The Importance of Improvisation? Innovation (And All That Jazz)


By Doug Turner and Brian Fraser

Are we out of touch in a high-tech world?

Given today’s technology-driven web of social medias, we humans would seem to be very well connected to each, but in reality we are not.   Clearly, we communicate a great deal, but the manner in which we do it has both evolved and devolved dramatically, beginning with the advent of electronic mail, and even more so with the rise of texting from smartphones.

Out of Touch at Our Fingertips?
The end result is that we now communicate largely in a manner where we are not seen or heard by the other person.  What’s more, no immediate response is required, as it is in a person-to-person conversation. We can take our time to think about our response, if any. That gap is both telling—and widening.

This is especially perplexing when we all agree that a live conversation can almost always resolve and answer more questions in two minutes than can be achieved with 50 text messages.  Nonetheless, the technology quite literally at our fingertips, has almost completely commandeered of our communicative attention, especially among younger people.

Conversation IS Improvisation
The foremost question is, why is this impersonal, invisible, one-way style of communicating so appealing, and should we do anything about it?  We believe the answer lies in the basic foundation of speaking.  As Stephen Nachmanovitch notes in Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, the most common form of improvisation is ordinary conversation.

There is a common structure that we use in conversation (vocabulary and grammar), but every time we speak with each other, we use that structure differently.  With positive intent and focused practice, we can use our person-to-person conversations to build the trust essential to productive collaboration.

Put a Touch of Jazz to Work
Think of how a jazz group communicates.  There is a clear melody (theme) around which they are playing.  Each player has mastered their instrument (voice) well enough to contribute their unique sound (perspectives) to the possibilities of interpreting the melodies (expressing the theme) through varying harmonies and rhythms (innovative approaches).

Taking the jazz metaphor into the workplace, such free-flowing conversations, convened and encouraged in a safe space characterized by trust and appreciation and held face-to-face, will produce the strongest connection for collaboration.  They can be supplemented and expanded through electronic communication, but the foundations must be set face-to-face.

Free-Flow a No-Go Without Trust
Perhaps most critically, the feeling of comfort that is needed to engage in this free-flow improvisation comes largely from trust. This includes trust in one’s own abilities, but, much more importantly, trust in the intent of others.

Why are we less and less likely to pick up the phone to talk to one person over another?  Lack of knowledge around the other person’s attitudes, feelings, desires, and objectives—cumulatively, their  “intent”—leads to feeling we need to “rehearse” the conversation before we attempt it.  “What do I say if they say this or that?” is a common fearful question.

The importance of clearly conveying intent to build trust in those around you has been discussed in previous PeopleTalk articles and it is critically important in the context of improvisation as well. Jazz musicians know each other well and they know what each other is trying to do. They are not trying to outdo each other—except in a friendly, artistic way that is often acknowledged with lots of smiling and laughing—and they do not wish to succeed at another’s expense. They know the leader is always acting for the benefit of the entire band, so they take direction that is often very subtle, and the do so gladly and gratefully.

The world-famous Canadian jazz pianist Diana Krall is an outstanding example of this kind of trustful leadership. This level of trust, coming from a clear understanding of each other’s intent, facilitates improvisation and results in the highest levels of innovation, and achievement.

Conversations Happen in Person
So, how do we create this environment of trust and free communication? The solution is deceptively simple, but not necessarily easy to do.  Ken Blanchard in his 1982 classic book The One Minute Manager—recently re-released as The New One Minute Manager—describes a simple three-step process for leading people; most importantly, every step is carried out by speaking to people personally. The original book was written before email was in use, and the new edition has been updated to include references to communications technology, but the methodology is unchanged. Conversations are still done in person.

Leading Improvisation to Work
How does this approach work in this modern world where so many people are so afraid to speak to each other? The answer is that that leaders have to lead by example.  They must show that they are willing and comfortable to speak with people. The people they are leading will learn that this is okay, and they too will get more comfortable with speaking in person.

Thus communications become a self-fulfilling prophecy as opposed to a “vicious cycle.”  Leaders need to lead by being trusting and trustworthy, while conveying their intent by speaking in person. In so doing they will create, over time, an  environment in which  everybody will feel comfortable in spontaneous improvised conversations.  Further, if the culture includes the belief  that “everybody is a leader,”  then everybody leads by example and the benefits increase exponentially.

Why Bother to do This?
The answer lies within what happens when people feel more free to improvise. More ideas get exchanged through informal casual conversation. New, different and divergent thoughts are expressed more willingly.  People investigate problems more courageously and collaborate on solutions more freely.  This is the essence of innovation and it is critical to the growth, and indeed the survival, of any organization.

Doug Turner, MSc, MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching whose clients achieve greater innovation and collaboration. Brian Fraser is the lead provocateur of Jazzthink, where he coaches and consults using the workings, wit, and wisdom of jazz.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2015)

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