In today's global marketplace, few business managers have the luxury to look for solutions in exact planning. Planning has value, as it should, but the artfully unplanned can also have positive results. In fact, our highly competitive business world puts a premium on the refined skill of improvisation--in other words, jazz.
With graduation upon us, this is the time of year that I like to remind our newly minted graduates that management is a performing art.
Skills such as planning, organizing, and leading must all come together to manage a business just as they must to create a beautiful musical arrangement. The manager may have all the preparation in the world, but if a note falls flat, he or she must reevaluate. And when something more is needed--a bit of communication, teamwork, or creativity--I advise graduates to take a cue from jazz musicians.
German academic and accomplished jazz musician Wilhelm Scheer, who owns a company focused on teaching senior executives and boards about how jazz can inform management, encapsulated the idea in his 2007 paper Jazz Improvisation and Management: “In a good jazz combo, experts play together, constantly communicating at the same time and place.” Each player listens to the soloist, he explained, “and responds to the harmonic and melodic development of the solo while the rhythm group’s harmonic and rhythmic figures spur the soloist on. In this way jazz improvisation creates highly intense communication among the players, which in turn leads to great creativity.”
So how do jazz combos become adept at improvising? First, they practice together. If each player practices in his or her music room without contact with the others, improvisation is unlikely to occur. The same is true for assembling and integrating the core competencies of a management team.
There's a widely held belief that jazz is licentious freedom run amok. This is not true. Jazz musicians work within a structure. They agree on who is to play when, on a loose conception of key, and on a stable beat to determine a solo's rhythmic shape. Jazz, like business, implies a series of balancing acts.
As University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business graduates ascend into the business world, they do so with the skill and insight of knowing when to take the lead solo--but also when to listen and when to add to the harmony of the team.
This is an era that calls for the inspiration of art--or, as author and accomplished jazz pianist John Kao puts it, “The creative role of the manager is to work the central paradox, or tension, of the jam session: to locate the ever-mobile sweet spot somewhere between systems and analysis on the one hand and the free-flowing creativity of the individual on the other.”
Here at the Lundquist College of Business, we see examples every day of bright students seeking--and finding--that sweet spot where planning and improvisation come together. Whether it’s attending commencement ceremonies on Monday, June 18, enhancing or renewing your investment to the college, or simply joining us in congratulating the class of 2012, I invite you to join the jam session, and to take pride in all our Lundquist College of Business graduates have--and will--accomplish.
Cornelis A. "Kees" de Kluyver
Dean and James and Shirley Rippey Distinguished Professor