Are you ready to leave the orchestra and join the jazz band?

Orchestras have provided entertainment for sophisticated ears for centuries. For lovers of classical music, there is nothing like listening to a live orchestra play some of the great pieces of the master composers.

But, while orchestras may have their place in the music world, the time has come for business leaders to think like jazz musicians.

Orchestras provide a great metaphor for companies in the workplace during the last century. They require skilled people (musicians) who could read music (understand the company’s strategy) and play their chosen instrument very well (execute the strategy). With a good music score, good musicians and a good conductor, you had musical magic.

That was great while things were predictable and constant. Today, the world and the workplace are anything but predictable and constant. Disruptions from unpredictable sources have made the orchestra redundant because there is no longer a music score which the musicians and the conductor can play from.

That’s why it’s time for the jazz band to replace the orchsetra!

Like their classical counterparts, most accomplished jazz musicians are good instrumentalists – they know how to play their instruments. But … jazz musicians have one skill that classical musicians don’t have. Not only can they read music. They also have improvisation skills.

Improvisation is the skill of being able to create something in real time. In the case of jazz musicians, this means that they can make up melodies as they’re playing in real time, with no preparation. They do it in the moment.

My point is that, with the uncertainty of the modern workplace, there is no rule book – no music score – to follow. No leadership gurus, like Jim Collins or Peter Drucker, can give you 10 steps to follow to lead your people and company to success.

So, if you’re a leader who operates like a classical musician who needs to have the music score in front of them to know what to play, you’re in trouble. You’re going to have to leave the orchestra and join the jazz band – you’re going to have to learn how to improvise because that’s what everybody has to do right now!

Improvisation skills are not a type of magic, though. They have a very clear foundation – you have to know the rules of music. You have to know your scales – major scales, minor scales, chromatic scales, pentatonic scales and others. You have to know intervals and chords – minor sevenths, major sevenths, diminisheds, augmenteds and, and …

This may all sound quite confusing to a non-musician, but every jazz musician worth their salt will be quite comfortable with all of these terms and more. They will use their knowledge of all of the above to make up tunes in the moment.

So, ask a jazz musician what they’re going to play just before they start improvising and he or she will say, “I can’t tell you what I’m going to play until I’ve played it.” Again, this makes classical musicians very uncomfortable because they need their music.

If you want to be an effective leader today, you HAVE to learn how to improvise. You can do so using the knowledge and experience of the workplace and of people that you acquired over the past how many years and then connecting all the dots to make things up in real time.

One of the risks that jazz musicians face is playing wrong notes, referred to as bum notes. When you improvise on your instrument, you’re invariably going to play a few bum notes but you’re going to smooth over them and continue playing despite the errors.

Just so with today’s leaders. They’re going to make mistakes but accept them as part of the game, get over them and continue “playing”.

If you’ve become increasingly uncomfortable as you lead your team into an uncertain future, I urge you to be brave enough to leave the orchestra and join the jazz band so you can set yourself free to improvise.

The music scores that orchestras are wanting to play are no longer relevant. The music that needs to be played today needs to be made up as you’re going along. And that takes courage and agility.

Are you up for it? If you want to enjoy a sustainable future both personally and as a corporate entity, you don’t have a choice!

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine,, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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HR Future April 2017