Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise. (George Gershwin)

I believe that the ability to improvise is becoming more and more important for individuals, teams and organisations in an increasingly VUCA business world. Where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are making it impossible to know whether the plans of today will still be valid tomorrow, it is important to be able to act on the spur of the moment. Where it is necessary to act faster than ever before in order to stay in the field while it is impossible to base these actions on a plan, certain results can only be achieved by trial and error. Where the conditions are prone to change at any time and adaptation and reorientation are necessary in ever shorter cycles, improvisation makes financial sense, too. It takes a lot of time and capacities to build up a perfect structure. Are we sure that we really always need a perfect structure, especially so when standardization is lost and we encounter more and more customization? In brief: perfectly orchestrated organisations are going to have to prove their jazz band qualities more and more often in order to stand their ground in the world of VUCA.

The last SYNNECTA Sophia included an experiment on this hypothesis: We invited the two musicians Ulla Oster (double bass) and Vincent »Themba« Goritzki (guitar) for a joint improvisation session. However, we asked them to refrain from any previous contact with each other. We wanted to test the musical scope of improvisation out of a spontaneous encounter and eventually enter a dialogue about the basic principles of improvisation.

I myself eagerly looked forward to the event: nobody could be certain whether the audience’s ears would be pleased by the melodies and rhythms awaiting them. My tension grew as the musicians began to play. What I heard was amorphous and chaotic without recognizable harmonies; it was noise rather than what is generally considered to be music. After a while, however, first structures slowly emerged as the musicians scanned and reacted to each other. Harmonies were adopted, lines of melody taken on and continued, a rhythm began to dominate the chaos – there was music! Toes began to move to the beat. The music grew… After roughly an hour, the two musicians made eye contact to agree that their improvisation had come to an end and bowed first to each other and then to the audience. They earned enthusiastic applause from the managers and business representatives in the audience.

In the subsequent interview, we first addressed the basics of playing together and then opened the floor for an audience discussion. I would like to reconstruct from memory some of the conversations that ensued in the course of this dialogue. These ideas had moved me in particular, as I consider them paradigmatic illustrations of the basis for successful joint improvisation. They also show how differently the audience and the musicians approached the subject.

Spectator: Having played with him for one hour now, what to you think of him? What is he good at, what not?
Musician: It’s much too early to answer that, I hardly know him….

Spectator: While you were playing, I noticed that you kept taking turns being in the lead. First one of you lead and the other followed, then the next moment it was the other way around. How does that work?
Musician: I didn’t think that that was a question of leading and following. It was more like a dialogue among equals…

Spectator: At one point he grew louder and you resisted, you refused and entered a conflict…
Musician I: That wasn’t a conflict, it wasn’t about power. I simply followed the energy.
Musician II: It’s more like in a conversation that can grow louder and more animated out of enthusiasm, for example. Then everyone is louder without really noticing…

Spectator: You didn’t know each other at all. How did you establish trust?
Musician: That was there from the start. To me, trust is an attitude.

So here are four impulses from the musicians for a new culture of improvisation in organisations:

  • Let your counterpart be who they are to begin with, be respectful and reserve your judgement, don’t consider categories and achievements straight away;
  • Have a dialogue among equals rather than negotiating positions of leadership and subordination;
  • Reinforce energies and use them together rather than struggling for power and fighting each other;
  • Give trust as a present instead of expecting that people have to earn it…

I can imagine that this attitude, as inspired by music, could enable improvisation in businesses and even improve cooperation in general. It constitutes a wonderful invitation from the musicians to experiment and improvise in our own fields and spheres of work…

Johannes Ries