Jazz vs. Symphony as a business management metaphor

I read a strategy professors use of these two musical genres today as a way of showing the difference between and the downside of two different management styles. according to him, an organization that had grown or was growing beyond what the traditional entrepreneurial skill set could continue to provide successful outcomes…or so he was trying to demonstrate.

Although I agree with the metaphor use and think there is value in using them, his knowledge of music was limited so I replied with the comments that follow this brief introduction. I am also posting them here as I do believe it to be an excellent comparison to make and wish to ensure that my thoughts on the subject are available to folks foolish enough to read my blogs!

Here are my comments:

As both a strategist and a Jazz musician of no small prowess I must say that although I agree with the general metaphor, you unfortunately lose me in paragraph 3 with statements made in an attempt to draw the parallels (jazz vs. symphony) and yet your knowledge of Jazz is lacking hurting somewhat your use of the comparisons here.

It is overly simplistic to focus on improvisation and too tightly tie it only to raw talent. It is hardly the truth as the accomplished improvisational player can only function well if they are first a consummate student of the rules (music theory and standard notation at the very least). This is precisely the same for those who are at a professional level in the symphonic arts as they too must know these rules within exactly the same basic structure. There are some rule and structural (or at least rules for when there is a lack of structure in the case of Jazz) differences between the two genres, but I think the impression that it is just free flowing self expression that comes without direction or plan, simply blowing where the wind does…is not correct.jazz2

I believe it fair to say that strategy with a symphonic metaphor would be heavily bureaucratic, orchestrated with each member in perfect sync and following strictly with little or no room for any flexibility, other than perhaps an occasional first chair or soloist with a enough room for dynamic “personal expression” but not necessarily more than touch, volume, a tad bit of note length leeway.

Jazz, as a strategy metaphor, also has structure (and a very strict one in the case of many modern jazz pieces), and is still ruled by the same system that the classics are. Jazz has allowances for some deviation from certain scale and mode rules, starts out with and understanding between players of the end game or way to conclude the piece. It may provide within the structure multiple paths for exploration and experimentation; but with firm cues or specific “anchor” parts or players so that improvisation may move along different paths but still have a way to return to the structured end-game.

Each player is in “tune” with every other player in real-time (the musical shared desktop), often communication in the form of a specific familiar musical phrase(s), or rhythm or eye contact or body language or all in combination. It is a language that is almost spontaneously creating itself at times. They are also musically synced with each member of the ensemble with certain key rhythm section instruments even more acutely in “charge” of pulling things back into time or tonality so that the ending of whatever happens improvisational, still sounds “tight”. Does any of this sound like real-time shared collaboration in a business context yet? Do you still think that jazz really just plays it fast and loose?

I admit that these are very different strategic approaches but I assure you just having “raw talent” won’t get you far without a thorough understanding and appreciation for all approaches. I also will tell you that Jazz isn’t all loose, with the exception of some forms that frankly are about as out there as many a business model I have reviewed…and just as commercially and critically successful. It is in fact a carefully orchestrated form that is more about creating and guiding chaos into pleasing musical forms.

I prefer Jazz, musically and from a business strategic/management standpoint, but will tell you that my preparation for Jazz is far more intense and has a much more demanding nature than that of the symphony. In a symphony you just have to be able to play in time and read the music. Skill is still a factor and I have much appreciation for the skill of a consummate member of a symphonic organization. In Jazz you have to understand every theory, listen to every part simultaneously, and play as if it were flowing naturally from you with every breath. You can’t just read the music you must become the music.jazz1

Your suggestion that somehow only an entrepreneur and then only at a start up stage should be the Jazz strategist and that once scaled to a larger size such a strategy as Jazz can not be the backbone of a larger company…is absurd. However the size of the community of folks who can in fact “play Jazz” into the billion dollar range, particularly a team of them correctly suited to each other and the task is once again up to the “general’s” ability to identify and recruit the right ensemble.

Symphonies on the other hand in the near future will fail over and over as all are led by folks unable to play Jazz. In fact the best world would be an ensemble led by a consummate player who has experience and talent within either a classical or jazz setting.

You indicate also that you feel that the leaders relevance recedes as the jazz plays on into the more mysterious realms and I would argue exactly the opposite, it is the leader (particularly a strong one like a Miles Davis or a Chick Corea) who takes the whole thing out on a limb and then deftly brings it back to a musical conclusion…an attainment of their objective. Had you ever tried to play “Spain” with an arrangement for live play that leaves it entirely up to the soloist to determine direction and length of their solo section, understanding the whole time that once chaos has ensued you, particularly the supporting team, must return to a particularly strict and difficult to play piece of music…you would likely understand what I mean.

Speaking of a little Jazz:

If you would like to read the original article in question it can be found at http://blogs.hbr.org/tjan/2010/02/strategy-as-jazz-vs-symphony.html .

Besides if you think a jazz style management scheme is chaotic…wait until we hit the rock and roll stage of business management!

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