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3 Improvisation Tricks to Steal From Jazz Musicians

Sure, the modern business environment is chaotic, but you can help your team improvise their way through the mess if you follow the lead of jazz greats.
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When it comes to playful, off-the-cuff innovation, there's no one better than jazz musicians, who improvise, experiment and collaborate as they pass around the solo, making music out of the unexpected. Now if only you could teach your team a little bit of the jazz master's ability to stay loose, work together and be creative in the face of uncertainty.

With the right leadership style, you can, argues Frank J. Barrett, a professor of management at the Naval Postgraduate School, in his new book Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz, which was recently excerpted on Fast Company.

The lengthy and fascinating excerpt argues that certain "practices can help your organization emulate what happens when jazz bands improvise," and offers several tips to help you encourage jazz-like thinking in your team. Among them:

Expand the vocabulary of yes to overcome the glamour of no. One of the biggest blocks to creativity and improvisation is getting stuck wishing the situation was different. Telling yourself, "If only I could get off this team" or "Why did I get stuck with this set of tools and these people?" shuts down improvisation. Instead, do what jazz greats do: assume that you can make the situation work somehow, that there exists an opportunistic possibility to be gleaned.

Prepare for serendipity by deliberately breaking a routine. Serendipity doesn't just happen. It takes preparation. Work teams are particularly vulnerable to falling into a pattern of activity without explicitly thinking about it or deciding to do so. Even a simple process question in the midst of team activity can serve to disrupt routines just enough to trigger people to consider options: "I'm thinking we should talk about what we're doing here. What if we try something else?" This kind of statement is a small way to break up a practice that might have become habituated and is handicapping performance outside of anyone's awareness.

Approach leadership tasks as experiments. When you approach leadership actions in this way, you are uncommonly receptive to what emerges, and you heighten self-awareness while in the middle of taking action. By definition, successful experimentation requires suspending a defensive attitude…. An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mind-set of discovery, floating hypotheses about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces.

Check out the complete excerpt for more details on these ideas and several others, or grab a copy of the book.

Do you say "yes to the mess" of today's frantic-but-fertile business environment, or do you try to impose order on the chaos?

Last updated: Aug 15, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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