Business has a tremendously complicated relationship with improvisation – often preferring a mythological quest for risk-free management and ignoring the value of leaving room to improvise.
I think it’s a fear of losing absolute corporate control (absolute control being another myth) and fear of mistakes. In fact, some companies spend so much money avoiding mistakes that the mere cost of doing business skyrockets to where its impossible to do new things. And by rewarding detailed planning over end results (usually implicitly rewarded through corporate politics), too many companies ensure that no one will take the risks necessary to drive new innovation.
So I was struck by a story about Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Miles and his band were on a road trip in the 1960s when one night the sax player trotted out a set of new solo licks and used them during the performance – flawlessly and perfectly. The report is that Miles was furious and chewed the guy out saying “I pay you to practice on the bandstand.”
Yes. Miles meant practicing in front of an audience. He meant making mistakes in public. And all this can be a very uncomfortable idea – especially if we don’t grasp it in context.
What Did Miles Want? Just so we don’t launch off on a Malcolm Gladwell sized exaggeration trip, consider why Miles might have reacted. He was a fanatic for interplay among musicians – sometimes even assembling bands with a trouble maker that would challenge the other players. His vision of music demanded a spontaneity where each musician was in the moment. They had to respond with and for the others – to create a whole sound.
From what I read, this didn’t necessarily mean that the musicians had to fit with each other – rather they had to respond to what the others were doing at that point in time. Risks and group dynamics were critical to the life of the music he was creating.
That meant no matter how much virtuosity the sax player’s new licks showed, they were canned & that violated the immediacy & interest that Miles demanded. (It’s even possible the sax player used that virtuosity to avoid the discomfort of risk.)
“Practicing on the Bandstand” Makes Companies Shiver in Fear. Many businesses over-produce everything they do in a desperate attempt to avoid risk. And risk aversion drives deep. I heard a week or two ago that one tech company was writing verbatim speeches that division CEO’s had to use in dealing with close colleagues they’d worked with for years. Wow.
We need also need take care – because while success starts with risk, success also breeds bureaucracy. And there seems to be nothing bureaucracy fears more than risk – risk just make things messy. (Of course, success tends to be messy everywhere except in company PR and business books.)
What businesses miss is that while managing risk is critical, “managing” doesn’t mean “avoid all risks”. Yes, risk invites actions that others might later say are “mistakes”. But success requires taking smart risks. That means being courageous enough to take risks when you should. AND it means being courageous enough to step away from risks you shouldn’t take.
Risk is Not Important for It’s Own Sake. There are people in venture funded businesses and in advertising who become thrill seekers – mistaking constant risk with smart action. Note that improvisation doesn’t focus on crazy risks. Improvisation focuses on being willing to be in the moment and respond to what’s going on around you. These risks deliver a great product to listeners.
The Risk May be Higher When Businesses Avoid Risk. I know more than one company that thinks they’re avoiding all risk with complicated new product processes (complete with extensive lists of “gates” and “stakeholders” and…). In fact one company’s was so complex it was worthy of either an academic thesis on “perfect project management” or a psychological thesis on the dysfunctional fear of risk.
Truth is that processes can kill good products and the mere act of risk avoidance can ensure total failure. In one project I watched in that company I just mentioned, the byzantine nature of their safe process ensured everything came out over-engineered. That meant manufacturing costs so high that their process doomed the product to failure in the market.
The Power of Improvisation. In business, improvisation is an important skill. And that leads me to a few observations:
1. You’ve got to take risks – that’s the only way music stays interesting and the only way great new things happen. That also means you will make mistakes.
2. You’ve got to be “in the moment” – aware of what’s going on around you. And, again, that means you will make mistakes – or be part of a group where someone makes mistakes and you’ll need to respond to them with class & panache.
3. Improvisation does NOT mean working without a plan. When you improvise in jazz you play with a script (the melody, a chord progression and a platform of rhythm and style). Then you make it even better with risks that turn the whole result brilliant. Interestingly, the jazz musicians I love to listen to the most don’t abandon melody in their improvisation – they build on it and around it and through it. And that creates a unified result. (Like both Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond in their improv’s in “Tangerine”, like much Phil Woods, or like all of Thelonius Monk.)
4. Improvisation is NOT about drawing attention to yourself. Some (many?) jazz musicians use improvisation mostly to show off. That’s wrong. Improvisation has a purpose – to make the song/business/product/marketing more complete, better, more exciting. If it’s not doing that then it has to change.
5. When a mistake is made, you’ve got to be nimble – take advantage of the opportunity that risks open and make it sound like it was intentional – and make the final result better. How? Sometimes by sticking with the new thing you discovered. Sometimes by integrating it into what you do in the future. But most importantly, by making what you do fit within the moment of music – feeling live and exciting.
A Thought from the New Coke Debacle. The New Coke disaster is legendary in marketing. And it was a big mistake that could have been avoided (and probably should have).
That said, Sergio Zyman has observed that he believes Coke ended up a far stronger brand after the New Coke debacle. Why? Because they responded right. They were able to take the passion about Coke that was revealed in the consumer backlash and turn it into a stronger public passion about Coke.
In other words, they were nimble enough to improvise and leveraged what happened.
So What Should We Do? This is a tricky topic and every situation requires improvisation and risk in different ways. But we can end with a couple of observations.
…Infinitely detailed planning often masks the reality that nothing important is being done. This is a major corporate disease.
…You’ll get to far better solutions if you keep your options open and selectively improvise as opportunity presents itself.
Far too often corporations establish reward systems that recognize doing small things perfectly ignoring whether they deliver on the ultimate goal. We have to step away from these upside-down systems. And, we need to fear mistakes less and reward the ultimate goal more.
Copyright 2013 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved
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