Agile leaders: Is your company an orchestra or jazz band?

Many business leaders are experiencing great discomfort and difficulty coping with the rapid and disruptive changes they’re encountering in the world and the workplace. The main reason is that they see themselves as conductors conducting an orchestra when they actually need to be turning their companies into a jazz band.

Having trained as a classical pianist with a music teacher who was keen for me to become a concert pianist, in my high school years, musically speaking, I got mixed up with the wrong crowd – a bunch of jazz musicians – and that was the end of my classical music career! I am however thankful that I understand the worlds of classical and jazz music very well.

As I entered this new world of music, I envied the freedom jazz musicians had to play music “their” way instead of having to play what’s on the music score, and that freedom attracted me like a moth to the flames.

Make no mistake, the musicians in an orchestra are highly talented, highly trained, highly disciplined and highly competent. All of them can “sight read” music, which means they can play any music that’s put in front of them. During the performance, every musician has their music score in front of them, plays what’s in front of them and responds to every facial expression and hand and body movement of the conductor, who has the full score with every musician’s part in front of him or her.

There are a number of similarities between orchestras and jazz bands, like both having highly competent musicians, but there are also a number of significant differences.

Many jazz musicians, like their classical counterparts, can read music, but almost all jazz musicians have something – a certain skill – that classical musicians don’t have and, even if they did have it, would not be allowed to use it.

That ”something” is improvisation skills. Improvisation skills enable a musician to make something up as they go along, and that’s what jazz musicians can do that classical musicians can’t or aren’t allowed to do. You see, classical musicians are trained to play what’s put in front of them and they know how to do that very well. Jazz musicians, on the other hand, are allowed to interpret the music according to their own unique style and talent.

In the world of work, improvisation skills would be referred to as innovation skills. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, one fixed strategy will not work. There is no longer a clear highway on which the CEO (the driver of the bus, as Jim Collins called him in his book Good to Great) steers the company (the orchestra) to where he/she thinks it should go.

Companies require their talent at all levels to be innovative. But that requires a very different style of leadership from the old command and control leadership …

Regardless of whether jazz musicians can or can’t read music, they DO have an excellent understanding of the way music works. They understand the many different scales in every key. They know what chords apply to which keys, and which incidental notes would make the music more interesting. Then, too, they not only understand timing (as do classical musicians), but they also understand syncopated timing which gives jazz music its distinct character and appeal. At times, a jazz musician will “push” the beat or “pull” it back to create a certain feel while classical musicians are not allowed to play with the beat at all!

With their knowledge of scales and chords, jazz musicians can take pieces of music to new places with their own interpretation of the music, while orchestral musicians may not deviate from the music score in front of them.

Another thing about jazz bands is that they’re much smaller than orchestras. You’ll never find a 100 piece jazz band. Up until 20 or so years ago, there were regular classical music concerts performed by live orchestras. Today, you’ll have to look long and hard to find classical music concerts performed by full orchestras.

Why? Because the world – and the world of music – has moved to a different space. For one, a century or so ago, classical music was pretty much the only kind of music that the financially comfortable were exposed to. Today, full size orchestras are considered too unwieldy and costly to drag around when one can perform music with a lot fewer musicians – like in a jazz band – or as a one-man-band with backing tracks.

But back to the world of work …

Companies which still operate in an old paradigm perform like large orchestras. They have a leader, the CEO (conductor), who makes sure that everybody does what they’re told to do as per the agreed strategy (music score). There’s no scope for personal expression in such an organisation. You’re not paid to think creatively. You’re paid to implement the strategy given to you.

In this age of disruption, companies need to increase their agility and innovation – by changing from being an orchestra to being a jazz band. That means they won’t have one conductor standing up in front controlling what everyone is doing. There will be collaborative leaders who operate at all levels throughout the organisation. The leader of a jazz band is not necessarily obvious to the audience, but jazz bands DO have a leader whom all the musicians know, recognise and follow. He’s however one of them – he’s not standing on a little box with a stick in his hand.

Companies also need to adopt a multidisciplinary approach where there is a free flow of skills and information to appropriate projects. In the jazz band, everybody knows what the key, chords, tempo and style of each song are and they get on with it. Jazz musicians routinely use their understanding of the rules of music, not just the music score, to produce inspiring music. They recognise one another’s talent and skills, and give one another space to express themselves by allowing each musician to take a music break when each musician takes a solo with their instrument while the others play a supportive role.

Today’s leaders have to be more collaborative and less prescriptive. During an orchestral performance, everybody – musicians and audience – knows who the conductor is. In a jazz band, the leader leads in a very different way, but still succeeds in getting the jazz band to produce inspiring music through musicians who play with passion and skill to achieve their goal of entertaining their audience.

Can you see where this is going?

Outdated companies performing like orchestras playing what’s on the score and nothing else are wondering why they’re losing talent, customers and market share. If that sounds familiar and you want to adapt to the new world of work, innovate and produce something unique that grips and inspires people, stop performing like an orchestra and change your company into a jazz band!

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, @HRFuturemag, and helps business leaders prepare for the Future of Work. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site as one of the Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter“. For more information on Alan’s programme to “Turn your Executive Team into a Jazz Band” in which he uses his classical and jazz musician knowledge and skills to show executive teams how to make the shift from orchestra to jazz band, email him at

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