Is Your Business Strategy Cool Like Jazz?

cool like jazz

Knowing the Score– Part IV Finale

Entrepreneurs are a strange breed of people. All we need is for someone to tell us, “you can’t do that”, and that is challenge enough. With all the enthusiasm of an addicted gambler, we will head straight for the unpredictable, the uncertain, and the unlikely to happen. We thrive there. But as averse as we are to boredom, the odds are still stacked against us and looming larger every day. Disruptive technology and uncertain economies mean that entrepreneurs need the ability to morph and adapt to new environments quickly–just like a real transformer. Presto. Chango. We are something else now.

Believe it or not, there is a certain breed of musicians who also thrive on this type of adrenaline: jazz musicians. Good jazz musicians and good entrepreneurs have much in common. That is exactly why jazz is a great model for small business strategy.

Let me count the ways:

jazz score

1. Jazz is improvisation.

Have you ever seen a jazz score? Take a look at the measures marked “solo”. Nothing there at all, you say? In the early days of jazz, performers had to share music scores quickly between gigs. They developed a method of music shorthand–a musical template, called a chart. The empty bars represented measures where the musician can play anything at all, as long as it fits within the structure. Small Business encounters many a situation where the answer is also not prescribed. But where the basic structure is defined, (melody, chord structure, rhythm and tempo), players can build on top, and make the most of any opportunity. Everyone gets a chance to solo and show their unique strengths.

2. Jazz is efficiency.

Jazz is more about what you do not play than what you do play. Jazz is lean, mean, and tight. The point is to play only the notes you need to play, and nothing more. Most jazz groups are small–quartets or quintets–and voicing is minimalistic. For that reason, the sound is quite different from other genres. Though the music may be highly advanced and technically difficult, it creates the most with the least. Savvy Entrepreneurs do the same.

3. Jazz is experimentation.

Jazz is highly adaptive to change. Jazz is serendipitous. Miles Davis said, “If it sounds clean and slick, I’ve been doing it too long.” Miles Davis wanted to play everything fresh and new as if he had never seen the score before. There were times when he would announce a key change of a jazz classic right before the performance so that the musicians would have to rethink the notes. Jazz musicians play and experiment at the same time.

4. Jazz is collaboration.

Jazz thrives on unpredictability, yet it is not a free-for-all. It is a requirement that jazz musicians listen closely to one another. Jazz is nothing without collaboration. Jazz is the musical equivalent of E Pluribus Unum, (Out of Many, One). Once the structural foundations are established, each musician can take risks in an encouraging environment, alternating between supporting and lead roles. Beauty is created upon a foundation of trust and a high degree of individual competency. Where the musicians get “in the zone”, they can transcend the music, and create something entirely new. Each time jazz musicians play a tune it can sound different from the previous performance. Not only is jazz change driven, but its very purpose is to change it together. No one could possibly get bored.

5. Jazz is leadership.

The jazz model of small business is a synthesis between structure and flexibility, between control and autonomy. Good business leaders, like good band leaders, share the structure and get out of the way so that the musicians can build upon it. The very limitations of the group are disguised by the way the leader puts the group together. Leaders find musicians that will practice and hone their chops. This practice enables consistency- and prepares them for opportunity. The musicians trust one another and know each others technical abilities. And when it is their time to shine, they connect disparate parts to create something new and wonderful. And they create it together.

Great entrepreneurs can create more innovation in the ranks using jazz as a strategy for business. Provide minimal structure to enable maximum collaboration and then get out of the way.

When you do, you will create something cool, like jazz.

You cannot improvise on nothin’ man. You gotta improvise on somethin’.  –Charles Mingus, bassist, composer