Innovation Excellence and all that jazz

This week, I’m offering you a business parable about jazz and innovation excellence.  As a generalisation, it probably works, although jazz is an enormous genre, so feel free to agree / disagree / extend the story as you wish.  It was written about 13 years ago for my 1st book Best Practice Creativity, and has resurfaced recently, since a University academic published an article on jazz and business in The Guardian.  If you enjoy this post you may also enjoy related posts on Innovation and The Flow and Jazz.

Let’s warm up with a bit of Herbie Hancock:

The Jazz Band – a metaphor for more innovative organisations

The Jazz band is a loose association of individuals that need no sheet music, since they share a common love for the music, achieved by careful selection of musicians, based on ability and empathy within and on the edge of the band’s style. There is scope for musicians to ‘blow their own trumpets’, whilst recognising the need for the ‘solos’ to be consistent with the overall musical direction.

The informal band leader helps band members reach new heights of musicianship and encourages the swapping of instruments to broaden skills. The band is paid on the quality of the group performance although random bonuses are allocated by group consent for outstanding individual performance from a ‘slush fund.’

The band’s repertoire is wide and both well rehearsed and unstructured, for the performance has both elements of formal musical structure and improvised chaos. Some performances are unremarkable, yet there are indefinable moments when the band seems to know exactly what to do to take the music in a new direction that has never been rehearsed formally in a state of ‘flow’.

Although the band get great enjoyment out of playing the music when practising or performing, off stage the members often disagree vigorously about many issues concerned with the music. In some cases, individual members are not great personal friends, yet this is subsumed to the greater ‘task’ of the music itself. For example, the guitarist tends to be simultaneously gregarious yet aloof, whilst the bass player will often be the one to arrange social events. The drummer is always late for rehearsals as he has to get a lift from the piano player since he is never organized enough to buy a car.

Competitiveness manifests itself in a positive way, in so far as individual soloists attempt to outdo each other with the aim of moving the general level of performance upwards. Although each person could probably play a very impressive piece on their own, the results that the band achieve somehow add up to more than the individual players could achieve on their own. The band also has to compete with other bands for gigs and one of the members carries out the job of getting the band gigs through advocating the band to club owners and using any tricks to make them more visible than other jazz bands.

The jazz band occasionally get asked to play requests. These are done in a dutiful way but often fail to reach the heights of performance achieved when they are in free flow. They claim to be unaware of anything around them including the audience when they are in this state, and they could be said to be creating music in a highly selfish way at these times.

The jazz band parable highlights the need for businesses and organisations to:

  • Balance structure and chaos according to the needs of the various stakeholders.
  • Learn continuously and adapt to change through the use of signposts which are understood by all.
  • Let creativity happen rather than trying to force it.  Technique and training helps, but no amount of engineering will necessarily produce the intended result.
  • Make personality differences irrelevant by a consuming mania with a shared purpose.

Speaking of improvisation and innovation, I have just been appointed Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor for New York based Global Innovation Website Innovation Excellence.  Run by Julie Anixter,  who has written with Seth Godin and worked with Tom Peters.   I have been asked to write a number of prestigious articles and interviews – for example, the CEO of Atlantic Records, Sir Paul Mc Cartney, CEO’s who play music and more.   Innovation Excellence is the world’s most popular innovation blog with over 10 000 reads per day.  I am therefore offering guest interviews and articles to:

  • Innovation authors
  • Innovative musicians
  • Innovative businesses
  • Innovation leaders
  • Innovation academics

If you wish to publish an article or interview, let me know via this blog or mail me at

Do check out the website All About Jazz for much more on Jazz.  To finish, the master of improvisation and innovation, Wes Montgomery:


11 responses to “Innovation Excellence and all that jazz

  1. Hello there… hmm Wes… now I can’t knock him as a player he clearly was brilliant. However he is often held up as the personification of the jazz ideal, it’s just I’m not sure he is the best and only candidate. At least I can offer other candidates.

    Django – come on you cannot argue that the man took the guitar to places never before taken.

    Charlie Christian – another guy who suddenly moved the guitar out of where it had been, boring old vampy rhythm thing, to a widdly widdly lead instrument competing against horns and saxes in some of the best big band jazz bands around – also if not for him would we ever have had the electric guitar? Arguably his drive with Gibson in the 30s was the big thing before… Les Paul – there’s another candidate… Actually Les with him inventiveness not simply limited to his musical abilities but also his inventiveness with technology – without him St Pepper may never have been possible – or pretty much anything recorded from the 50s onwards.

    In jazz terms as well I’d nominate Joe Pass and the hugely under rated and over looked Tal Farlow… oh just thought of Jim Hall too…

    Ok I’m proving my own point here – there are many many great improvising jazz greats out there to pick from – Wes is amongst them but there are others to draw inspiration from


  2. I could not agree more – indeed Django, Joe Pass and Les Paul feature in one of my earlier posts – see

    In the context of a short blog, there is just not room for a hall of fame, nor in a way am I running a music appreciation blog per se, so your suggestions are very welcome. Can you point other readers towards examples of Tal Farlow and Jim Hall?

    You are spot on with your point that Sargent Pepper could not have been made without the electrical wizardry of Les Paul.

    Thanks for visiting again



    • Sorry Peter but you know me I forget that music isn’t the be all and end all of life… 😉

      Tal Farlow – here is one of the best about on Youtube the picture quality isn’t good – from the late 70s I think. I did luckily get to see him play in Soho in the 80s in a little downstairs bar. He was just brilliant – as I say highly underrated and some people say his playing is “sloppy” but if you listen some of what you may think are stutters in his rhythm are intentional – well at least if he plays the same refrain in the song again he does it the same way!


  3. No sheet music, no plan? Just trust, shared skills, confidence in the ability of the team to get there, no fear, mutual understanding and respect, allowing leadership to pop up whenever it is needed. And enjoying yourself along the way? And your customers enjoying the journey too?

    This is such a load of old tut. What organisation could survive and prosper like that?

    I don’t come across many. Hmmm.


    • Pfizer c 1991 – 2000…. there was a set of objectives for the organisation and people did just in the most get on and deliver with true belief and passion for the outcome. It couldn’t last, the success the unprecedented amount of new products brought to market then led to huge investment in R&D as a reward, that huge growth and then a sudden change of style from the very top when they aggressively bought Warner-Lambert…that was a seismic moment as all the implied value structure in R&D (where I was) got torn away and a “centralist” mindset came in… it had to to be frank to make sense of it all as they tried to pull together all the various autonomous parts. But they lost what they had because they didn’t even know they had it sadly. An exercise in the very late 90s where from the centre they tried to encapsulate what were the values of the organisation showed that that it was doomed to end really as once you start to measure and quantify something so innately intrinsic like that your capturing of it will change it.


      • Managing the trick of becoming large and not losing the spirit passion is a problem that bedevils many large companies. I worked around Pfizer at that time and also noticed the changes. Even harder, once you have lost improvisation / entrepreneurship capacity, it seems to be a one way journey – recreating it takes decades. I used to work for Sir Trevor Jones at Wellcome Foundation, who used to say that it takes minutes to destroy an innovative enterprise and decades to rebuild it. We were indeed blessed.

        How about that coffee soon as I recall we live close by but have never met? 07725 927585



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.