Future-fit companies operate like jazz bands - Preparing you for the future of work.

Future-fit companies operate like jazz bands

Why everyone should be in a jazz combo.

Like most middle-class parents in the 1970s, my mum and dad dreamt of me becoming an accomplished pianist. At the age of seven, they shipped me off to piano lessons. Every day, from then on, they endured me thumping the ivories with very little melodic or rhythmic ability. I pity them now. Especially as they failed so miserably in their endeavour. I continued with my lessons up to grade four before the teacher realised I couldn’t actually read music. I’d just been copying what she played.

So she asked me to stop.

I was delighted with that decision. Even at the age of nine, I was more interested in playing raucous Jerry Lee Lewis songs than elegant Chopin compositions. So instead of playing the lead role in the school orchestra, I ended up playing the bass in the school heavy metal band, which ended up being the start of a journey that led to me paying my way through
university by busking and eventually becoming a session musician for a few years.

In the intervening decades, my life in the business world has been greatly helped by my brief career as a musician. There are so many lessons I’ve been able to take and apply to my day job. And, as someone who now works with companies to help them reach better ideas, I’ve recently started using my guitar to help me explain management techniques. The world of music is proving to be a rich source of inspiration. Let me give you an example.

There’s a good chance your organisation runs like a large classical orchestra. That sounds nice and respectable, doesn’t it? But it’s possibly not suitable for the future we’re collectively strutting towards. I want to explain why it might be better to operate like a neat little jazz combo. Let’s compare the two approaches.


If you’re a grade four pianist, like myself, you’ll never get a job in an orchestra. You won’t even make it through the door unless you’ve reached grade eight and then spent time in a respected conservatoire. A formalised education system is the only way in.

This is in stark contrast to the way most jazz musicians learn their craft. Their education is more likely to come from spending hours alone listening to the same Charlie Parker riff again and again until they’ve nailed it. Jazz bands select their members on passion, how pleasant they are to hang out with and, possibly, how good they are in a fight. One approach results in an industry of very similar people and the other results in diversity. And, when it comes to generating ideas, increasing your organisation’s diversity is probably the single biggest way of improving your output.


One of the most incredible things about classical music is that you can witness a performance that’s pretty much gone unchanged for two hundred years or more. Often with instruments that are older than the original composition. It’s magical. But it’s also becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Jazz music has always been about doing things differently. No two performances are the same. The people who become the legends are the ones who discover their own voice and break new ground. Change and evolution are central to the genre. If you listen to modern jazz, you’ll be able to hear how far it’s come since the days of Scott Joplin or even Miles Davis. Much of it has evolved beyond what we’d even call jazz. Yes, there are followers and copyists. But innovation is central to the genre.


Just look at the way an orchestra is set up. All eyes are on the conductor. They keep the army of musicians synchronised and performing cohesively. If the conductor wasn’t there, the orchestra would be at a complete loss.

But jazz quartets don’t tend to have a conductor. In fact, most of them don’t even have a definite leader. They tend to have a pretty flat structure where people communicate with efficient little nods and raises of the eyebrows. All of them are aligned on what they’re trying to achieve and they’re collectively making decisions in real-time on how they’re achieving that. That makes them nimble and adaptable.

Job role

The job of a classical musician is to follow the notes on the page in front of them. They’re expected to play them in the right order at the right time as beautifully as they can. If you go off-piste and start doing things you’re own way, you won’t get much work. This isn’t about expressing your own ideas; it’s about expressing someone else’s. And sticking to
your niche.

Jazz is more of a balance. There is rhythm and structure that everyone follows. There are certain phrases you’d be expected to play. But within that, your role is far more flexible. Sometimes you’re playing together as an ensemble. Sometimes you’re supporting your fellow musicians when they’re soloing. And sometimes you get your own moment in the spotlight to use your improvisation skills to the full. Even if you’re the drummer. There’s a beautiful overlap. And overlap is where the magic happens.


Just like Victorian children, the audience at an orchestral performance should be seen and not heard. They are permitted to sit quietly and save their polite applause to the end. Coughing is a nono. A ringing mobile is an executable offence. And even loud breathing is frowned upon. Only once the last note has been played does the orchestra receive a muted indication of how they collectively performed.

Not so in jazz. If you do something special, you’ll know about it. Maybe even while you’re doing it. The audience gives you immediate feedback by clapping their hands and maybe shouting something along the lines of “groovy chops, hip cat!” That’s fantastic motivation for the musicians. It spurs them on to try harder. And it lets them know what’s working and what isn’t.


Playing a bum note is entirely unacceptable in an orchestra. You may be able to hide in the numbers and pretend it wasn’t you for a while. But if you do it habitually, the truth will out and you’ll find yourself looking for another career.

In jazz, you probably won’t even know if anyone’s played a note they didn’t mean to. It may, in fact, be applauded as a brave and interesting musical development. It may become a feature you can repeat and turn into a motif. You may impress the audience with how you recover from it and they’ll think you’re a genius. Mistakes are opportunities in jazz. And, just like DNA replication, it’s the mistakes that lead to an evolution of the genre.

By now, I hope you’ve worked out whether you’re working for a philharmonic corporation or a hip little enterprise. One is set up to efficiently execute someone else’s idea and the other is dedicated to constantly pushing boundaries. One values where it came from and the other values where it’s going to.

One is populated by team members who like to be told what to do and the other is filled with individuals who like to go places they’ve never been. I know which kind of organisation I dig, daddyo! What about you?

Dave Birss is a creativity and applied thinking expert and speaker in the Thought Expansion Network, a community of world-class thinkers, business brains and social activists: www.ten.io/talent.

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of HR Future magazine.


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