Improvisation and Innovation

Just back from Northampton having delivered a keynote on the topic of improvisation and innovation.  I’m pleased to say that there was a great deal of interest in the topic and the question many people ask me is “How do you plan to improvise?”  Indeed one can plan to improvise – in the words of Paul Simon:

“Improvisation is too important to be left to chance”

Before we get started, have a listen to a piece of music I wrote and recorded, which was conceived and created pretty much entirely through improvisation.  Initially working alone and then involving my friend and musical collaborator John Howitt, a session musician who has worked with Celine Dion, Shirley Bassey, Anastasia et al.

Somewhat strangely, improvisation relies on discipline if something is to emerge from the process.  I’ve summarised some of the principles that I apply when creating from scratch and their parallels in business:

Parallels between improvisation and innovation in music and business

Parallels between improvisation and innovation in music and business

Improvisation is not confined to music.  It operates in all other artforms, including photography.  We finish with the work of Allisdhair McNuall, improvising photographic artist at Incubation Arts and Ambient Vistas.  Allisdhair uses ambient scenery as his inspiration with natural adjustments of his camera to “make the familiar strange”.  There is no PhotoShop here.  Allisdhair says in true improvisational form “I stumbled across the technique quite by accident and it continues to develop (no pun intended) with each shot I take”.  Allisdhair also provides some subtle backdrops to the table above.

Ambient Vistas

Ambient Vistas

Distant Realms

Distant Realms


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via or +44 (0) 7725 927585.  Check out our online Leadership programme for FREE via The Music of Business Online.


8 responses to “Improvisation and Innovation

  1. Applying you principles to Software Development:

    “Start in a new place from Time to Time”. With pair development engineers work together most of the time. I’ve always thought that testers and developers should sit together for coding and testing. Leads to much improved code and tests due to different perspective.

    “Start the composition earlier”. Use Agile development, where to try things, expand them over the course of development. Refactor aggressively!

    “Leave pauses for reflection”. Go and have a cake. Why lots of forward thinking companies have ‘games’ rooms (or should that be ‘think’ rooms).

    “Listen intently to your work”. Things you learn on one piece of work can be used on other, or other disciplines and departments. Listen to others through pair development.

    “Use mindfulness AND mindlessness.” Only develop to solve the problem you are addressing now! And if a crazy idea solves your immediate problem use it. We can always refactor if it doesn’t scale.


      • Yes it should be. I think its fair to assume that when you see the large (often government) projects fail its because they are not using an incremental process.

        Quite often the customer does not know what they want or even what is possible at the start of the project. So for the best results we need to learn as we go along.

        Its said something like 40% for software is never used/broken/wrong depending on the statistics you want to follow. Significant either way.

        Do one release of a £1,000,000 pound project and £400,000 might need to fix it. Do 10 £100,000 increments and if you get it £40,000 wrong on the first one you will know more about what you need to do next increment and be significantly more correct!

        Done properly you could start benefiting from the system 2 or 3 releases in, can re-coup or even save money as you realise functionality in later stages may not be important.

        (Not easy summarising agile development in so few words but hope the message gets across)


      • No would not want to get you started on government IT… it would be a really long discussion. As long as you know who to consider if you got asked to consult on such matters lol.


  2. Wow, i really had no idea that there were so many similarities between the to subjects. As a guitar player and young entreprenuer this is a lesson I can apply on both fronts. Thanks a bunch for the awesome post. Bookmarked


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.