Fear no mistakes.  There are none.  Miles Davis.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a stimulating day at the Henley KM Forum, exploring the use of metaphors in business, and particularly in relation to knowledge management.

We were assisted by Sergej van Middendorp and his gifted team of musicians from JazzinBusiness, who led us through the day, introducing a number principles for Jazz improvisation which the forum delegates discussed in a number of World Cafe sessions.

We looked at the power of minimal structures in the music, and of “taking turns” – how the musicians sense and make space for each other, giving each instrument the chance to solo perform as well as to support; – to lead and change direction as appropriate. 

Provocative Competence– where jazz musicians deliberately move to the edge of their comfort zones in order to generate something genuinely new.  As Sergej says on his blog, Once you feel comfortable with something you are not learning and growing, because learning and growing ‘hurts’. Jazz musicians try to get out of their comfort zone on every occasion.

The group at Henley provoked their competence by asking them to play “Summertime” in a variety of genres and time signatures, including “Reggae”, “Mozart” and “Waltz.

.Embracing Errors as a source of learning – Jazz Pianist Folkert Oostingshowed us how “forced, unforced errors” could be transformed in to completely new directions.  There was seemingly no dischord that he couldn’t repurpose into a new musical direction.  Whilst technical professionalism in Jazz is key, the use of “off-key” errors can drive learning (when we pause to reflect) and innovation (when we pause to reflect and think).

Jazz improvisation is marked by a restless adventurousness, an eagerness to travel into unexplored territory. There are hazards, risks, gambles, chances, speculation, doubts. Jazz is an expressive art form that encourages players to explore the edge of the unknown and if improvisation legitimizes risk taking, it is inevitable that there will be discrepancies, miscues, and ‘mistakes’. Jazz musicians often turn these unexpected moments into something sensible, or perhaps even innovative. Errors are often integrated into the musical landscape, an occasion for further exploration that might just lead to new pathways that otherwise might not have been possible. Herbie Hancock recalls that Miles Davis heard him play a wrong chord, but simply played his solo around the ‘wrong’ notes so that they sounded correct, intentional and sensible in retrospect. Jazz musicians assume that ‘you can take any bad situation and make it into a good situation. It’s what you do with the notes that counts’ (Barrett and Peplowski, 1998: 559). 

Retrospective Sensemaking– because you can’t fully plan ahead in Jazz.  The groove develops through a series of questions and responses, led by a particular instrument, or somehow by the music itself.
Sergej and bassist Paul Berner challenged us around our listening – do we listen deeply enough to what’s going on around us in business, so that we can respond with the next question or answer?  Or do we push through with a predetermined outcome and a set of well-rehearsed responses?   Sergej explores this with some excellent questions on his blog.

We  had some fun with the trio, asking them to play “blind” to test whether they use visual or auditory cues to keep in their “dynamic synchronisity”.  They believed that they sensed by purely “listening” for direction, but when we placed screens between them, we all sensed that the output was less adventurous.  Perhaps we need the reassurance of a multiple senses to feel comfortable taking risks?

Some messages there for anyone who has tried to incorporate innovation into a virtual meeting.

Richard Potter – one of the Henley regulars, provoked the Jazz trio to improvise a piece of music which was precisely 67 bars long, and they genuinely struggled with this, spending longer planning how they might do this than actually performing and then (to our secret delight) failing the task! 

How often do we play the game of deadlines (year-ends, budget cycles, performance appraisals) and miss the opportunity to create something spectacular because we feel that we “have to” restrict ourselves and ultimately deliver something mundane?  Are we slaves to the 52 week score of the business cycle, or do we have the freedom to play by ear, and “create a new groove”?


Martin Cito's piano from Flickr