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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

What's All This Jazz About Innovation Teams?

If I ask you to “draw your organization,” what would it look like? My guess is that it will be some sort of pyramid that depicts the hierarchy in which you work. That pyramid is a metaphor for an organizational type that has been around for more than 2,000 years; Julius Caesar would have made the same sketch, with himself at the top, of course. Metaphors are powerful ways of describing our organizational aspirations. Want efficiency? Sketch a machine. I once had a group (somewhat ironically in equatorial Singapore) that wanted to break-out of their industry’s conformity and who chose an ice-breaker as the metaphor they aspired to, and richly developed the properties of both the vessel and its team to create change. So, what would you draw if I asked you about creating a high-performing innovation team?

This idea of using metaphors to think about organizations is neither new, nor original to me. There is a wonderful book, Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, that pioneered this approach years ago, but one of my favorite metaphors is not in his book, and that is the jazz ensemble as an image of an innovation team. Unlike a symphony orchestra, with it’s high regimentation, aversion to surprises and clear directorship, or a rock band which is almost always hostage to the same hit songs, played in the same way (largely, because the audience demands their music to be faithful to the original so that they can sing to it), jazz groups are less structured, more fluid and more improvisational. They tend to be temporary in life-expectancy and experimental in nature, very much like breakthrough innovation teams.

John Kao, who has an MD from Yale, played keyboard for Frank Zappa, taught innovation at Stanford and Harvard, plus having an appointment at MIT’s Media Lab, appropriated the jazz metaphor for a book called Jamming that he wrote in the late 90’s about “the art and discipline of business creativity.” It’s still a great read, and the lessons still resonate as well. Among these are that it is “useless and hypocritical to spout a lot of talk about creativity and then retain processes that deaden the imagination and spirit.” Kao sees “jamming” as “a kind of conversation,” as does jazz pianist, and attorney Jonny King, who adds that, when done well, it is an energizing, exciting conversation among skilled individual performers collaborating in a collective role, without abdicating on their individual talents and expertise. It’s pianist Herbie Hancock observing that Miles Davis’ leadership of so many jazz ensembles “turned musicians into magicians.” That’s jazz! Does your organizational sketch look like this?

This first appeared on the website, in Portuguese.

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