"Improvisation is too Important to be left to chance"

Editor’s Note: Peter Cook is interviewed today on ³Trading Fours² with Dr Jackie Modeste and Dr Wesley J Watkins on improvisation and innovation at 11 am EST. You can tune in at: https://www.blogtalkradio.com/tradingfours

In an age of continuous (and discontinuous) change, it is generally agreed by business academics that an organisation’s best defence against extinction is to become a Learning or Agile Organisation.  Continuous learning and agility requires creativity and improvisation skills to face new situations.

I was recently reminded by a client that, over 20 years of practice I have helped individuals, teams and organisations learn creativity and improvisation using music, drama and art, relating these lessons to the hard realities of businesses – with machines that prefer order over the unknown and unknowable.

The question I am often asked by clients is “How do you plan to improvise?”  Not only one can plan to improvise, it is essential – in the words of Paul Simon:

“Improvisation is too important to be left to chance”

We must begin by seeing what improvisation looks like in practice, so here is a master of the art – Mr George Benson in action:

Somewhat paradoxically, improvisation relies on discipline if something is to emerge from the process, rather than endless doodling.  So, here are my top principles for improvisation in musicwith relevant parallels for business innovators:

1.     In music it helps to start in a new place from time to time – e.g. switch to an unfamiliar instrument or start a piece from a different point – for example drums not words.  In business, to make new things to happen, sometimes it’s important to break the innovation template, rearrange it so that you start from a new place.  Innovators are uniquely able to help businesses redesign or break the template, depending on the degree of change that is needed

2.     Start new musical compositions earlier.  This allows for things to develop organically rather than along the usual lines.  This is one of the most difficult parallels to find in business as time is considered crucial and things are often done at the last minute, leaving little room for ingenuity.  Anyone serious about innovation makes time to start new enterprises early to allow ideas to ferment and mature.

3.     Leave pauses for reflection in music composition.  This allows new approaches and perspectives to emerge.  At work this means building in slack time into a project allows for innovation to creep in.  This is consistent with Wallas’ (1926) notion of incubation in the act of creation as discussed in my 1st book Best Practice Creativity, acclaimed by Professor Charles Handy.   Innovation leaders ensure that their people reflect and learn along the way in projects using coaching, mentoring and other approaches that induce a state of mindfulness.

4.     Listen intently to your work and listen anew for things you had not at first heard.  Listening is a directly transferable skill in developing new products and services in business.  Again, it’s something that all great leaders model and provide when people are too busy to hear what’s being said.

5.     To improvise, you need to use mindfulness AND mindlessness in music – stay focused on the piece and stay in the moment.  Occasionally try things that seem crazy at first – give these ideas greater space to develop.  Focus is essential for business, yet it’s not sufficient if your business is innovation.  You must welcome the unknown and unknowable into your company if you are to produce sustainable advantage.

So, try a little improvisation at your next meeting or event and plan to forgive yourself and others if it feels a bit shaky the first time round.

image credit: nme.com

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The Music of Business Peter Cook is a business academic, author, consultant and musician. He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisational Development and Business Coaching. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock. Peter is Rock ‘n’ Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.

Peter Cook




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  1. Greg Blain on February 5, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Nice work Peter. I found this article through an Linked In email from the Brisbane Innovation Network. I am a guitarist playing all my own work, and I get what you say. Thanks for that. All the best.

  2. Marshall Barnes on February 13, 2014 at 4:27 am

    What the hell is this? Seriously. By definition, improvisation is not planned. If it is, then it is simply a deviation from a previously established format, which is exactly what George Benson does. First of all, this isn’t just some opinion that I’m pulling out of my hat here. Like the author, I am also a musician, a multi-instrumentalist at that and in particular, a lead guitarist. From a musical point or view, this quote is meaningless – “Somewhat paradoxically, improvisation relies on discipline if something is to emerge from the process, rather than endless doodling”, because it is entirely a subjective opinion. One man’s endless noodling is another’s John McLaughlin doing Birds of Fire. I would NEVER use Paul Simon as an example of anything approaching improvisation.

    You want an example of musical improvisation, check out this account of Jimi Hendrix – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t4qXH_YaBs . Talk about being disruptive, imaginative and everything else – this is it. The George Benson approach compared to Hendrix? I love it. A perfect example of what I talk about so much here – these half backed innovation attempts, versus a true creative “force of nature”. What form of innovation would you want? George Benson or the man that rewrote what it means to be a guitarist, who was known for creative, on the spot improvisations that would take your mind on inter-dimensional experiences? Is there even a comparison?

    What’s more, everything that Peter Cook describes later is not, and I repeat, NOT a part of musical improvisation but that of composition and arrangement. He even uses the word “composition” twice. I’m not saying what he suggests as business ideas are bad, but they aren’t improvisation either, musically or business wise.


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