Recently I had a thought about jazz music and what it might be able to teach us about business strategy and execution.

Growing up my father introduced me to jazz during our driving expeditions across the country. Specifically, my father enjoyed swing-era jazz from the 1930s and 40s. Road trips with music from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Bert Kaempfert, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, and Les Brown to name a few filled the long miles. It was a lesson in the appreciation of music that I look back on with great fondness. I remember the trumpets, the clarinets, trombones, and smooth piano as the energy created by the music provided a soundtrack as the two of us, vagabonds, traveled the back highways (my dad steered clear of the Interstates as, according to him, they didn’t give a “real picture of America”)  crisscrossing the Midwest between Wyoming and Ohio where my grandparents lived.

So when I recently came across a performance by Hiromi Uehara it got me thinking about what jazz could teach us about business strategy. Jazz is hard to define in words. Even Wikipedia goes to great links to codify and describe the music of Jazz. Ultimately it is futile to try to describe Jazz with words and instead trust that when you hear Jazz you’ll know it. A deeply personal, unique experience for both the musician and the listener. No two performances are the same.

Business strategy when performed correctly is similar in that no two strategies are the same.  Sure the notes played and the underlying structures are set and known both in music and strategy, but the way you combine them creates an original performance. Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz is not just ‘Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.’ It’s a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study.”  The same can be said about business strategy.  You have to understand the underlying structures of your business, your industry, your competitors, and your customers in order to compose a strategy.  Your knowledge of the structure, as Marsalis eludes to, becomes more critical when it comes time to play, or execute in business because things change. They can change rapidly and in order to improvise like a jazz musician, you need to fully understand those structures. Miles Davis put it this way in capturing what I believe to be the essence of jazz and strategy, “The thing to judge any jazz artist (business strategists) is, does the man project and does he have ideas.”

One definition of improvisation is “to perform or make quickly from materials and sources available, without previous planning.” However, I prefer the alternate second definition of improvisation, which relates more to the arts, and in my opinion to business, “to perform (a poem, play, piece of music, etc.), composing as one goes along.” Business strategy should provide the structures and tools of the who, what, when, where, why of strategy that allow the how to be improvised as needed.

Bix Beiderbecke said, “One thing I like about jazz, kid, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”  As much as we’d like to think we’re in control, with all our business metrics and analysis, all we really have is the knowledge gained from how we prepare for the performance. And if we prepare well and understand the underlying structure we increase the odds that we will be able to perform with the dexterity of the Jazz musician.

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