Treat Your Company Like a Jazz Song and Watch Your Team Jam

What do jazz music and your company’s structure have in common? If you said nothing you have a lot of redesigning to do. Natalie Nixon, Ph.D. is a design strategist, author, lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, and business keynote speaker who’s here to help you get jazzy with it.

Nixon sees jazz as stories being spun from codes, boundaries being pushed and played with, complexity birthed from chaord. Yes, chaord, a term smithed by Dee Hawk that paradoxically melds chaos and order.

Chaord: (n) a mixture of ‘chaos’ and ‘order,’ extracting the randomness of chaos and the boundaries of order.

Nixon has focused her career on helping companies find new creativity through improvisational organization.

In her allegory, Nixon explains how jazz musicians who riff and freestyle are experts in all the rules they’re breaking. Jazz embraces the randomness of chaos, but there should never be anarchy within the music. Jazz musicians have sheet music and extensive knowledge of music theory as boundaries and guidelines for their performance. She believes businesses should use the chaord of jazz as a model for their companies.  

Corporate leadership should outline the edges of the box for employees, then encourage them to think and move outside the box. When a company implements chaord it allows the team enough stability to let their creativity and innovation flow.

Nixon applies seven lessons she learned from jazz to building a company structure that inspires creativity while optimizing productivity.

1. Provoke competency

If you go to a live jazz show, you’ll see a musician take center stage and riff on the horn, then step back and allow the sax man to try to top his solo. In an improvisational organization there is less hierarchy and more open stage where team members can challenge each other to take their turn in the spotlight with an innovative idea.

2. Embrace errors

Most startups nowadays are familiar with the idea of embracing failure and learning from it. Nixon says the Ritz Carlton takes it one step further with their system MR BIV—mistakes, revisions, breakdowns, inefficiencies, and variations—where they examine their errors in weekly meetings using the acronym.

3. Minimal structure

This is the idea of allowing an unfinished skeleton of an idea to be introduced to the team (or band) to further develop it together. A jazz musician may only have a melody, but it becomes a full song by allowing the other musicians to experiment with it.

A good way for companies to experiment with ideas is to prototype, giving you feedback without the expectations of consumers or employees.

4. Distributive tasks

By distributing tasks, you shift the resources and responsibility in your company. In jazz, the musicians are constantly playing with the roles in every song; where there were once trumpets there may now be cello. Incorporating moving pieces into a company allows everyone involved to not only learn the entire system better, but also to inspire innovation.

5. Retroactive sensemaking

Retroactive sensemaking is one step beyond reflection. Companies and jazz musicians reflect on the past and then borrow that insight for the future. When a bassist has an incredible riff, the first thing the band does after the show is examine why it worked so well and how they can carry that momentum forward. It’s the same when an employee has a great sales period or a killer presentation.

6. Hang out  

Hanging out is about the “hallway moments” or watercooler chat that spark innovation. It may seem like the easiest of the tasks, but many companies sacrifice it with the hope of driving productivity. They couldn’t be more wrong. Hanging out builds company culture, as well as broadens employees’ minds and introduces them to things they won’t find in their cubicle.

7. Solo vs. Support

Nixon sees that there is a time to take your solo and a time to support your center-stage musician with a nice bass line. In a company, you need to be comfortable stepping back in order to allow emerging leadership to flourish. The idea of ebbing and flowing from your central place on the bandstand will allow the entire team to feel supported and perform to their best abilities.

Jessica Welch is the Content Marketing Associate at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau, holding a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and Anthropology from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her business thought articles often appear on Business 2 Community, Born 2 Invest, and YF Entrepreneurs.