Organizations often overlooked that the most creative breakthroughs come from relationships. Jazz musicians know that creativity is a collaborative achievement and improvisation is an emergent, vital process. When players are listening and attuned to one another they are more likely to experience a flow state.

Organizations should also appreciate the importance of relationships and teams rather than over-focusing on individuals. When organizational teams are able to hit a groove, the collaboration is more likely to lead to innovation. Thomas Edison knew this. So did Steve Jobs.

Leaders today need to be expert improvisers. The principles of jazz thinking and jazz performance can help anyone who leads teams or works with them, wherever they sit in the organization, develop these critical skills.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frank J. Barrett